Event News

FutureNet MENA: Review by Appledore Research

Introduction
Futurenet World has become the go-to-event for honest discussion within telco on the future network and the role that automation and AI is playing.With FutureNet MENA now in its third year, 2024 is Appledore’s first time attending the event in Dubai.

Themes & Highlights

e& Keynote
On the first day the conference was crowded to see e& UAE CTIO Khalid Murshed’s keynote “Navigating 5G-Advanced, Multi-Cloud and AI Frontiers”. This set the scene and the key topics of conversation for the whole conference: 5G technology centre-stage, with AI and Network Automation as supporting themes.

5G evolution is at the centre of MEA operator strategies, supported by increasing use of cloud-native technology. Khalid described the evolution of Gs that had driven e& success and the 5G advanced features and even 6G that would drive further innovation. e& is looking at using 5G to drive advanced use cases in Government and security, Transport, Oil and gas, Active logistics, and Healthcare. The positivity about the 5G opportunity here was in marked contrast to the discussion at Futurenet World in London.

e& UAE is on a multi-cloud journey, built around partnerships with Oracle (Oracle DRCC – on premise and public since 2023) and Microsoft Azure. It was good to see a clear understanding of the distinctions between being cloud hosted and cloud native being articulated. e& is making multiple cloud choices using different suppliers for different needs.

e& believes unlocking the AI opportunity needs cloud. E& has trialed AI use cases with Oracle and with Microsoft. ChatGPT assistants are seen as a disruptive innovation, with other use cases being considered.

5G: Monetizing the Network
Discussion on monetizing the network explored how 5G technology evolution was going to deliver new services for the regional operators. The discussion was largely focused on the possible opportunity from the deployment of 5G standalone and 5G advanced. In notable contrast with FNW London, where a key takeaway was “Don’t think about 6G until you have monetized 5G”, the MENA event showcased e& UAE’s Vision for 6G.

Telco to techco
The narrative of transforming telcos into techcos was a key strand in the MENA show. STC and e& both said they were aiming to make Telco to Techco transformation and operate more like the hyperscalers. Both highlighted that mindset change was the major issue in achieving this.

“Think about what not how – the telecom industry is still thinking how” – Rahul Atri

Rahul Atri from platinum sponsor Rakuten Symphony emphasized the need to focus on application uses cases. Today the reality is that everything about a telco is about connectivity. Telcos need to think like Platform companies, such as openAI and Tesla. An Open API is not the problem, it’s the platform that supports that API. As an example of this platform thinking Rakuten highlighted how they have implemented a single customer ID throughout all its businesses. Appledore has produced research on the Innovation Telco and its supporting platform.
In a later panel on the subject, it was clear that MENA telcos are at a very early stage of this transformation. Vodafone Oman’s CTO noted that their focus was on customer trusted services, but lacked a blueprint for Telco to Techco change. Another operator saw the focus on rebranding and reengaging customers. Perhaps reflecting a very different operating environment, Afghan Wireless noted that customers trusting telco and knowing their market were key.

GenAI
Almost all of the discussion on GenAI at the conference was about Customer Experience: “Cognitive Care” – chatbots that interact with customers to increase customer satisfaction. Appledore hosted a panel that looked at AI in the networks, but it was clear from answers that AI remains in region a very CX-focused idea, with GenAI chatbots rather than supporting network automation or even autonomy. e&’s Islam Azab, noted that they had started using chatGPT in 2023 and were particularly focused on applying it to e& experience and HR systems.
Puru Dwarakanathan, IT strategy at MTN group noted that they had started their AI journey early in 2022 with an early POC on GenAI with Microsoft. He noted key choices for CSPs, where to partner and where to build yourselves, where to use existing models and when to build your own. The latter was particularly important with extremely high costs in taking models as they are.
Automation adoption

There was less focus on automation and autonomy at the MENA event than in London. Many participants noted that the level of network automation needed to be driven by economics. Sam Keys-Toyer of Ericsson noted that it is all well and good to aim for a Level 5 full autonomous network, however, in the current economic environment stakeholders must remember the economic part of the equation, particularly opex/profit considerations.

In Appledore’s recent research Crossing the Chasm we described a fundamental change required as the industry moves to higher levels of autonomous network. Ericsson’s thinking was aligned with this in many ways, particularly the need for different organizational thinking in level 3-5 autonomy. Moving from Humans assisted by Systems to Operational Systems assisted by Humans.

Crossing the chasm

For those that stayed till the end of the second day Appledore announced its recent research on crossing the autonomy chasm. Appledore is offering this research report free to readers of the FutureNet newsletter via email request to the author: francis.haysom@appledorerg.com.

APIs and new business models
In a keynote panel Beyond Connectivity – Redefining the Telco there was a lot of discussion about the opportunity from telco APIs. The discussion put the emphasis on global API standards, particularly CAMARA, and waiting for them to be confirmed by standards bodies.

Sustainability
It was pleasing to see that even in a fossil energy rich location, sustainability was important. In a Fireside Chat Towards Net Zero: How to accelerate sustainability efforts efficiently, Adnan Kashwani discussed e& approach to speeding up enabling net zero. There was also a well-deserved Network Sustainability Award winner for P.I. Works and Turkcell.

Conclusion

Futurenet MENA in Dubai was an interesting contrast to Futurenet in London. In London operators were actively discussing the lack of opportunity in 5G and the failure of the supposed use cases to increase business. Dubai by contrast, managed a whole morning on the future opportunities from 5G SA, 5G advanced, and many of the 5G use cases that had been dismissed in London.
MENA operators have an opportunity to learn from the failure of North American and European operators to monetize 5G and leapfrog them in gaining advantage from 5G technology investment. However, this is only by seeking to innovate beyond 5G technology and focus on use cases where they have clear business advantage such as specific geographic/demographic needs.
MENA operators may be better protected from the harsh commercial conditions of other telcos, with high levels of ARPU. However, digging under the veneer of the presentations on 5G at the show it was clear that the same issues of 5G monetization exist in MENA countries.

In Dubai, there was much less sense of collaboration between operators, other than the adoption of technical standards. Perhaps reflecting the fact that in MENA it’s other telcos that are still seen as the primary competition.

Futurenet World fills an important niche among the major telecommunications trade shows, with a more open agenda that stimulates debate and vision-building. This year’s Dubai event is hopefully the foundation for similar debate and vision in the MENA region.

Futurenet World in Dubai this May was a great place to get a different geographic perspective on telco. Appledore once again commends Giles Cummings and the FutureNetWorld team and acknowledges the support of host operator e&, and sponsors, led by Rakuten Symphony. The growing commercial support for this event is a testament to its quality and increasing relevance.

This feature is an edited version of a full research note with additional commentary, available by direct email to francis.haysom@appledorerg.com.

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