Telefonica last week announced the launch of its Wayra Academy start-up incubator in London to add to the similar programmes it started in Latin America last year and in Madrid and Barcelona earlier this year.

Speaking at the launch event, Telefonica Europe chairman and CEO Jose Maria Alvarez-Pallete said the company is keen to encourage technology innovation in the countries in which it operates so as to avoid having to go abroad to acquire technology to support its services. Alvarez-Pallete said technology talent is currently moving abroad from markets Telefonica operates in, so in order to counter this, the company wants to create “an ecosystem of start-ups in the places we are operating.”

This is a canny move as it means technology that could be used to improve the services it offers customers is available on its doorstep. By sourcing technology locally, it will be easier to integrate it into services in that country and be more likely to meet local customer demand.

Telefonica intends to start Wayra Academies in all of its European markets, with the Czech Republic, Germany and Ireland all due to follow London in 2012.

But local technology development isn’t the only benefit of this approach. By working with start-ups and securing stakes in them in return for investment, Telefonica will have unique access to new technology, enabling it to offer services unmatched by competitors.

The technology that Telefonica wants to help develop ranges from cloud to networking systems and from apps to location based services, showing a willingness from the company to be involved with technology that may at first glance not be obviously related to mobile but could have an application in the future.

The acceptance of cloud services, for example, shows that Telefonica doesn’t regard internet-based or OTT services as a threat to its business model, but actually an opportunity. If the company can work closely with those developing this kind technology, it can more effectively control it and integrate it into its own services.

And the Wayra programme is just one element of Telefonica’s attempts to boost technology innovation through its Think Big initiative, which also includes the Talentum summer job and apprenticeship scheme and the Amerigo venture capital fund.

Telefonica has also done a lot to expose its operator services to app developers through its BlueVia programme and even has a business division – Telefonica Digital – responsible for innovation and helping the company take advantage of emerging opportunities.

Telefonica is essentially looking outside of its organisation to access technology that could prove valuable in the future. It is embracing technology change and what it could offer to the company rather than deny change is taking place.

Other operators could learn a great deal learn from this approach. Ideas and creativity are the lifeblood of the technology industry and the mobile sector is no different. Operators can’t solve all the questions or generate the innovation needed to keep them ahead of their competitors on their own.

France Telecom-Orange is one operator group that seems to be starting to take a similar approach to Telefonica. The company announced this week its involvement in a venture capital investment programme focused on digital business, much like Telefonica’s Amerigo fund.

The initiative is an interesting one that could well produce innovative technology but is still some way off Telefonica’s efforts to foster innovation and embrace new technology.

It’s time operators embraced the wider technology industry and the opportunities it represents. If they fail to do so, they run a greater risk of investing in dud technology and missing out on innovative services that could drive revenue in the future.

Wayra means “changing wind” in Andes native language Quechua and the name could become more appropriate if other operators take a leaf out of Telefonica’s book.

Tim Ferguson

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author(s) and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members