“And a hedgehog in a pear tree…”
There was an “epic sweep” vibe to this year’s Great Telco Debate. Speakers invoked everything from the first cultivation of wheat 10,000 years ago (via Yuval Harari), to the Spanish conquistadors’ early encounters with the Aztecs (spoiler alert: it didn’t end too well), Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie.
Expert witnesses framed each topic (with a strict “3 minutes: no props, no powerpoint” rule) before effortlessly urbane protagonists Chris Lewis and Graham Wilde led the case for and against specific motions across five debates. Event co-hosts Guy Daniels and Ray LeMaistre once again made keeping proceedings on track with spirited panelists and audience look easy.
The decision by so many speakers to look to world-changing events is indicative of the state of telecom at the end of 2023: on the brink of the sort of radical developments that may truly alter human history.
But first, we have some problems to solve.
2024: Year of the Hedgehog?
“Rizz” may be the official word of the year, but Lee Myall, CEO of Neos Networks gave the GTD audience something to think about when he said it was time for telcos to “hedgehog down” and focus on connectivity. (The phrase comes from Jim Collins, author of the legendary business book Good to Great… Jim Collins – Concepts – The Hedgehog Concept).
It sparked a lively first debate about the relationship between telcos and “the customer”.
It’s clear that identity and trust are becoming as foundational a concern to telecom customers as reliability. On that point, it was good to see Rakuten’s Geoff Hollingworth in person, in part to be sure that he has not accidentally become a deepfake version of himself. Lord Holmes compared telecom efforts with the banking industry’s response to dealing with identity verification, though Juniper’s Neil McRae cautioned telcos to be wary of banks looking to use telcos to offload their own liabilities. Dean Bubley felt that industry discussion on the topic is being dangerously dominated by a consumer mobile perspective.
The ultimate destination for any technology is to become transparent and ubiquitous. Yet telcos must reconcile this with their desire to be front-and-center with their customers. Collaboration and partnership sound like the right approach, but there are only early examples so far.
Connectivitree’s Mark Gilmour reminded the audience that there was a reason for the phrase “carrier-grade” and was among several speakers to see telcos and hyperscalers heading towards a mutually beneficial partnership model.
Customers – especially #B2B customers – may not care about the technology, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about the outcomes achievable from applying the latest and greatest. Dell’s Manish Singh and Intel’s Werner Schaefer were among those emphasizing end-customer experiential benefits, especially from edge.
GTD: As Christmassy as a tin of Quality Street.
Weaver Labs’ Maria Lema upcycled the 1990s Bellheads vs Netheads debate to highlight today’s Closedheads vs Openheads, arguing that only an open approach would lead to the sort of innovations that would truly transform the industry.
Perhaps it was just the season, but Juniper CTO Raj Yavatkar compared telcos to snowflakes, each uniquely delicate, making universal open APIs of questionable practical utility.
In a debate about cloud (to wit: “it’s not the size of the cloud but what you do with it that counts”), TIP’s Kristian Toivo encouraged operators not to spend too long deciding between cloud environments: that the most important decision was to commit to a holistic cloud approach, with all of the culture changes and upskilling required to make the most of it.
IBM’s Andrew Coward offered the best 3-minute analogy of the day, with a “horses for courses” explanation on cloud strategy. Worth catching on replay, though there’ll be no need for a steward’s enquiry. Rakuten Symphony’s Vivek Chadha highlighted the practical reality of an at-scale, private telco cloud.
Judging by the discussion in the room, the industry seems to have moved past a simplistic “public cloud vs private cloud” debate, into a more nuanced discussion about possibilities, practicalities – and ultimate purpose.
End of Term: An Interview with Philip Jansen
Deftly interviewed by Chris Lewis, Philip Jansen, outgoing CEO of BT Group, was game enough to join in the reflective, “end-of-term” spirit.
Given his time beyond telecom, Jansen reflected that telcos don’t think about customers like other industries do; tight margins have a habit of focusing the mind. But he was proud to be leaving BT with a stronger focus on the customer, and with a better forward plan than when he took on the CEO role. He agreed that “as a sector, we missed lots of opportunities”, but sees AI as “a gamechanger, on the scale of the internet and mobile”. He too emphasised the importance of partnerships.
The motion that AI will unlock SMB revenue for telcos provoked a pointed question from the floor: “Didn’t we say thing the same thing about 5G? That it would unlock the pot of gold in enterprises?”. Cue some uncomfortable laughter.
TM Forum‘s Nik Willetts reminded everyone that what we’re seeing on AI is “just the start”. 20% of operational cost is day-to-day network operations, which use of AI should make a significant dent in. Major telcos such as Telefonica and BT are now making public commitments to their shareholders about the impact of automation and their pursuit of autonomous networks. Nik’s call was for telcos to learn the key lessons of cloud: not just to treat the technology as a bolt-on, but as a catalyst (no pun intended) for radical change.
Francesca Serravalle from Vodafone now feels that telecom has gotten the bit between its teeth, at least as far as Vodafone goes. Investing to innovate at all levels from the network to customer care to business models, and across the lifecycle of a delivered service, not just in the fulfilment process. The ambition is to be more data-driven and AI-driven. Verticalized network management is becoming a thing of the past (something we discuss in this recent podcast episode) .
Red Hat’s Azhar Sayeed cited a number of telcos innovating by using data in new ways – Axiata, Telus, Verizon, in particular in combination with edge compute, but argued that it still starts with “a mindset change” (Axiata were also referenced in our podcast on innovation).
VMO2 Business’ Head of Strategy, Innovation and 5G IoT, Sandeep Raithatha reported seeing a change toward more open models and VMO2 is working with more startups and scaleups in a collaborative way. He referenced an Augmented Reality demonstration of network slicing with Ericsson at a UK gaming convention. His advice was to test and trial and iterate, and not over-invest.
The only real tumbleweed moment came as panelists were asked for their favourite examples of telco innovation from the last few years. The initially muted response was hardly a surprise, but the subsequent discussion yielded numerous examples of potential for the future.
Behind the festive trappings, the Great Telco Debate reflected the serious issues and trends that Appledore’s research has examined through the year: hopes and concerns on the potential of AI, the anatomy of innovation, the impact of cloud, open and disaggregated networks, monetization, and automation. As we commented after the TM Forum’s Digital Transformation World there was the same sense of a new reality being fashioned, of an industry actually beginning to pivot.
For sure, telecom may be “down”, but all of the elements for its recovery are there. That is not to say that it will be easy, and not to deny that there will be losers, as well as winners. But if we embrace the new – facing up to the new challenges as well as adopting new technologies and working practices – and remain ambitious about delivering outcomes that are business-changing and life-changing, then telecom’s future will justify the 2023 Great Telco Debate’s history-making allusions.
More on the Great Telco Debate 2023 is available here.
More of Appledore’s takeaways from major industry events is on the blog with more in-depth analysis here.