CxO Insight

Aligning strategy, operations and infrastructure is the secret of success

Tony Geheran, COO at TELUS, tells Annie Turner how the company is making innovative use of its assets in new domains, hitting its stride with GenAI and how it all started with a desire to improve the customers experience

Tony Geheran became Chief Operations Officer at global technology company, TELUS, in 2021, two decades after he joined the operator, moving from Cable & Wireless in Dublin, Ireland, to Vancouver, British Columbia. He has served in various senior roles, from chief customer officer to overseeing business transformation.

In such testing times for telecoms, what are Geheran’s biggest priorities? “First, are our services and technology creating value for our customers and opportunities for growth? Second, growth is not always easy to achieve, particularly in this economic climate… so how can we leverage technology to help give us operating margins that satisfy external stakeholders?

“Opportunities arise from pervasive 5G and our large, rapidly- growing fibre broadband footprint,” he says. TELUS’ approach to digitisation was based on three criteria: how to make customers’ lives easier; how best to enable the team; and how to simplify doing business with TELUS. Geheran describes this as, “Remodelling the business to be low touch, high efficiency and highly successful transactionally”.

Business within a business

He explains, “One of the catalysts for us to be able to do that more effectively was deciding to overbuild our copper infrastructure with fibre – a programme that really was ‘a business within the business’…This is a multi-year, multi-billion dollar build, so we didn’t want to wait until we could address the mass market, which is the traditional telco model of rolling out technology.”

Overall within its footprint, TELUS is beyond 70% penetration with its fibre overbuild, connecting more than three million homes and businesses across a geographically diverse, 2 million square kilometres.

“We had all the attributes in place, from the initial design engineering and the physical construction, to our installation and repair technicians installing the network at premises, to marketing and sales as we built. [We treated] every town, every city as a distinct project; every neighbourhood as an opportunity to market and sell directly…taking advantage of our presence to make people aware of the technology we’re bringing and sell them the technology and its benefits while we’re there,” Geheran says.

This has been hugely successful. “We designed the business of the future for us as a telco around putting a superhighway of fibre into the home and the possible services you can layer on top.” For example, TELUS is the biggest provider of home security systems and services in Canada. Geheran thinks the next big opportunity will be in managing smart home applications because currently they are collections of disparate, discrete solutions.

Different takes on network monetisation

This approach to infrastructure build is giving rise to other, diverse sources of revenue that are really sweating its assets. First, TELUS is carrying out what Geheran describes as “urban mining”, that is, reclaiming and recycling thousands of kilometres of copper cable in the local loop. This is “the greenest copper on the market,” he says, because it is not mined in the traditional way. Proceeds from the recycled metal are funding the reclamation as well as future upgrades to the fibre.

Second, is repurposing central office buildings (telephone exchanges) and their sites which are in the heart of every town, city and province where TELUS operates. The offices are, or will become, largely redundant as the copper loop disappears and will be redeveloped by TELUS with partners to provide affordable housing. The proposition is that property developers share the building costs and their expertise, and 18 months to two years after the projects are completed, TELUS “has the right of first refusal; we buy them out, then we own the asset in its entirety,” Geheran says.

Another revenue stream arising from existing assets was announced last June. TELUS is partnering with Australian electric vehicle (EV) charging company, JOLT, to install stations across Canada, helping drive the adoption of EVs and support the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And to add to its green credentials, TELUS operates solar and wind farms in Alberta which offsets its carbon footprint where it does not have access to those technologies. It aims to be carbon neutral by 2025.

Smart services at the edge

Thirdly, as Geheran notes, “The old central offices are still an edge point for our fibre connections and for our 5G network – very low latency runs into the heart of the community and we see that it’s going to be a significant benefit.” In particular, TELUS is thinking about smart city applications such as autonomous vehicles and smart traffic sensors and management.

He says, “How the Internet of Things and smart cities transform the way we interact with our communities [presents] a huge opportunity”. It is also another area in which AI will have a foundational role.

Leveraging AI

TELUS was an early and innovative adopter of AI, as this interview from 2021 with its long-serving former CTO Ibrahim Gedeon illustrates. Geheran states, “The traditional sort of supervised AI – standard machine learning and robotic process automation – provided point solutions for a part of a repetitive process that stayed the same. Supervised AI is great for things that are done over and over – as long as you’re managing and understanding when changes might occur, which requires code. It works fine and we’ll continue to use it.”

However, as he says, “Generative AI is taking knowledge sources, historical data, and learning the nuances of what is happening in the process, or in the network, with each iteration. This is important amid many thousands of network alarms, when it seems a particular fault recurs although it might have different root causes.”

According to Geheran, “GenAI holds the promise of better diagnostics and shorter time to fix because of it being able to sift and interpret the vast amounts of data…there are many internal applications we’re focused on with AI capabilities.”

For instance, GenAI has the potential to make the network greener, such as powering down elements when they are idling. but stresses, “The critical thing is that bringing them back up can be a point of failure so you need reliability assurance to do that without creating any issues.”

Looking after the humans

Beyond the technical advantages, TELUS is building trust with its customers and team members as a leader in responsible AI, an extension of the company’s long-standing commitment to social purpose.

Geheran says,We’re very conscious that as we automate and bring massive machine learning to bear, we need to look at what the impact is on the business and the people within the business. We continually foster a culture of learning and experimentation, encouraging team members to be more curious and open to change and experiment with new tools and technology.”

TELUS set up a fast track Digital Developer programme in conjunction with a Canadian tech education company to offer employees whose jobs were being automated a new career path and to gain the skills the operator needs. Geheran says, “The first cohort graduated last year with an industry-recognised qualification and over 30 graduates were hired as junior developers”.

Taming the data dragon

Despite telcos talking about gaining insights from Big Data for a decade or more, it’s still slow going. Geheran explains, “We’ve set up a team that [brings the data together] now, so our data is an aggregate of all the data sources. We cleanse it to make it into a usable data repository that is accessible within the organisation so that the business can gain better insights from the transactional data that’s generated.”

He continues, “I would say we’re still at maybe a two instead of an eight out of 10, in terms of the journey of really useful monetisation of the insights from that data, but we’re starting to see where the opportunity paths are, and where we can create value.

“Critically, with data and data privacy, you’ve got to be very clear about the purpose you want to use the data for, the integrity of the data and [its] anonymisation. We’re formulating our business process and contracts so that we get express consent.”

Geheran believes that if people understand they are giving permission for a specific use of particular data, not carte blanche, they are far more likely to at least consider it and open the way, finally, to unlocking customers’ data for innovation that benefits all – the business and its customers.