Dr. Norman Lewis, the director of research for France Telecom, gave a rousing keynote about the problems the telcos are facing today. Lewis may work for a big operator, but he clearly sees the writing on the wall for the telcos and gave a frank appraisal of what some of the problems have been and how serious they are.
Lewis gets very heated when he describes the way the telcos have stifled innovation, “Voice innovation has been bloody awful!” He claimed that for the last 100 years the telcos have effectively stifled innovation around voice, and it’s the Internet telephony revolution that is pressuring them to change.
He noted that traditionally everytime the telco world has done soemthing new, the customer wants and does something else and the telcos end up following their customers. He gave the example of WAP, which was strongly hyped by carriers, but the customer experience was awful and no one used it. But customers took to SMS like crazy, which wasn’t something the carriers were even envisioning as an important service.
He spoke to the massive and ridiculous investments in 3G spectrum that the carriers made over the past decade, noting that this has saddled the large telcos with huge debts that they will be paying on for a very long time. Lewis mentioned that to some extent the financial markets helped drive this insanity, as there was a pervasive sense that if you were a telco not investing in 3G you weren’t forward-thinking and would be left out of the future. As it turns out though, those ill-advised investments may be what dooms the future of some of the telcos.
He’s excited about the future though, and feels liberated by the things he sees going on today. “We can now begin to do things we’ve never done before,” Lewis stated, and he looks forward to what he sees as a huge opportunity for immense innovation as voice becomes an adjunct to many different services.
Lewis ended by trying to convince the audience that France Telecom is going to be one of the innovators in the telco world, and they really “get” these new technologies and models. France Telecom are the biggest providers of VoIP in France and the UK today. They’re also working on social networking, and on a product called Octave, a personalization platform. Lewis promised that APIs would be made available to the developers, which is a whole new way of doing things for telcos.