The toughest and most thankless job in telecoms is surely running IT.
And that's not because the IT guys are surrounded by telco engineers. It's because of the proliferation of billing systems inside telcos that drive everyone crazy.
Large telcos have hundreds of billing and customer care platforms, growing like topsy because every time a new service has been introduced it's been easier to add a new billing system than integrate into the existing platform.
I once heard former Telstra CEO Frank Blount say of the firm's IT: 'Never before has so much money been spent to make so many people unhappy.'
That was more than a decade ago when big telcos approached billing systems the way they approached everything else - they did it themselves. The pressure of competition forced them to surrender their IT to dedicated billing and OSS firms, but it is their standalone, proprietary systems that are responsible for today's mess.
You don't have to look far to find OSS firms urging telcos to rework their IT systems in order to reap the full benefits of next-gen networks, content services and all the rest.
They've been saying that for years, yet the 'holy grail' of a single view of customers on a single billing and customer-care platform seems no closer.
Time to start!
So my attention was caught by a note from Gartner last month which said telcos needed to 'start transforming' their backend systems into 'IT and network factories'.
I like the 'start' bit. What have telcos been doing for all these years‾
Gartner goes on to predict that 'by 2012, half of the world's 20 biggest telcos will offer new services only minimally related to telecommunications', with 15% of their revenue coming from 'non-traditional' sources, meaning digital media.
It's the kind of thing that's been kicked around the industry for a long time.
Dozens of vendor white papers hold forth on how OSS transformation can revolutionize the telecom world. Nothing wrong with the message; it's absolutely true that by simplifying their OSS carriers can be much faster in how they respond to competitors and customers.
But I can't find any who can explain exactly how this transformation is to be carried out or why it has taken so long. That shouldn't surprise, though. Telecom is a vendors' picnic - it's the biggest IT vertical after the finance sector.
And sure, the sheer size and complexity of the job means change will be a long time coming. Telco IT encompasses billing, OSS, mediation, rating, revenue assurance, CRM, customer care, and more, made even more intricate because of the parallel (and much more important) transformation in networks that is taking place.
But the glacial and convoluted transformation of telcos' backends is a classic example of how IT can chew up resources and deliver little in return. Telecom operators, like most companies really, would be better off if they could shuck off their OSS and focus instead on their core business.