CSG takes it to the Max

Omnisperience’s Chief Analyst Teresa Cottam took the opportunity to talk to Ian Watterson, CSG’s SVP of APAC, to get the low down on its recent announcements and what he’s seeing in the APAC market.

CSG kicked off 2021 with a new CEO – Brian Shepherd – with the company saying at the time that he was recognised for “his passion in creating and fostering a values-based, results-driven culture”, as well as for that all-important ability to lead and grow profitable businesses. Shepherd – whose CV includes a three-year stint with cable billers DST Innovis, followed by seven years with Amdocs – had been at CSG for almost five years before he got the nod and, while Rome wasn’t built in a day, we wanted to see how his ambitions for CSG were progressing.

Indicative of CSG’s growth outside North America, five of the six contract wins it publicly announced in the first half of 2021 came from either APAC or EMEA. Ian Watterson, SVP of Asia Pacific, is responsible for three of the first half’s announcements – a win at Maxis to support its new TV 2.0 service, a multiyear extension at Vietnamobile and a collaboration with Axiata Digital Labs to create a B2B marketplace.

Watterson is bullish about his own pipeline and the opportunities for CSG in the hypercompetitive and heterogeneous Asia-Pacific market, but emphasises that it’s not just his region that’s seeing opportunities. He says this fortunate situation hasn’t come out of nowhere but is the result of a lot of hard work over time, pointing out, for example, that the Maxis deal was a “go-live” announcement.

In many ways Brian Shepherd is thus simply continuing the job he started as EVP and Group President, bringing a sharp focus on sales and customers, a clarity of vision and purpose, and an ambition to grow the business through both organic and inorganic means – with the Tango Telecom acquisition being his first announcement in that area as CEO. Watterson says Shepherd is also investing in products where he sees potential and is intent on growing CSG’s core telecoms business (both pure telecoms and quad play).

Ian Watterson, SVP Asia Pacific, CSG

When asked the secret of CSG’s success, Watterson doesn’t start where most BSS vendors do – with how impressive his technology is or even how operationally efficient it is – but with the customer and specifically with the customer’s business problems. He states that today’s CSP needs more than (just) great technology, which is why CSG seeks to build “collaborative relationships” with its customers and why he believes that CSG’s success has come from listening carefully to the ambitions, challenges and attitude of each individual customer. Something that’s absolutely vital in a region that contains such diverse economies and customer bases.

“We always start with the customer’s business problem,” he explains. “Is it cost, or more revenue, or a bunch of demand they can’t fulfil, or an opportunity they can’t get to fast enough? We ask them what their problem is, we listen, we bring ideas to the table, but we very much work with them to find the right solution for that individual CSP’s business challenges and opportunities.”

Asia-Pacific is a tough market for a non-Asian vendor to get right. As Watterson points out the sheer scale of the market is often not fully appreciated by those outside the region. “It’s like four or five US’s in terms of size,” he laughs. But it’s also a region of great contrasts, with technologically advanced markets such as Australia, China, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan having much in common with, or in fact leading, the mature markets of Western Europe. Watterson notes these markets are concerned with issues such as 5G, complex enterprise services, public cloud, scalability issues, reducing cost in stagnant consumer markets, bringing new offers to market – time-to-market and simplification being important here – and “obviously” IoT use cases such as connected vehicles and healthcare, as well as core areas of CSG expertise such as media.

Although Omnisperience wrote recently about how 5G is very much an Asian phenomenon in the next five years, Watterson points out that in developing Asian markets such as Bangladesh and India, 4G still has a significant role to play. “Even in these markets, though, basic connectivity is fast reaching saturation so they’re interested in addressing the wider needs of SMBs and reselling applications such as Office 365 and cybersecurity applications,” he notes. As markets such as India follow the likes of Korea into selling a more complete ICT solution, Watterson says Thai operators are looking at other challenges – such as how to convert prepaid customers to postpaid.

Giving a flavour of the diversity of use cases that CSG is supporting across APAC, Watterson explains that its deal with Maxis in Malaysia was in some ways core territory for a company with extensive experience of supporting the delivery and monetisation of content services, although the deployment itself demonstrates the flexibility of CSG’s support for its customers. When Maxis decided to launch a new Internet TV service, it didn’t want to support this via its existing, very large on-prem BSS deployment. Instead it wanted to lower support costs for the new service, but at the same time improve business performance by increasing agility, flexibility and speed-to-market. CSG won the deal head-to-head against the incumbent on-prem vendor, ultimately delivering an adjunct public-cloud based BSS which Maxis intends to use to support other innovative offers (such as gaming).

Meanwhile at Axiata Group, CSG has been working to support innovative IoT use cases, as well as the announced collaboration on B2B services. Axiata has branched out into supporting smart agriculture, for example, where it monitors massive greenhouses in places such as Indonesia. Axiata Group also uses technology from CSG’s latest acquisition Tango Telecom. Since 2011, the Tango DRE platform has been used by Robi Axiata to support tailored and subscriber-centric data plans and promotions to over 13 million active data users.

“Telstra is also a long-standing and important client of ours,” continues Watterson. It’s a relationship he’s been instrumental in building since taking over responsibility for Asia. One of the projects CSG has been working on with the Australian CSP has been supporting its innovation in the connected car market. Telstra has developed an ecosystem for the car industry, with CSG building on its 15+ year relationship with the company to provide onboarding, rating and billing capabilities.

The biggest question Watterson is hearing from his customers and prospects right now though is essentially the same as that being asked worldwide, although the answer might be slightly different in Asia than in other world regions. “5G is massively disruptive and not just because of technology change but because of the business change it’s bringing with it,” Watterson says. “The biggest question I hear is how do I make money out of 5G? It’s making CSPs think about what’s going to be their ‘killer’ offering to get back all the money they’ve invested in network build.”

Which begs the question where is the money? Watterson says that he doesn’t believe in a single killer service or that consumers will pay significantly more for 5G. While there are a wide range of revenue opportunities, in the short term, he argues, most of the new money will come from B2B. “Service providers absolutely need to look to B2B and to verticalised use cases such as agriculture, healthcare, mining, manufacturing and so on,” he advises.

Are there lessons that North American and European operators can learn from leading economies in Asia? Watterson thinks so. He says that the work Korean operators have done around becoming complete ICT providers is something that could inspire others. But he also singles out the low ARPU environment of Asia as being significant in itself. “Lower ARPUs mean that operators here just don’t have the capacity or inclination to suffer ongoing losses. It means they’re more willing to experiment, take risks, swap systems and approaches. They have to react more quickly, fail fast and try again.”

This willingness to innovate is also driven by the realtime nature of experience in Asia he says. “People talk about how prepaid keeps you on your toes compared to postpaid contractual relationships. But markets such as Indonesia are multi-SIM with customers having 3 or 5 SIMs and making decisions not just continually but literally in the moment about which operator they use. It’s this fierce level of competition that drives Asia forward,” he notes.

Omnisperience’s View

It’s always great to hear of a vendor getting it right. Sometimes in telecoms chasing new logos overshadows the more important job of retaining and growing existing relationships. Of course it’s even better when a vendor can do both. But with the telecoms industry’s attention switching once again from network build to monetisation and experience, and with service providers more able, more willing and more motivated to shift systems than ever before, there’s never been a better time to be in BSS. It’s been a long-time since there was such a clear opportunity to steal market share from competitors.

Too often, however, the market forgets what the B in BSS stands for. The way systems are deployed and the features they possess should not overshadow the most important issue: whether these systems enable service providers’ businesses to prosper. Omnisperience believes the winners in the next wave of BSS adoption will be those vendors who understand that their customers’ success is ultimately their own.

Omnisperience considers that with its strong leadership, customer focus and clear vision, CSG is now well positioned to benefit from the next phase of business support investment.