<p><a href="https://soundcloud.com/broadband-bunch/eti-bb-bbwf-pt3">In this episode of The Broadband Bunch,</a> recorded at the Broadband World Forum 2019, we speak with <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/rmersh/">Robin Mersh</a>, CEO of the <a href="https://www.broadband-forum.org/">Broadband Forum</a>. Broadband Forum is focused on accelerating broadband innovation, standards, and ecosystem development. Robin shares the Broadband Forum’s vision, his observations on the state of collaboration in the industry and marketplace trends. </p>
Robin Mersh: I've been in telecoms for about 25 years, working for operators and vendors in hardware and software. I was approached 13 years ago to join the Broadband Forum. Interesting enough, they were looking to not just have kind of operational management of the forum, because it's a nonprofit. It's an organization of its members, but we have a team of staff. It needed more of a full-time strategic leadership. I don't want to kind of make that sound sort of too grand because it's also ... Obviously comes from the membership itself, but it needs some organizing and sort of focus.
I took the job and it's gradually become not just that operational role, but the strategic role. Because as the industry has been changing so radically, you can't do all of the work in an organization like this kind of ... You can't do it all bottom up. Traditionally speaking, that's how standards work. It's contribution driven by members, but you can't do it all that way. And of course there's lots of relationships you need with other organizations. You need to attract new members as sectors converge, you need to reach out from telecoms to other verticals. So that takes some organizing and staffing.
Pete Pizzutillo: And it needs a neutral perspective, one that can see holistically what's going on as an industry, rather than as the specific sub industries. Having somebody that's looking at all the stakeholders and potential stakeholders and able to say, "Hey, here's how we become more inclusive and collaborative."
Robin Mersh: Particularly when you get to issues like the relationship between operators and vendors there's ... I mean, at times there can be some tension. It's is a partnership, but also a commercial relationship and so that's area sometimes needs neutrality. The other area that needs neutrality is that the vendors have got to work together to produce interoperable systems. And of course they have to compete with ... I mean, they should compete with each other. We need them to. But on the other hand, we need them to cooperate when it's necessary.
Pete Pizzutillo: How would you characterize the Broadband forum's mission as it stands today?
Robin Mersh: Frankly, it hasn't changed since we were formed 25 years ago. The original purpose was to bring standards to market. So people like the ITU, SE, they've all been very good at developing standards for technologies.
What was missing though was that standards didn't do much of a job taking back to a global market. So that's what the old DSL Forum, that was our old name, that's what we were invented to do - market the technology and to understand what barriers there were either commercial or regulatory or technical, and to try and address those issue.
Over time, it has become increasingly more technical issues. So around interoperability, that ended up being one of the big issues and management as well was another one. So our real aim is to drive the mass market.
Pete Pizzutillo: It's interesting also, over the same time period software's taking a larger role in every industry. But I think there's a greater appetite from the software industry to be collaborative and open. To cooperate versus compete, but still have a proprietary capitalistic view protected. So having somebody that can facilitate and be the catalyst for that for this industry is a pretty important role.
Robin Mersh: I definitely agree. Software has been around for a very long time in Telcom. Broadband was driven by software. It was the algorithms that developed DSL technologies and all the other broadband technologies. But there's no doubt that as we've looked more and more at maybe making the telecom operation be more maybe efficient and agile. People have wanted it to look maybe more like the way a data center's developed. That's where the original ideas came about virtualization.
That's become increasingly important, but of course everyone's very interested in the possibilities. There is a lot of potential, but how do you actually do it? I mean, is it just a question of throwing a bunch of software together, coding it, put it on GitHub, and hey presto, it all works?
That's where the Broadband Forum has been interested. How do you do it particularly in a legacy environment? Maybe legacy isn't the best way of putting it because it makes it sound like it's just old. There's a billion subscribers and you sort of think, what does that billion subscribers generate annually? Globally? It's a very rich market. And I'm sure CFOs would a resonate with this and CEOs. It's you don't want to cannibalize that revenue.
Pete Pizzutillo: So maybe we'll look at it as before SDN and after SDN.
Robin Mersh: Maybe. I think it's only going to be true though if SDN really leads to new services. We can't just do the same old - even if we did it sort of faster and cheaper, does that really sort of get us to where we want to sort of be? Because we all know about the ARPU argument and data rates going up and ARPU going the way. Do you really arrest that by doing things faster and cheaper? I don't think so. I think new services are what marks it out. So maybe if we moved to truly new 5G services or things in IOT. Or if driverless vehicles take off, then you could see new revenue stream. But then you might sort of say, "Yes, this was the point that it changed."
Pete Pizzutillo: We talk about the difference between value innovation and technical innovation. One of the concerns I have around SDN, software defined network, is it is conceived as a technical innovation, a new way of implementing things. But I think what you're pointing at is we can't rest on that technical innovation as an efficiency play or cost reduction play. We need to appeal to the business side, to the competitive side and come at it from a value innovation. So this becomes an enabling capability or platform to do all the other things that we've been thinking about. Do you see that mentality with the folks that are involved with the Broadband Forum now?
Robin Mersh: There's sometimes, and I still think it's ... And I think that's kind of what you're hinting at, is there can be a disconnect between the technologists and the business guys. I'm not saying there's a magic bullet. I think there is a lot of very active discussion about potential for new services. So when people are talking for 5G and what fixed mobile convergence could still be ... Because obviously there's a big play for fixed. It's what kind of services can we imagine happening? Because I don't think we're at the point of saying what really is a converged service. Can we say there is one today? No.
Unless you build the platform, of course, you're never going to get to that point. It's a bit of chicken and egg, but people will say things like, "What's the killer app?" I don't know. It's like, you can sort of say that IOT is an interesting area. We know that there's some interesting business applications. There's no doubt that the technologies we're developing are creating some real potential. And I don't want to kind of downplay the idea of kind of doing things faster and cheaper. No one's going to argue that ... Doing these things is a good thing. I think maybe in the long run it's just not enough.