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Podcast transcript: Making sense of the telco transformation

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This automatically-generated transcript is taken from the IT Pro Podcast episode ‘Making sense of the telco transformation'. We apologise for any errors.

Rory Bathgate  

Hi, I’m Rory Bathgate and you’re listening to the IT Pro Podcast, where this week we’re looking at the future of telecommunications. The switch from 4G to 5G is ongoing, and it carries transformative opportunities for businesses around the world. With one eye on 6G development, researchers and telcos are working to release the full potential of 5G. Additionally, as rollout is disproportionately centred in the global north, work is still ramping up to expand this next generation of communications equally in underserved areas. Today, we’re speaking to Manish Vyas, President, Communications, Media & Entertainment and CEO, Network Services at Tech Mahindra, to discuss the future of the telecommunications industry, 5G/6G, and the opportunities provided by methods such as network slicing.

Manish Vyas  

It's a pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.

Rory  

So starting broadly, what are some of the key patterns that you're noticing right now in how the telecommunications industry is transforming?

Manish 

Well, I think it's been, it's been a rather tumultuous time for the industry in the last ten odd years, I would say. Where the industry has tried many different things, to try and find that proverbial next billion dollar opportunity from a revenue standpoint. And, you know, because the last phase of exponential growth in the industry happened as the wireless business was booming, right, you had more customer ads, more applications, more data traffic. And then there was a period of time when the service providers were looking to diversify, and look into and look and get into more adjacencies of sorts, whether it is media, whether it's broadcast, whether it is the quad play, and so on, and so forth. Now, I'm not saying that all those experiments have failed. But at the same time, what I particularly like this phase of the telecom transformation, is it is extremely focused. So if there is one thing that the telcos are trying to do, is they're trying to keep things very simple and keep things very focused. Focused around access and building better networks, focus on the core customer experience aspects, and continue to build an ability to serve with both fixed and mobility type of solutions. So that's part one. The second transformation that I'm noticing, so one is the transformation of, of culture of mindset of strategy. And the second transformation at a technology level that we are seeing very clearly, is the adoption of open and digital architecture is more or less becoming all pervasive across the board. So it's very clear that the almost every single service provider that we speak to recognises that their success in continuing to build world class networks, and their success in continuing to build and offer world class products, and their success in continuing to offer world class customer experience is predicated upon the kind of digital platform that they build. So, I would say that's the second one. And that would essentially lead to many, many opportunities for the industry as a whole, and for the ecosystem. And the third transformation that I'm noticing very clearly that is underway, is more around, you know, looking to drive an ecosystem play. The telcos recognise that not all inventions have to be done in house. So they are taking a more practical partnership based approach, particularly as they look to monetize 5G and beyond. Right, so they don't think that everything should be done by themselves. They are very open to partnering with software companies, with market makers, with integrators, and try and look for opportunities to serve the customers better. But they they do their bit, but not necessarily the whole thing. So I think that these are the three fundamental transformational issues that said, if since you asked for three I'm giving you three but if I may add a fourth one is I think there is an element of cost and optimization. You can't ignore the fact that the cost to serve has to continuously go down, as we go forward, and that always will remain a priority for the service providers.

Rory

And do you think that these, all of the changes that you've identified, are kind of reflective of the direction that the industry is going in over the next five to ten years?

Manish 

Yeah, I think the industry is really focused on these changes, and these transformation backs. You will keep hearing more and more words like 'simplicity', you will keep hearing more and more about open and digital, you will keep hearing more and more about, you know, driving a lot more partnerships that they will announce. I think it's about — everybody is in that direction, the question is really about, at what speed are they driving it? And I think it varies from market to market, operator to operator. So the variance is only in the speed, and how do they prioritise some of these things. But broadly speaking, that's the direction that we are seeing.

Rory

So, 5G is the focus right now. And we have a lot to discuss about 5G over the course of this episode. But with half an eye on 6G, do you think that the groundwork is being laid right now, to allow for 6G rollout by 2030? I know that that's a goal that a lot of different operators are setting right now.

Manish

I would think so. You know, I am someone who has now, in the capacity of being an engineering company, and an integrator and a managed service provider. You know, our company has been serving the industry for 32 years, I have been here for 22. So I must say, with a degree of certainty that we have seen a few inflection points in the industry, more than one. We have seen the changes, the disruptions that have happened. And with hindsight, as the point of advantage, one thing I can fairly safely say is that the evolution on both the compute/software, as well as on the telecom network technology, I think is a unstoppable train, right? This will continue to move. So if anybody thought that 5G was the panacea and the answer of everything, clearly, we're wrong then and wrong now. It is just another evolutionary step, a different evolutionary step, a big, massive step change, which is why there was so much excitement and there is so much excitement about 5G. And it will only keep improving by the day. But your key question is without getting too much into details on 6G, or 5G at this point, is the foundation being led, being laid beg your pardon, for potential 6G in a decade or so? I think so, and maybe more needs to be done there. Because ultimately, as we have seen in practically every single industry, not just in telecom, more so in others than in telecom, that software is at the heart of any change. If one reads any report that is relevant to this to this topic, it would say that 70% to 50% of all spend, that the CFOs will make available for the company, will be around tech in every industry. If that were true, and one were to believe that, and I do want to believe that, based on what we have seen in the last two, three years, particularly with the digital tsunami, it's very, very clear that service providers will have to continue to build a very strong digital software based platform so that they could run their operation better. They could build new technologies faster, and they could imagine new products and services faster. And it's very clear that as they write, curate and architect software differently, it's going to just make deploying newer technologies, whether it is 6G, or it is anything around new products or new artificial intelligence type platforms, it will just become better because you just won't be able to drive a fast car on a very, very slow highway, right? And highway, in this case, is a high quality, open digital, very flexible digital architecture.

Rory

Fantastic, yeah. Just to circle on that point of architecture, I know that earlier, you mentioned open architecture. And then it to also expand on this idea of maybe the more digital software side of things, as opposed to the hardware side of things, Open RAN offers a number of interesting use cases. What kind of work is being done in that space by Tech Mahindra, currently? And what kind of opportunities do you think open RAN offers with things like manufacturer collaboration in the future?

Manish

Yeah, no, I think look, anything open I would take a position that it is good for the industry. Granted that, one doesn't have to read less secure with open, because security is at the at the heart of any any architectural discussions we do. More security is at the heart of any discussion going forward, no doubt about it. But what we have been doing is our, we really do two things. One, is an advisory type of a role, where we are essentially helping build the architectural frameworks, and provide the do's and the don'ts as we continue to deploy more open technology, including open RAN. We of course played a very vital role in initially nurturing the industry, even with an investment into one of the open RAN companies back then. But more significantly, what we are doing is, we are offering the integration, and certification and interoperability capabilities. Over the last four or five years, we have built about 12, state of the art laboratories. These are essentially networks inside a large room. Every element of the network, practically every possible mainstream technology, and technology provider is inside these labs, right? You know, barring maybe one or two, everybody's there. And we continue to test ourselves, and at the behest of our customers, the ability to integrate an open network architecture, from RAN to the code, to the downstream closed loop automation, all the way to the cloud integration. That's what we do and we've, you know, we have significantly gained in our network business, as a result of these aggregations that have happened. You know, it's close to a billion dollar business that we do, just around the network integration and network managed services for the carriers, and a business that is growing pretty rapid clip.

Rory

So jumping off your point, about the usefulness of these going forward, and the work that you've already been putting into developing some of these technologies. Another similarly, useful innovation right now is network slicing. Specifically, in regards to OSS/BSS slicing, I wonder if just to start off with for those who don't know, you could outline the specific network priority in brief, and then maybe talk about why that's why that could be a key business use.

Manish

No, absolutely it's a great question. And you know, network slicing, ever since people started talking about 5G network slicing more or less became synonymous as one of the major attributes and benefits that people will derive out of 5G. Now, has it happened? Probably not yet. But are the advantages of network slicing and what network slicing really is all about, I think that need is being fairly understood. Because at a technical level, network slicing essentially uses principles of what I would call as the 'modern cloud architecture'. In a simpler term, think of it as we are running multiple logical networks, virtually independent business operations, but all on one single common physical infrastructure. Now, as you do that, the opportunities that exist are, you know, one can offer a lot of bytes, and different service level agreements for different customers, for your partners. You know, but one can offer a slice as a network capacity. And as a use case, if, for example, someone is running a very specific workload in a factory, or mission critical factory, one can request for a slice to be dedicated end-to-end for that one use case for a period of time. And of course, the service provider can charge differentially for that capability that you offer. So, I think the opportunity from slicing is indeed, very deep, very wide. It brings in an element of change in how the relationship between a telco and the customer, and the problem solving that a customer is able to do themselves. That, I think, is a fundamental issue and something that will be absolutely a gorgeous change that will happen as and when it happens. The question, and your real question is, so what are the potential roadblocks today in deriving true value from slicing? And I guess it's a very long answer, maybe a very complicated set of parameters that drive that. But since you specifically asked about OSS, you're absolutely right, that OSS is you know, is that orchestrator set of systems that will help automate and the ability to create these and manage these slices, from design to deployment, all the way to managing and assuring you know, that these slices are working as designed and as desired. Now, that I think is something which there is lot of work that needs to happen in the OSS side. You know, one will need to — and which is why I have been saying for a long time, don't look at 5G just as another next generation of radio evolution. 5G is really more of an overhaul, of not just the network, but also of the OSS and BSS. And unless everything is completely overhauled, and changed and dramatically transformed, one will not be able to derive the value from slicing as much as people want to, because we are as good as the weakest link in the food chain, right? So slicing is really not about driving cost savings, because that was one aspect that people were initially hoping and thinking. It's really more about offering a differential capability to customers, in a different capacity to customers, and thereby deriving greater revenue and greater profits, right? So the business case is not in cost, the business case is in the revenue and enhance the you know, and a differentiated experience and the profit from that.

Rory  

Thank you. So would you say that currently as it stands, development in network slicing kind of has to go up at the same time as development in AI, and development in automation, for this OSS back-end in order to become really effective?

Manish

Yes, that is correct. That is absolutely correct, because I think the developments have to happen and it's like a jigsaw puzzle. Every piece of this puzzle needs to fall in place. That will take time, you know, the customer needs will have to evolve. The use cases need to become more apparent. The 5G rollouts and deployments have to be complete, as much as possible on an open architecture. The BSS systems, which manage the customers and the transactions, and the commerce aspect has to be in place. The OSS closed loop automation, and the ability to offer in an automated fashion, in a cognitive fashion, it's not just automated, that needs to happen, so a lot more needs to be done here. But the concept is absolutely spot on, it is done. We have all benefited from it in the cloud world, in the retail world, in the hyperscaler world. There is no reason why one can't derive those benefits out of a telco world as well: it will happen.

Rory  

It's interesting that one of the points that you just mentioned was, that specific use cases will arise, but they haven't all arisen yet. Would you say that sort of, attempting to implement network slicing right now even in say, Europe, with fairly good 5G rollout on the whole would almost be a waste of time, considering that there aren't currently all of the use cases, and you don't want to roll out a system if you're not able to anticipate all of those use cases.

Manish

This is one question Rory, that I would rather always, always be reluctant to answer, because I just don't know whether the chicken came first or egg. 

Rory  

Okay, yeah.

Manish

I wouldn't know. I think, you know, I'd actually like to take you back to history, maybe about 12 years ago or maybe 15, when iPhone launched, or as Steve Jobs launched his first iPhone. He named it as 3Gs, in many ways it was a tribute to the 3G networks at the time. Right. So the network came first, phone and smartphone as an application, and the use case came later. The next phase of evolution happened exactly the reverse way. So I don't know what's going to drive what, whether it will be you know, the use cases will drive and come and compel people to continue to innovate on the network and the telecom side, or, you know, the technology will be available, and people will find a way to innovate and build applications on top of it. I think the jury's still out on that, and as much as like you, I'm waiting in the wings to keep and contributing to it in our own small ways to see what happens, how it unravels.

Rory  

Well, it's very exciting, and hopefully will offer some incredible, incredible use cases. So you mentioned that, obviously, 5G rollout is nowhere near complete worldwide. I know that India's 5G spectrum auction happened fairly recently, and that the future of 5G also holds things like And mmWave auctions, spectrum negotiation with entities like satellite operators, and also large stretches of the global south are still entirely lacking 5G coverage. So in a sort of broad sense, do you have any insights or predictions you can give on on rollout going forward? Or specifically on regulatory action going forward on on some of those, some of those auctions or maybe some of those standards that are on the horizon?

Manish

No, I don't have too much of an insight from a regulatory standpoint. And we have a group that works pretty deeply on the standards aspect now, increasingly. At the same time, I would say, I think what we've witnessed and you mentioned India, I think it's a telltale sign of things to come with how US responded with the 5G challenge. With the whole marketing blitz that the Indian government did around 5G, I think it is very, very clear that pretty without batting none, the governments of the world of every country do recognise that sometime back, I don't know when that happened, but some time back eight, nine years, six years ago, we did enter a new generation where technology and digital is going to determine politics. It's going to determine the economy, it is going to determine education, it's going to determine the development of youth, and every aspect. And hence, it is a, you know, when Australia, for example, launched a broadband network, it became a massive issue politically, you know, however you executed in a certain period of time, probably determined who was running the government. You know, 25 years ago, if you thought that how somebody ran telco networks will determine who will become the prime minister of a country, I don't think you would ever havae thought about it. So I think it's at the heart of it, the very heart of an economic, I would say even community development activity, and hence, will the regulators be a lot more active in deciding and determining what needs to be done? Yes, I think things will continue to change. Some countries are already experimenting saying "okay, this is not just a spectrum licence, revenue opportunity for us. Maybe there is a lot more that can be done here". So I'm truly excited, so for anybody who says that hey, telco is an old industry, I like to say "wake up, telco is a very new industry", because our ability to connect, and their ability to connect and and create more value in this food chain is like tremendous. It's phenomenal.

Rory  

Mentioning governments, mentioning elections, obviously, there's a huge divide and there will necessarily be a divide between public sector and private sector communications networks. And is that currently being reflected in development cycles? I know that the public sector tends to lag behind in some areas of development, and I know that also that some of the leading edges of 5G use, like in local area networks or wide area networks are being done on private networks for private organisations. But do you think that the necessary research and development is being done in the public sector networks as well?

Manish

Yeah, I think so. But you're right, I mean, I think the manifestation or the adoption, rather, of any new tech is likely to be you know, from a mainstream standpoint, that is going to be likely in the private sector more. Now, there are going to be some specific parts of the governments in every major country, where they probably will be the adopters, or even creators of new technology faster, because of the mission criticality aspect of it, whether it is the defence, or space or some of those areas. But when it comes to mainstream government, mainstream public and mainstream private, it's very clear that the adoption, you know, for the sheer economic and shareholder value creation standpoint, the adoption will be faster in the private sector. The other question, probably you asked about is the private network adoption? I think the jury's still out on that one also, right? We don't know. We have started seeing a lot of experiments, a lot of pilots, some scaled, but we'll have to see how that pans out, as there has to be a cost benefit analysis of that, and that will take some time.

Rory  

So when we're talking about these rollouts, these pilot schemes, what are some of the, and on a wider scale as well, what are some of the standout constraints or hurdles that you've identified that Tech Mahindra has identified, be that regionally or or internationally for 5G right now? Some of the biggest problems?

Manish

Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, the hurdles are at different levels, there are hurdles that are involved in the rollouts of the networks, there are hurdles that are in the implementation of the digital architecture and software. So that you're creating a platform for seamless addition, deletion of new capabilities. I would say, if I were to maybe bring out two hurdles, two aspects that have, if we are not there, we could have moved even faster. And which are common across the board. One, I think is talent, right? I mean, we have seen an unbelievable, unprecedented type of talent glut in the industry. You need more talented digital technical network people than one can produce at this point in time across the world. I often say that while the pandemic may have induced a talent crisis, the talent crisis now is endemic, per se, right? And because of the earlier points we were saying, which is the sheer need of more software and more technology people out there. And the second, very specifically to 5G, I would still say is I there is no clarity yet on the monetization, the scale of monetization aspect. And with when things are not very clear, you end up taking very cautious steps forward. If you don't know whether when you run fast, whether you will end up on a you know, on a T junction that you'll have to suddenly make a left or a right curve, you don't know that and because you don't know that, you're trying to move rather very cautiously at this point. So I think those two would stand out to me as common links, but specifically in different parts of the food chain, there will be different things that slow things down.

Rory  

Right. But it sounds like on the whole, on that point of business use that the value that can be can be derived from 5G, as you've outlined across the episode, there are quite a few different areas that people can feel hopeful for that businesses can can look towards like network slicing as one example, that 5G can can really drive revenue with going forward.

Manish

Oh, absolutely. I think there are tremendous, tremendous values we just went live yesterday in one of our group company factories, where we build a 5G based, 5G look alike network and the use case inside the paint shop of that automotive plant. And we got 99.9% accuracy results very quickly. So I think the benefits of once you connect devices and people with data, and add automation on top of it I think, you know, one just doesn't have to be a rocket scientist to know that the benefits are immense, immense.

Rory

Just to end on, I was wondering if you could outline a couple of ways in which service providers if any service providers are listening to the podcast right now, in which they can accelerate transformation, while addressing specific network requirements be that in any of the ways you've mentioned already, or in a more abstract, strategy driven way.

Manish

I mean, to advise people that I take advice from, I think, would be rather hard. I have a deep deep respect for the telco service providers, technologists, particularly people who lead these units there. I can tell you, it's not an easy job for them that they have. But across the world, we are seeing some amazing change agents, change agent leaders. Someone I watch very, very closely is right in UK, for example, where they are really driving I would say multiple step changes all at the same time. And I agree with, you know, these steps because this is a large train, it's a huge train, very bulky train. And if we continue to push it, you know, we're hoping to try and take it forward, it will move. But if you want to make significant transformation, you will have to change lots of things while the train is still on the move. So I think this transformation is multi-pronged, it's not easy. I think the only thing that I am trying to do as a leadership team here, is to stay focused on simplifying the journey of this transformation. Keep things simple, you can't do everything. No one company, no one person can do everything, but multiple things needs to be done at the same time. So if anything, stay focused on it, and I hope you know that the CFOs of the telcos will continue to find money to help these transformation initiatives across the key telcos across the world. So, I think it's a very significant change, not just for the industry. I will even take the liberty and say for how the, the communities and the countries live, work and play together.

Rory

Fantastic. Well, Manish, thank you so much for your time.

Manish  

Thank you so much, Rory appreciated this time. Enjoyed it.

Rory

As always, You can find links to all of the topics we've spoken about today in the show notes and even more on our website at itpro.co.uk. You can also follow us on social media, as well as subscribe to our daily newsletter. Don't forget to subscribe to the IT Pro Podcast wherever you find podcasts. And if you're enjoying the show, leave us a rating and a review. We'll be back next week with more insight from the world of IT but until then, goodbye.

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