James Tagg, CTO and founder of Truphone, talks to Telecoms.com about building a next generation global mobile network and disassociating his company from the MVNO label.
Q: What are the challenges in creating a “network without country borders”?
Usually when you build a big infrastructure project you copy the outline of a project plan that someone else has done before. The lessons on previous projects reduce the complexity and risk, which it makes good sense to learn from. When we started building the Truphone second generation global network in 2012, the only people who had any experience even vaguely similar, already worked inside the company—there was no expert ‘out there’ we could ask for help. Many of the core network elements and components in the Truphone Global Mobile Network were invented or developed in-house from scratch.
In a software development world, this type of rapid innovation is quite normal. However, when these unknowable elements need to be seamlessly connected with the heavy telecoms infrastructure world, everything changes. Operationally this presents an enormous number of challenges—we had to accept that even the best laid plan would be at least partially wrong. This would be hard enough to manage if all the team were Truphone employees, however many of the team worked for key suppliers of equipment, and so were held to very different objectives, and different ways of working.
Q: How did you overcome those challenges?
We have an extremely talented team of telecoms engineers inside the business. We run three development clusters, one in our headquarters in London, one attached to the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and one adjacent to the Technology institute in Lisbon, Portugal.
These teams are orchestrated to manage the production cycle from needs analysis, through proof of concept development, commercial production, testing, process development and documentation and organisational training, ultimately handing over to the operational maintenance team. In this way, we have specialists who can rapidly invent network elements and turn them into business as usual processes. Managing this kind of rapid development and innovation is what keeps the business fresh, and always looking to how we can meet the challenges of tomorrow.
The other key dimension to the challenge is to recognise that Truphone works in deep collaboration with a network of top-tier partners. We operate a systems approach whereby we build the things that nobody else has, internally, and outsource everything else.
Managing the kind of uncertainty I’ve just outlined with top-tier suppliers requires a new way of working, with well-integrated cross functional teams from across a wide number of interdependent organisations collaborating effectively. That’s not how these suppliers normally like to operate—they much prefer detailed specifications up front, with any minor amendment subject to change requests (and escalating budgets). With a project of this nature, that kind of culture would delay the project and make it unaffordable.
For nine months, a cross functional team reviewed and updated the plan every single day at 8am, we worked about 60 per cent of weekends too—to iron out the problems that emerged on the previous day. It really was a remarkable team effort. It’s fair to say it was an emotional rollercoaster.
Q: What is it you do that other MVNOs haven’t achieved?
Traditional mobile phone networks are extremely efficient and reliable for the provision of service in domestic markets. But when subscribers roam abroad, these operators are unable to accurately control the user experience, or provide comprehensive customer service.
A key difference with the Truphone network is that it has major points of presence in four continents. This shortens the distance that the voice, text and data information has to travel; thereby reducing latency and increasing quality.
Truphone has a series of MVNO relationships with tier-one carrier partners in the Truphone Zone. Each of these countries is physically connected to our central core network by a dedicated MPLS or SS7 interconnection; this gives us the ability to have complete control over the user experience anywhere inside the Truphone Zone.
This model enables people ‘roaming’ in Truphone countries to get the benefit of local data speeds—in the same way as they would do with a domestic carrier. What’s more, as each MVNO is signed with a tier-one carrier partner, Truphone is able to provide a best in class service in each marketplace.
This compares with a standard mobile network configuration; where you visit a foreign network and all your traffic is home routed. If you want to access the internet, for instance, your data is sent all the way back home to the country, and then is sent back across to wherever in the world you happen to be. This has a significant impact on data speeds and latency. For example, in a traditional roaming scenario, maximum download speed is 6Mbps—with Truphone its 42Mbps.
Q: You have ‘MVNO relationships’ but you don’t like to be categorised as an MVNO. How do you make the distinction?
When you look at global market trends in telecoms, it’s apparent that all operators are increasingly viewing the radio access network as a commodity product.
Across the world we see operators selling their radio towers back to the equipment manufacturers, and agreeing deals to lease back capacity. These deals have detailed service level agreements, available bandwidth, maximum downtime and other performance KPIs.
Many of these networks are now sharing not just the passive, but also the active elements of their RAN networks.Where they add value to their subscribers is in the core of their mobile networks—that’s how they differentiate themselves from a technical perspective.
This is, in fact, the exact same model as Truphone operates, we rent bandwidth under strict KPIs from world leading network providers. We own and run a highly differentiated, globally distributed mobile core. This is where we add value and provide service from. We lease the last mile of connectivity in the countries where we operate—the Radio Access Networks.
The reason we don’t like to be pigeon holed into the MVNO bucket is the associations the term immediately conjures in the mind of the marketplace as a technology-free company. We have a great deal of technology.
Critics might define an MVNO as a pure branding and marketing machine that sells services to customers that it would be uneconomic for a license holder to address. They add limited value themselves from a technical perspective, purely administering configuration and tariffing changes.
But once you start owning and running your own core network, creating value added services that even the provider of your bandwidth is unable to match – you’re doing the same things that a ‘traditional’ operator does.
In fact, you’re proving to the mobile operator community that there are still network level technologies, which can sustainably differentiate you in a telco environment where the wider world would have us believe that Over The Top providers are the only arena for innovation left in the marketplace.
One other implication in the MVNOs category, is that they provide service of a lesser quality than traditional network operators. I’m not sure that’s true, but I do know that Truphone’s unique mobile network infrastructure delivers higher quality voice and data across intercontinental borders than any of the major operators can—we have demonstrated real working data speeds of up to 19MB when ‘roaming’ inside the Truphone Zone. The last time I checked, that’s 3x the speed that even 4G roaming has achieved.
Additionally, I think I’m right in saying that MVNOs sell only to the consumer market, but Truphone now have five of the top eight banks in the world as customers. We may save people a bunch of money, but this is not a low-cost play. What we find is that customers use a significant amount of data with Truphone. One analysis I saw this past week from Caterham F1, showed that their usage had quadrupled since they joined Truphone, but their bill had virtually halved.
Whether we can be called an MVNO is a debate that could be had, but we certainly don’t feel that we sit comfortably in that pigeon hole. Maybe we need a new category name, “A next generation global mobile network?”
Q: And how are you changing the way in which you are perceived?
It is important to us that the marketplace hears our message from trusted sources, namely our customers, key industry analysts and informed commentators such as Telecoms.com. We of course want the operator community to recognise what we do—it’s important that we maintain and grow relationships as an active contributor to this community, especially as we look to further develop our global footprint.
From a customer point of view, our approach has evolved to be highly focused on a specific market segment—those businesses with a significant portion of their operations inside the Truphone Zone.
From a brand advertising point of view, it is very hard for a relatively small company such as Truphone to cut through the noise—it’s a saturated marketplace where billions of dollars are spent on advertising globally.
However we know with a high degree of accuracy which potential customers are likely to be most interested in Truphone—we have a thoroughgoing analysis of businesses in each operational country which are most likely to take our service. We use this insight to target customers much more accurately, using direct means, digital media and more immersive experiential approaches.
To us, our primary objective it to make sure this clearly defined market segment knows we exist, and what makes us special.
Q: How do you deal with different user experiences in different countries and manage expectations?
We manage and hide all the complexity from the user. All they ever have to do is ‘press call’ or use their device as normal. It’s our aim to deliver the same user experience everywhere. In a globalised economy, why should there be a difference between the way a mobile handset operates in America or Australia? In our view, there shouldn’t.
The way we have constructed our system is that the network and the SIM card work in harmony to deliver a local experience—so within the Truphone Zone, there is no difference in the service that a user receives. There is one number for customer services—you just dial 707, or 505 for voicemail regardless of your locale. We use smart dialling, as well as smart caller ID, to ensure that all calls are routed where they are supposed to be and that a user doesn’t need to know or understand international dialling codes—they just press call as per normal. Outside the Zone, we deliver high quality connections and high quality data in just the same way as every other mobile operator.