CxO Insight

Combining 5G Standalone, IoT, AI, cloud and edge is the key to techco success

Three key speakers from our upcoming FutureNet Middle East and Africa event answered a rapid round of questions on how they see the network of the future evolving, where they are now and how they plan to get there.

In keeping with the New Year in some parts of the world, and the traditional resolutions to do better that come with it, Haithem Mohammed Alfaraj, CTOstc, notes, “Telecoms are on a continuous improvement journey”.

He adds, “We are well aware of the rules and the new needs that are reshaping the network, and eager to assist and support our customers as they embark on their digitisation journey”. No matter where they are in the world, stc is keen to provide them with full access to its services.

He also acknowledges his company’s role in its local national economy of Saudi Arabia, saying, “We aim to continue to be a key accelerator in the Kingdom’s digital transformation.”

The digital transformation of economies is a subject close to the heart of Orange Cameroon, which last year celebrated the tenth anniversary since the launch of Orange Money. During those celebrations, the then Head of Orange Money Cameroon pointed out that his company had a 70% market share of the country’s mobile banking market.

Tassembedo estimated that the operator’s cumulative monthly transactions would amount to CFA800 billion ($1.37 billion) during last year, making an estimated total of CFA9.6 trillion ($16.414 billion) for the year – about twice Cameroon’s state budget for 2021.

5G Standalone needs complements

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Looking forward to new business opportunities enabled by combining of 5G Standalone and complementary technologies, Alfaraj indentifies revenue-sharing deals and joint ventures with cloud providers as being among the key factors driving telecoms. He points out that 5G technology “has shifted fundamentally” the communication network architecture, “accelerating revenue generation through innovative services for consumers as well as corporations large and small alike”.

Consequently, stc’s focus is on expanding the 5G ecosystem and new use cases through co-creation projects, including for the private networks markets where privacy and capacity requirements will drive demand.

5G Standalone is key to this evolution, but Alfaraj says it “will be paired with other emerging technologies that stc has already adopted such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and IoT, [to] unlock and help us to transform our customers’ experiences and provide customised and innovative solutions to enterprises to offer full-fledged technology and telecom solutions on platforms.”

Ayedime Amadi, Group Senior Manager Enterprise Architecture & Customer Channels, Group Technology at MTN agrees with Alfaraj that edge, cloud, AI, IoT and 5G are critical catalysts and forces for industry convergence and a connected world. She predicts, “These five forces will together rapidly accelerate cross-industry use cases – both consumer and business – to create new business models and lines of business, and translate to new revenue streams that futureproof telecoms”.

She explains, “The sophisticated infrastructure and connectivity, which is core niche for telcos, has given them more scale and depth in capabilities that [other] industry verticals are unable to match”. Amadi references a GSMA Intelligence study from 2021 that listed manufacturing, fintech, retail, healthcare, oil and gas, agriculture and mining as having the most potential for being revenue drivers for telcos beyond  traditional connectivity in the next five years.

The power of gestalt

Amadi agrees with Alfaraj that this will be enabled by the interworking of the five technologies, with the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. She outlines that while 5G enables high transmission speed and the transfer of large volumes of data, edge and cloud bring the power to run, deploy and manage application workloads closer to the source of data – and to run them in “auto-parallel and at scale”.

Edge computing and AI are at the heart of IoT applications but AI requires the extremely fast data processing enabled by edge computing to deliver higher performance of compute resources and intelligence at the edge. Amadi says, “Cloud has also become a key enabler for AI as it enables inexpensive, powerful intelligence at the edge without…transfer[ing] data back and forth for processing.”

She outlines a number of “very commercially viable use cases that enable rapid decision making which is key to any businesses evolution  – smart devices, analytics at the edge for rapid insights, voice recognition, smart cameras in production facilities…the opportunities are endless and are new areas of business growth for telcos to expand into as they solve and automate real-life problems.”

Scale is the key to granularity

Alfaraj stresses that “the future network should be able to offer a unique and different experience to a range of sectors such as health and education to serve a wide range of use cases with fine granularity”.

Determining the right slice for each customer must be personalized to get the maximum benefit for both provider and customer, Amadi insists. “We must leverage analytics and insight to segment our customers’ needs based on demographic, psychographic, behavioral and geographic segmentation,” she says. “To succeed in new lines of business, it is important to be driven by insight”. Key customer inputs include usage, spend, macro environment, competitive landscape, digital maturity, and customers’ propensity and appetite.

The big question is how can telcos evolve to achieve these goals? Alfaraj says that hyperscale cloud providers have a big role to play, as their strong ecosystems complement telcos’ strong networks, as well as “relationships with governments and global reach. This is a synergistic opportunity for both”.

He continues, “Hyperscale cloud providers bring a huge value to the telecom industry [but] is in a very early stage of development as networks transform into new ecosystems. It will open the door for enormous opportunities such as reducing costs, offering scalability, or offering interoperability.”

To leverage this opportunity, he explains that stc has adopted a multi-cloud strategy applied on a per-use case basis. The operator has a strong relationship with Alibaba, but is also “in on-going discussions with Microsoft and Google as part of our MENA [Middle East, North Africa] HUB vision.”

Independent approach being public

Orange Cameroon has a different approach to cloud. Its Chief Engineering and Network Officer, Abdallah Nassar, explains the reason his company first looked to virtualisation was

as a means of reducing operational complexity and cost because demand for its network grows 200% year on year.

Orange Cameroon’s virtualisation strategy and deployment is an evolving combination of network functions virtualisation (NFV) and cloud native. While some operators use public clouds like AWS, Google Cloud or IBM Cloud, Orange Cameroon chose a different route, Nassar explains: “We are investing in our own cloud and recently launched our first vEPC [virtual evolved packet core] on it: we built our own public cloud infrastructure using systems from different vendors.”

This first vEPC is to help Orange Cameroon handle data more efficiently on 3G and 4G infrastructure, but tellingly, Nassar adds, “This kind of an investment gives us a different position versus the competition which also has vEPCs, but they use vendors’ infrastructure or a vendor’s virtualised system.

“We want to be independent because when we talk about scaling, we mean different kinds of scaling: we can use this infrastructure for investment in our own systems and we can even offer it to the public. That’s why we call it Orange public cloud.”

Tech intensity

MTN’s Amadi quotes Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, saying “the world is becoming one giant computer,” adding that only  businesses that are best positioned to take full advantage of that massive scale and connectedness will remain competitive.

“Digital transformation will help a company exist but embracing tech intensity will help a company thrive,” she states. “I measure tech intensity in bands based on the degree to which an organisation has an appetite to make technology core to its offering and the internal reengineering they are committed to to enable this.”

The key pillars that require re-engineering in an organisation’s ecosystem to support this new business model, according to Amadi, culture, people, process, structure, business model with a key focus on injecting new skillsets , cultural transformation and the operating model, she concludes.