The Edge of Glory? Why Service Providers Don't Have to be "Dumb Pipes"

The Edge of Glory? Why Service Providers Don’t Have to be “Dumb Pipes”

8 May 2019

The morning of September 11, 2001, I was two blocks from the White House in the Marriott Marquis Hotel in Washington, D.C. I was preparing to moderate a press conference by cyber security pioneer Wave Systems announcing their latest solution for enabling truly trusted communications. Watching TV in the hotel coffee shop we saw the first plane hit the World Trade Center and the ensuing horror. Someone rushed in and said, “I just came across the 14th Street Bridge and saw a plane go into the Pentagon. We are under attack!”

It is a day which remains as fresh in my mind as if it were yesterday. Within minutes everyone in the hotel was whisked to the hotel basement where we were locked down for four hours until there was confirmation that all planes in the air were grounded. After the all clear, we fortunately got a rental car and left town for New York and Massachusetts. I can visualize the empty streets of D.C. and the soldiers with M-16s drawn as we drove past the Capitol.

Why bring this up?

Last week, the Ribbon Communications Perspectives 19 event was the occasion for my setting foot in the Marriott Marquis for the first time since 9/11. It all started coming back to me.

First, let me say how much I enjoy such annual vendor events, and have a special affinity for Ribbon’s. These gatherings provide a unique opportunity to get caught up on company plans directly from leadership, see colleagues, obtain deeper insights on industry trends, and talk to customers. The latter is always illuminating. Sanity checks from those on the front lines of industry engagement are invaluable. This is particularly true of those in the service provider segment with whom I’ve had a love/hate (mostly love) relationship for over 40 years. I actually do worry about their continued success. 

Can Service providers compete for the high value-added going forward?

Not blatantly addressed, but underlying all such gatherings of vendors and their service provider customers, is the persistent speculation as to whether these entities will become just “Dumb Pipes” or can compete successfully with OTTs and others coming from adjacent markets in the emerging value-added markets that will define the Digital Age going forward.

I came away from the conference quizzical.  

For example, Millennials and their younger cohorts now are the majority part of the global workforce. That said, my guess is that a blind survey of these folks, who are or soon will be the decision-makers on what tech products and services get bought, when asked to list unaided the vendors they will most likely do most of their business with, would rank Microsoft, Apple, Google, Amazon at the top. In the U.S., it might take a long list to get to AT&T, Verizon, et al. Yet, and thanks to some Ribbon ground breaking research shared with us experts, current decision-makers of all ages and career stages place their highest trust in communications solutions from telecom vendors, especially service providers.

While this disconnect/conundrum deserves deeper exploration by my research compatriots, it does shed light on two important questions:

  1. Are the traditional service providers under an attack that mandates an urgent (in Internet and not telecom time) response?
  2. What is a decent way to respond?

Without going into detail, the answer to #1 is a 100 percent YES! The looming challenge is whether they get it and can organizationally adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. The good news is they appreciate we are at a tipping point. The not-so-good news is even they are unsure they can act quickly, decisively and correctly in time. I believe the answers will become clear in the next 12-18 months. 

The second question speaks to a suggestion on a place to make a stand. It relates directly to that press conference in 2001 and the Ribbon findings about TRUST. It also pertains to the inevitable move of value creation, content and context control and mediation to the edge of the network. 

A Modest Proposal

As an active company adviser I will explain my suggestion at a high level. l firmly believe service providers can be competitively successful in creating and sustaining next generation value-added.

What surveys consistently demonstrate is the growing lack of TRUST in the storage, access, manipulation and communication of data. This huge issue is exponentially exacerbated by the advent of “E”verything moving to the Cloud, IoT, AI, machine-learning, Big Data, sophisticated analytics, real-time and embedded communications, etc. Whom can we TRUST?

If executed wisely and adroitly, whether in the mass market but specifically in business markets, with a focus on Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs), service providers are in an excellent position to be the trusted guardians of our personal and professional digital galaxies. They have a connection and a clearly defined, permission-based relationship with customers. It needs to be leveraged.

As experts, the focus is on the business segment. Below is context for the opportunities that exist for service providers becoming gateway/gate keepers that allow user-defined adaptable control of our data “E”verywhere, all the time, safely and securely. It is U.S. Census Bureau data on business establishments and number of employees; however, the opportunities are similar globally.       






United States

01:  Total




United States

02:  0-4




United States

03:  5-9




United States

04:  10-19




United States

05:  <20




United States

06:  20-99




United States

07:  100-499




United States

08:  <500




Source: 2016 SUSB Annual Data Tables by Establishment Industry; U.S. Census Bureau

The numbers say it all. In 2016, roughly 83 percent of U.S. business establishments employed less than 500 employees. These establishments represented approximately 47 percent of the workforce. Of those 83 percent, most either do not have an IT department or have a very small one and the ultimate decision maker, i.e., the boss, is likely not completely digitally adept and needs digital life simplified and a trusted solutions provider with an emphasis on the “s” in solutions. 

In short, positioning as the trusted guardian between the chaotic online world and the barbarians’ ability to easily breach the gates, there is an extraordinary opportunity available to service providers. It is an opportunity that goes way beyond what I consider the rudimentary efforts being put forth now in terms of breadth and depth of solutions offered.

As importantly, the rush for providing SD-WAN capabilities to those businesses, standalone and the remote sites of large multi-location entities, is the opening for service providers to have a heart-to-heart discussion with customers about their service and data protection futures. 

As Lady Gaga sings, “I’m on the Edge of Glory. And, I’m hanging on a moment of truth.” Indeed, we are. Stay tuned.


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