Editorial, Interview

‘So what’ and disaggregation spell success in Coordination Age

BT Group’s Gabriela Styf Sjöman talks to Contributing Editor Annie Turner about her approach to harnessing technology and why network readiness is all. 

Gabriela Styf Sjöman joined BT Group as Managing Director, Research and Networks Strategy, in June 2023. Previously she was Group Chief Strategy Officer at Nokia and has held senior roles at Telia, TIM and Ericsson as well as sitting on various boards as a non-executive director.

How does Styf Sjöman sum up her role? “To create an awareness and influence about the opportunities of new technology,” but, she stresses, always concentrating on the “So what?”. In other words, what technology can do, not for its own sake.

She explains, “It’s always technology that has driven new innovation…for instance, a big shift was the separation between consumer service and network that came through IP. Then we were all taken by surprise to have all these services going over the top. We didn’t ask ourselves, ‘So what?’ about IP.”

Styf Sjöman firmly believes that, “If we really want to understand that ‘So what?’ in society and [for] societal growth, economic growth, then we need to have that multi-disciplinary understanding”. Her education and career are multi-disciplinary.  She originally studied power engineering before going into telecoms, with her first job at Ericsson. Among other things, she has studied law and political science, and holds both an MBA and MA in international affairs with a specialism in cybersecurity.

Multi-disciplinary doesn’t mean lacking clarity: “I’ve led R&D before, overseen a lot of innovation. I always say, you are either looking to make money or save it. There’s nothing in between. You must be able to explain your value proposition to your customer,” she says.

The next big step

She sees disaggregation as the next big network evolution. “Cloudification of the network is not only for optimisation and to reach hyperscale economics. Disaggregation is opening value chains. That’s why we see new, different players coming into connectivity and what the full stack of an integrated telco used to offer. We have new players on services, on the platform level and in infrastructure – netcos and towercos,” Styf Sjöman says.

She adds, “APIs are a big ‘So what?’ – abstracting network capabilities and opening them to developers and customers – and becoming AI-driven for self-optimisation, etc. All of this is transforming the network to become a platform that enables product innovation on top of it and we need to treat it as such.

“We should be asking ourselves, what does this all mean for the role of the network? What does the network become? In my eyes, the network becomes a production environment – a programmable network that enables the fast development, introduction and operation of new products, either for myself or the ecosystem. I open up my network to monetise the ecosystem and unleash new product innovation.”

Too slow, too expensive

Styf Sjöman says she only understood why telcos have so few products after she went to work for one. She discovered it cost perhaps tens of millions of pounds and took two years to ready the network and associated IT for one new product and its launch. She says, “Now we’re creating all these disaggregated, more agile, faster networks. The networks must serve product innovation, allowing me to develop and introduce even remove applications at a much faster pace to create that long tail of applications.”

She describes the industry as coming to the end of the Information Age, in which people and things are connected to share information, and the beginning of the Coordination Age. Here “collaboration and coordination are what matters, so everything we connect is coordinated: AI, machine learning and analytics are for actionability.”

Characteristically she asks, “What’s the role of the telco?”. Clearly, connectivity is the base for it all, but “what are the new capabilities I need? What are those business models?”.

She notes the shortcomings of received wisdom. For instance, while everybody talks about the need for software skills, Styf Sjöman thinks software architecture is the critical issue. She notes, “Increasingly we buy everything off the shelf but as we move towards programmable networks, parts of the network will be unique to specific telcos. We will need our own system integration and development capabilities.

“It’s not only developing a few lines of code…You need to know how to architect a product, how to develop and maintain it, and to know how to do the overall product management. It’s about new functional skills. This is usually described as the journey from telco to techco.”

An eye on the horizon

Then there’s the importance of keeping an eye on the horizon. For example, BT Research is working to understand the impact quantum computing will have on quantum networks. Styf Sjöman states, “A quantum computer will be able to decrypt any cryptography in milliseconds and it will come. Our research has been around quantum secure communications, such as quantum key distribution.”

The idea is to understand how the nature of quantum can also be used to protect different type of keys and cryptography. BT (working with Toshiba) has scored a world first in quantum secure communications, having launched a trial commercial quantum secured metro network in London. EY was the first customer to join the network, followed by HSBC which has become the first bank to pioneer quantum protection for AI-powered foreign exchange trading, using the network.

No wonder Styf Sjöman thinks we’ve only glimpsed the tip of the iceberg regarding use cases in the imminent Coordination Age. They will be powered by automation, from autonomous manufacturing to using drones for public safety, in a remote health care and much more. Their common denominator is that they will require an intent-based network.

Intent runs deep on automation and AI

She defines this as a network that is service- and device-aware that is on-demand with seamless access regardless of access technology. “So everything is around very deep AI that scales in [step] with self-optimised networks,” Styf Sjöman explains. “There will be an absolutely massive shift in how we operate the networks and assurance in future. We will also require skills, process redesign and automation of those processes.”

She says at the moment, telcos are using AI within domains and on a component level, rather than end to end. She emphasises that in future, “If the network is ‘going to serve’, there will not be ‘a killer service’, but thousands and thousands of applications. Some will continue over the top, others will be net-compute applications.”

They will require a much higher level of interdependency between the consumers’ cloud-native applications and the network application. This means seamless optimisation and management from the core network all the way to the radio. Furthermore, the thousands of net-compute apps will require network slices.

Styf Sjöman asks, “How are you going to get economics out of that? You need an AI-driven network that understands the service and the device to decide which is the optimal performance to deliver the best customer experience. So where do I put my workloads? Which infrastructure do I use to deliver that performance and the best economics, sustainability and energy consumption? That’s that level of AI you need.”

How’s it going?

How much of this is theory and how much actual? “We’re progressing a lot at BT, such as our global fabric, the product that we launched for BT Business [see this recent interview with CTO of BT Business, Colin Bannon]. It is like the first generation of Network-as-a-Service [NaaS]. It allows BT’s customers to request connectivity like Ethernet links and broadband access on-demand, leveraging the benefits of virtualisation to instantiate and activate network functions on-demand.

“The next step is AI-driven self-optimisation for an intent-based network. Nobody has it yet but that must be the objective and disaggregation is key.”

Styf Sjöman says making the most of those opportunities will demand far more concentration on product innovation: “We often introduce innovative network technology, but mostly use it to sell the very same products. This needs to change. We need more focus on exploring how we monetise the innovation to find new business models, in collaboration with our customers and partners.”

She notes, “Customers don’t wake up and say, ‘I want a private network’ or ‘a 5G slice’. They’re trying to solve for an outcome, to optimise their business. They are thinking of B2B2X business. They don’t only want to use our network for their digitalisation but also to build on top of our networks to offer products to their customers.”

Integration and differentiation

She concludes, “We have only seen the tip of the iceberg of the digital services that will underpin societal and economic growth in the UK. Many of these services will remain over-the-top and be network agnostic. But there will be a set of services that are so critical that they will require the best a carrier grade network has to offer in terms of, for instance, security, speed, latency and jitter – and delivered as a cloud delivery model.

“To be integral as an enabler in the Coordination Age value chain, the network must be intent-driven, self-optimised, disaggregated, and open. And this is exactly what our refreshed BT network vision is about.”