Accessibility and Inclusion: a perspective from Tareq Amin of Rakuten Mobile

We were delighted to welcome Tareq Amin, CEO of Rakuten Mobile and Rakuten Symphony to Inclusively in December. Tareq has pioneered the Rakuten Mobile business, embracing a more open network and software environment and building a mobile operator from scratch. You can see the full discussion between the three of us Senza Fili.  It is well worth a watch but here are the highlights.

Tareq expressed his support for having a forum such as this to raise awareness of the inclusion topic. It is a subject close to his heart as he went through major challenges as an outsider when moving to the US as a young man, studying and starting work. His epiphany was realising what he can learn from other people’s journeys so conversations and engagement around diversity are an important part of his ethos.

What does an inclusive future look like?

A world in which everything is accessible to anyone regardless of gender, culture, nationality or disability. Feeling included is such an important factor for everyone. Reasons for feeling excluded can vary dramatically, but it’s particularly easy to do in a technology-centric industry like ours.

How do we make the individual feel included?

Rather than thinking from the point of view of individual minor excluded groups, we need to think of inclusion holistically. “We have a long, long way to go.”

“Customer experience today in the telecoms world is an empirical percentage point” rather than an interaction with an individual human being. The goal is to know who we are dealing with whether through a chatbot, contact centre, email or in person.

On what basis are people excluded today?

The main ones are disability, age and technological skills. Being able to interact with our industry without sight, hearing, physical dexterity, or technical know-how poses different problems across all channels of interaction. The aging population, such as that in Japan, is a serious topic. For example, the complex sea of apps on mobile devices today makes life easier for many, but these solutions may leave the less technologically able behind.

Tailoring our products to meet the needs of each individual is a great goal, but we are still some ways off now. AI is helping enormously. Voice AI especially is a key pillar of what Rakuten is doing. “While we are obsessed with touching the device” – speaking to it has got to be an easier interface.

Whilst this option opens up access for a large group, it also excludes people with speech impairment. But, there is a lot of work being done in this area – for example, take a lot at this initiative with cross-industry support from Amazon, Apple, Google, Meta, and Microsoft.

Everyone feeling included – or more importantly not feeling excluded – should be the goal for our industry. “Awareness of our differences is as important as the common ground we share.”

For Tareq, setting the percentage of employees with disabilities, ethnic, gender, is not the issue. These factors are secondary compared to being a productive member of staff!

How much does software change the game?

“There are some big technology inflection points coming up.” The software world should be a massive agent for change for the world of inclusion. We don’t need to wait for the Metaverse nor 6G.

The key for Tareq is that every business leader should understand how important inclusion and diversity are on so many levels. The inclusive vision is now shared with the team and Rakuten has put structured awareness training into practice across the company. However, having enough representation of all groups both inside and outside the organisation is really the only way to drive the business inclusively.

Rakuten Group (which incorporates all Rakuten companies) created a subsidiary called Rakuten Socio to help promote disability and other employment diversity along with skilling and training. This is also part of meeting the obligation of companies in Japan.  For instance, Tareq questions how we can bring this market into the 21st century and what are the needs? For example, is it a simplified app, interface or limited product set?

Rakuten provides a service called Rakuten Senior specifically for senior citizens, and team members must develop a deep understanding of how the elderly behave and think. One approach may be to use the flexibility in the Android operating system to build a smartphone more akin to the old styles that the older aged market identify with. “Bring back the flip phone!”

Customer support and channels of interaction

Tareq acknowledges that the early customer support provided by Rakuten Mobile required improvement, as operators spent lots of time on voice calls, often without resolution. It occurred to Tareq early on that a fresh approach was needed. Context and awareness of the contact just wasn’t available. He sees Voice AI as one of the key pillars of a solution to make interactions accurate and efficient.

Rakuten has developed its Customer DNA across the broader organisation’s vast ecosystem of services. The AI is gradually being trained to understand the individual and their requirements. The anonymized data within this DNA includes customer information, gained with their approval, to help shape the service. “It’s a smart characterisation of the customer.”

The Metaverse

Tareq is excited by the possibilities that the Metaverse will bring but acknowledges that today’s VR headsets are some way behind requirements. However, the world of hybrid working and creating a fully immersive working environment away from the office is more easily achieved. Also, healthcare offers some amazing opportunities to blend the physical and virtual worlds.

One intriguing aspect of the future is how can we learn from using the Metaverse to model how people with different disabilities ‘see’ the world and interact with it. Digital twinning will be the ultimate simulation of real life!

Kevin Lee: Helping BT Group build towards a more Inclusive future

Kevin Lee, Chief Digital Officer, Consumer at BT, joined us on #Inclusively to talk about how the British telecoms company is building towards a more inclusive future. This is a short summary of a very wide-ranging discussion. The full video of the interview can be seen here.  

Kevin’s exposure to the Inclusion topic goes back 20 years under previous roles including eBay and Samsung. He found himself drawn into the opportunity and its possibilities and that lead him to championing it within the BT Consumer organisation.  Kevin’s role is to ensure that all the products and services built under BT, EE and PlusNet brands are open and available to everyone, especially those who fall into those demographics which may have been excluded in the past.   

It is within the power of the organisation to build products so everyone can consume them. Most importantly, this agenda is now very visible in the senior management team at BT Group and in the Board, where it is strongly supported by a Non-Executive Director who is a wheelchair user. 

Throughout the organisation the issue is being identified as an important pillar of the business.

  • Inside BT Group, the Able2 network represents all employees who identify as being disabled and is building up knowledge across different disabilities and helping create more work opportunities
  • In retail outlets, inclusive design, including hearing loops and wheelchair access are always included in the physical shopping environment.  And, simple adjustments such as extending appointments from 15 minutes to an hour can really help excluded groups.
  • Inclusion is also part of training for all those in customer service.  

BT Group’s tagline is Connect for Good. The elevation of inclusive design and building Digital Accessibility into all products and services is absolutely at the heart of that mission. BT Group want to embrace the abilities of all people and connect them in the best possible way for their own, business and societal benefits. Giving them access to all of the services available in a digital ecosystem will only improve everyone’s prospects.

Inside BT Group this also has a major impact, empowering all people, whatever disability, to be part of the decision-making process. In this way, products and services as well as the customer experience journey, are informed by all possible user types rather than the more restricted influences of the past. This approach to diversity is reflected in its workforce currently showing 34.9% female representation globally, 11.9% ethnic representation in the UK and disabled people representing 6.3% overall.

Part of Kevin’s philosophy is that all users run into problems at some time. This could be a login issue, wrong password, attempting to buy something, problem with a device or a setting on a router. Thinking about the ‘edge’ case where someone is unhappy, and designing around that will help everyone receive a cleaner, frictionless service. Identifying these use cases will benefit everyone ultimately. Design for the ’Happy Cases’ is easy. Designing to gradually rule out the ‘Unhappy Cases’ takes a lot more thinking and design up front but will ultimately make everyone’s life a lot simpler. This contrasts with previous approaches of designing add-ons for different groups such as the elderly and different disabled groups.

Traditionally, product design tends to be based around the individual’s own experience and it is difficult to think as a disabled person, vision impaired or cognitively impaired person. One of the easiest ways to build this broader thinking into the business is to get the business leaders to understand that there is an ROI in bringing people formerly excluded groups into the marketplace. Obviously, revenue is attached to these groups and opening up access to connected services can be life changing. This usually works like a charm because it has revenue uplift attached to it and usually improves NPS and other metrics.

Kevin has certainly used exercises like asking people to ‘literally close their eyes’ and try to experience a product or service in the way a disabled person would. People soon realise they have no idea where to tap, no spatial awareness and a feeling of frustration about getting relatively simple things done. And the same is possible for the hearing impaired or those with physical restrictions. This can be extremely powerful.

 This is a ‘common sense’ approach to walking in the shoes of different user groups.

So, common sense, plus international standards for Digital Accessibility and inclusive design will make everyone’s lives easier.

The design process also means that it is aimed at problem solving. Once a problem is solved it is logged and available to all. Hence, building up a more inclusive set of services. This is, of course, aided by a more software-centric environment where the former hardware-centric services would be much more expensive, time consuming and difficult to adapt.

Kevin sees a lot of emerging technologies helping this move to a more inclusive future. This includes device specific initiatives in IOS and Android, but also in the broader compute, consumer electronics and applications environments. Artificial Intelligence based service today, especially Generative AI have enormous potential to change the inclusion landscape.

In Kevin’s mind, this all-embracing approach will result in a greater return for the business and society. It is a mindset change for the business and results in a richer cultural environment to work in and ‘happier’ customers.

Is the metaverse a driver of real change for People With Disabilities?

It was my pleasure to be on stage with Dr Mike Short at the MEF event in London this month.

Mike’s history working in the telecoms industry with BT, Cellnet, O2 and Telefonica has now been complemented by his five years as Chief Scientific Advisor at the Department of International Trade in the UK. We discussed the Metaverse and how it might help People With Disability (PWD).

Some highlights of the interaction were:

  • People want to understand the impact on their business, the ability to trade internationally and not to be left behind.
  • In the UK there are over 300 incubators and accelerators looking at innovation, and new opportunities such as WEB 3.0 and the Metaverse. A major portion of this is from the universities but multi-national Corporations are also heavily involved.
  • Web 3.0 focuses on the 3-dimensional world which is by definition, more visual and indeed more international. And, of course, if this is to be accessible to and inclusive for everyone, the hooks need to be built in to make it so from day one.
  • Sport and entertainment are already sharing 3D graphics as part of their shift in service. This is B2B for now but will inevitably move to B2C.
  • Holograms and 3D imaging exist now and are leading to scale up solutions and 3D collaboration in the future. But, once again, very visual and not designed inclusively.
  • Does the Metaverse give us the opportunity to build a digital twin of life itself?
  • XR is being used today to visualise what might be inside a building during an emergency situation.
  • Extending that to model how someone with a disability interacts with their environment presents some major advancements in the whole digital interaction world.
  • As a blind person, will my digital twin be able to see? Can that ‘seeing’ digital twin feed information back to me in the real world about the layout of a room, where the door is to the restaurant or what facial expression Mike has while I am asking him a question?
  • As we develop the Metaverse in its many manifestations, we have the option to allow individuals to interact in the ways they prefer whilst addressing specific restrictions.
  • So gesturing, shouting, and ultimately brain wave interpretation can all act as reasonable interaction channels with the Metaverse.
  • Tracking and logging all these interactions will also form a critical part of the Metaverse. Imagine all of the potential information that flows off a patient getting a remote check up from their doctor. Multiple types of data flow, multiple channels through which they run and AI playing an interpretive role at various points.
  • The World Cup also gives us a hint of what is to come. The stadia are full of data and analysis about players and actions. Being able to get your preferred data set and watch your preferred player on your local screen is a step towards the Metaverse.

The goal of miniaturising VR headsets down to a sensible pair of glasses also runs in parallel with work being done in the vision impaired and cognitively impaired worlds. So then we can see a convergence between formerly very isolated disability related research and that of the mainstream consumer electronics worlds.

This will only benefit everyone in the long run through economies of scale and development being spread throughout the world.

We should emphasise that we are by no means at the end of the journey. A lot of great progress has been made within individual sectors such as vision and hearing impaired. Mobility is somewhat more fragmented but the growth in power and accessibility of smart phones in particular, complemented by smart speakers and wearables is giving us optimism that it will accelerate and bring many more opportunities for all. And, this isn’t just a Social Responsibility issue. Bringing the excluded parties into the market offers a revenue opportunity for those embracing inclusion.

The call to arms for everyone is simple: building an inclusive future is everyone’s responsibility. We are very lucky in the technology sector as it shifts to be more software-centric, that we can build inclusion in from scratch.

So now is your chance to go out and understand how the Metaverse will change business and society and be sure to push the message of Inclusion.

In the meantime, you could take a break and listen/watch the full session from the event!

Getting telecoms to think Inclusively

The Inclusively webinar came about through many and varied discussions with @monicapaolini after recognising a major potential shift in how the industry needs to approach designing and implementing its products and services to include everyone beyond the so-called mainstream. The inaugural webinar on October 13th was aimed at getting the issue out there for everyone to discuss, interpret and agree on the best way forward.

So what are we talking about? Well, it started as Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), has gone through the financial reporting mechanisms of Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) and comes to life in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). And, in fact, is part of the broader Sustainability story bringing services to everyone in the economy and bringing benefits to individuals, business and society.

In the past every excluded group had its own set of technologies and services, often delivered through the third sector which resulted in a very fragmented market. Technological help, for people like me with vision impairment, was expensive and a clunky add-on to mainstream technology. What has changed is the advent of common platforms for consuming and interacting: the PC/laptop, smartphones, and smart speakers. And, as virtual reality headsets get reduced to mere glasses, accompanied by other wearables, these too will add to the inclusive experience.

Add to these different disabled groups; people in the ‘Silver Market’, those not yet connected to the Internet (still counted in their billions) and those not educated around the benefits of being connected, and we have a clearer picture of the excluded markets we need to include in future designs.

Think of any content that you create or consume and there will be an inclusive design element. The move to touch screen interfaces on smartphones initially filled me with trepidation, and yet Apple’s Voiceover and Google’s Talkback now deliver excellent interactions for vision impaired people. Haptic feedback and magnification provide additional help and access to signing and captioning brings the hearing impaired into the mix. The smart speaker also provides a whole new stream of activities to new audiences.

Standards exists in the form of W3C and WCAG to build consistently accessible web content. Also, device manufacturers like Apple and Google provide App design guidelines with accessibility included. Extending the understanding of the power of inclusive design to all those creating code, applications and content will bring benefits to literally everyone.

All these technical solutions combine to mimic the different ways in which we communicate. As humans, we have gone from grunting and gestures through the creation of alphabets and writing, to the digital era of computers and are now going out the other end and using gestures, pictures, and even haptic feedback to create human-like interactions. What this means is that we need to take a more holistic view when designing the interfaces, systems, web sites, applications and devices that will be used to bring everyone into the digital marketplace.

In addition, more diverse employment opportunities can be created by having these more inclusively designed systems and processes within our organisations. For example, the many channels open to customers to interact with a telecoms player, could also be supported by people with a very diverse set of skills or impairments for that matter. Furthermore, content can be rendered in the most appropriate format for the individual. For me, video is no longer an option, but audio described soundtracks of films and TV programmes are a real joy.

And, as this all comes together, and everything gets connected and synchronised, we enter the era of the Metaverse. This raises so many questions about inclusion. The myth that everyone and everything is connected on the same level should be dispelled. The gaming world today talks about people potentially participating via fully immersive headsets, video links and even just audio. In effect, this mimics the real world of media today. The important thing is that all channels are interchangeable, and the best possible experience can be delivered through whichever channel is used. This fits in well with our Inclusively philosophy of designing for everyone and every eventuality. Just to be clear, designing for these so-called peripheral cases, also results in a cleaner and simpler interface for those previously considered as the ‘normal target market’.

So, our webinar was a scene setter. The school of Inclusive Design has rarely, if ever, been applied to the telecoms industry. But, as connectivity becomes a critical support element in the broader digital ecosystem and economy, we want to bring all stakeholders to the table to share their perspectives as to how they are building inclusion. By having guests explain their different positions in subsequent episodes of Inclusively, our aim is to educate the industry as to what can be done to build future inclusion, remove barriers to entry for those currently excluded and bring new revenue into the telecoms industry. After all, everyone will pay for their services whether they are joining for just audio, data, video or fully immersive Metaverse experiences.

Watch the webinar recording or receive the transcript here.

Another Edge for you to think about: PWD and Omnichannel lessons for the mainstream

Building on the report I wrote earlier in the year and the webinar we ran on People With Disability (PWD) in July, MEF CONNECTS Omnichannel presented an opportunity to take the discussion to another level.

We got a lot of enthusiastic interest from telcos and suppliers alike but only Google stepped up to join me on stage to discuss the topic. Christopher Patnoe has recently relocated to London from his California role of heading up accessibility. The move is intended to broaden Google’s understanding of how accessibility is shaping up in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Watch the Panel in full

Different communication channels supporting all customers have become known as ‘omnichannel’ by the telecoms and associated industries. Rather than thinking about it from the technology perspective, the focus of our fireside chat was to shift the emphasis to the people concerned and what ‘intent’ is behind the interactions i.e. what the customer is trying to achieve.

This helps put omnichannel into a very clear context when it comes to PWDs. Some channels are cut off permanently.  So for instance if someone is hearing or vision impaired or has motor or cognitive issues, forcing them to go to the telco’s preferred digital channel may not be optimum. Language is another key differentiator and ‘sign language’ (in its many forms) should be considered alongside all the usual suspects to make the experience as clean and fruitful as possible. In fact, thinking about the full spectrum of where and when and how people interact with your organisation (or your customer’s organisation), helps build a more inclusive future for all.

Hence it is important to consider how the physical retail outlet is set up, what skills are available through people as well as systems and the specialist knowledge in contact centres with people who are trained around PWDs’ requirements.  Identification is needed of the PWD and any specialist needs through systems (within the rules of GDPR, of course). Leveraging Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to bring as much knowledge as possible into the system will only enhance the experience.

The main lesson learned from the research and continued interaction with the industry and the community of PWDs is to be absolutely sure to build accessibility into the design and revision process from scratch. Employing PWDs in all areas of the business will enrich the culture of your organisation as well as bring that knowledge into the way you build an experience for everyone.

Having said it shouldn’t start with the technology as in previous generations, the technology is there to build a fantastically rich experience for PWDs and indeed everyone. This now runs the full gamut from the chips at the heart of smart devices, through to allowing hopping and translating between messaging and interaction channels, out into the cloud and access to the unbelievable wealth of information available to support everyone’s lives. What is key is that we don’t get sucked down into thinking about one technology, one disability or one application.

Thinking about this holistically will help all parties build more effective, simpler but richer applications and experiences for everyone. I have a mantra that this new design paradigm actually benefits everyone.

As a blind person I dream of the disappearance of clunky cluttered web sites, mobile apps that leave my head spinning and searches that take me down endless rabbit holes out there in the Ether. Build accessibility into your processes from the get-go and you will find your business truly delivering an excellent experience to customers across all channels.

We have after all been talking about ‘personalisation’ of services for decades. This is the ultimate customisation of immersive services to enhance everybody’s lives. And finally, think of all of the touch points for the individual: mobile device, smart speaker, television, laptop and doubtless robots of many types in the future – all will come with their omnichannel opportunities. Design transcends the device, the operating system, the service and the content.

As a final thought, Christopher also quoted Rama Gheerawo, Director of the Helen Hamlyn Centre at the Royal College of Art who said: “Designing for the edges gives you the centre for free”. This, coming from the world of design is a reminder that our technology lens on life needs to be set in a broader context. And, designing for those on the ‘edge’  with peripheral requirements to the norm will also include the mainstream customer for free. You can see one of Rama’s presentations here.

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Including the visually impaired in smart cities – a personal view

As a blind person, there is nothing more frustrating than standing at a bus stop in my native London and have a stream of double-deckers sail by without knowing whether one was mine.

As a telecoms analyst of some 30 years, I am equally frustrated that the technology is out there to give me the information but it is neither integrated nor accessible. So, what’s missing and how close are we to making smart services in the city accessible to all?

My framework for thinking about this is a series of concentric circles with the individual at the centre with rings of household, local neighbourhood, society and business surrounding them (see Figure 1).

living in an increasingly digital environment illustration

Figure 1: Living in an increasingly digital environment

Let the data flow

The digitization of mapping information has revolutionized navigation. However, putting all information relating to a city environment into a single system is unlikely given political structures. That said, some, like New York have appointed a head of accessible integrated transport for the first time. And an open data approach by the city authorities, such as that by Transport for London, allows third parties to integrate data into appropriate applications. Moving around the city is therefore facilitated by information sources about transport options, shops, civil facilities as well as those essential media and entertainment outlets. Many of these have been isolated systems in the past.

“The smartphone features to serve as a proxy for senses that might be denied to the individual”

5G represents not only an opportunity to provide complementary location input but also the range of connection possibilities in terms of bandwidth and latency. It will support all of the smartphone features to serve as a proxy for senses that might be denied to the individual: the cameras become the eyes, the microphone the ears and the processor can help with cognitive issues. Add to this a range of wearables to act as extra sensors for the device and we have the basis of embedding the individual at the heart of the digital environment.

Recent events have brought the focus onto how we help people at home – both from a medical as well as a remote working angle. Once working patterns settle down post-Covid, the emphasis will be more on health and social care. 5G can act as the facilitator for two-way interaction with individuals and, of course, the development of robotic technology can increasingly offer support in the home.

“Many of those digitally excluded are disabled or fall into the higher age category”

We’re generally more comfortable with the use of video to interact with the healthcare system at all levels. Secure, reliable affordable communications in every household will be a major benefit of 5G deployment. However additional efforts are still needed to bring connectivity to every member of society. Not surprisingly, many of those digitally excluded are disabled or fall into the higher age category.

This raises the question of where information flows. The reality will be multiple data sources from the individual. Some will go back to the individual, some to public authorities, some to carers and families, some to medical staff and doubtless others. Since 5G offers us the possibility of segmentation of the full network with dedicated resources, this would be an ideal use of 5G slicing to deliver specific services. For example, many elderly people fail to wear their emergency response devices, so falls and illness can go undetected for significant periods of time. Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if the house could monitor the activity of that individual: switching off the kettle, moving around the household, taking medication? Perhaps a little too intrusive for some, but potentially lifesaving for many.

A smarter interface

One of my favourite developments in recent years is the smart speaker. Some have an issue with their intrusiveness but as a blind person, they help me manage online shopping, the household lighting and heating as well as, and most importantly, giving me access to sports radio and music. Designed for the masses, they actually help various categories of disabled people as well as those with more limited digital skills.

The interface is, of course, absolutely key. With the smart speaker, it is easy to ask about the weather, call a taxi, find out when the refuse is being collected, shop online, find out which doctor is on call or ask for something to cheer you up. While enormous strides have been made in making mobile phone and computer interfaces more accessible, giving people a choice of how they interact with all of these applications is vital.

“Application must be designed and developed for inclusion from the outset”

Application must be designed and developed for inclusion from the outset. Any attempt to bolt on an accessibility facility after the fact rarely succeeds. Having inclusivity at the heart of all application iterations is also central to keeping everyone connected. There is nothing more frustrating than accessing an application, for example, for an airline, that was previously accessible to find a new version just blurts out ‘button, button, button’ as I scroll across the screen instead of telling me when and where my next trip is going to be.

Figure 2: The city that understands my needs

blind persons perspective

So, rather than the frustrating experience at the bus stop, in the future my device will give me the options of how best to get to my destination by public transport and perhaps even the option of an autonomous taxi picking me up and dropping me off at the right place. If I were a wheelchair user, it could also drop me at the ramp accessible door. Furthermore, once inside a building, my navigation application will tap into the smart building systems and guide me to the appropriate room. Perhaps it’s a stretch for an espresso and almond croissant to be waiting for me when I get there, but this emphasises the benefits of providing access to all available information and having it fed into an accessible system (see Figure 2).

The beauty of this is that simply designed, data-rich environments will benefit everyone. And, as we bridge the digital divide and bring everyone into the fold, the cost of running services in a city will decrease. In effect, this is a marriage of the outside-in and inside-out approach. The city and its services digitise their services and the individual benefits from digital services and connected devices.

Finally, with 5G being deployed on a national basis, this thinking does not need to be restricted to big city dwellers. In the future, towns and rural communities will have equal access to connectivity and integration of all local data and services – literally making everyone’s lives easier.

What is needed to make this scenario a reality? Quite simply, ubiquitous high-quality connectivity from the telecoms industry combined with design and integrated data management and joined up thinking from the relevant authorities, to make all services accessible to the whole community. The result? A city built for the needs of everyone.

Please note: This article was originally published by

The Hidden Segment: The World’s Disabled Billion

Available to download now, is my recent report for the Mobile Ecosystem Forum revisiting the business opportunity for the telecoms industry of addressing the Billion People with Disabilities (PWDs) .Here is the opening extract:

“The image the mobile industry projects is one of increasingly sophisticated gadgets and ever more impressive networks to support our personal and business lives. Rarely did the issue of People with Disabilities (PWDs) come into the discussion. Individual disabilities were addressed in a narrow world of charitable organisations and special technology assistance. Because of this, the PWD segment was never considered despite comprising of over a billion people!

And, from the mobile industry perspective, that billion can be addressed to a large extent via the common platform of the mobile phone and its accessories.

The billion PWDs represent around $4 Trillion of economic spending power. During our lives we will encounter people with different disabilities whether they’re part of our families, in our community or at work. From a business perspective, understanding how to interact with the different sub-groups is an important part of bringing PWDs into the digital marketplace.”

Download the full report here.

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Education Cuts Both Ways When It Comes to 5G and The Enterprise

Connectivity in the enterprise world used to be about connecting buildings and people. The advent of 5G raises the game to encapsulate every moving and fixed asset in the business. The question is how to best connect those assets and how to leverage that connectedness as part of the business flow. 5G, for the first time, brings a deterministic flavour to the connectivity of these contributing components. It also brings more accurate location tracking and high definition video to be considered throughout an organisation. Furthermore, through ‘slicing’, it brings dedicated network service to discrete elements of the business. This is not to mention the higher capacity and lower latency that often get the headlines when discussing 5G in consumer and business contexts.

From the business perspective, every flow of information contributing to the way the business works internally and externally can be connected. The challenge for the business leaders (right from the top) is to identify these flows and to see how being connected would improve individual areas as well as the benefits of linking formerly separate aspects. On one level, putting connectivity into smaller and smaller devices is getting easier. The creation of the eSIM , with no physical element to embed, makes the smaller sensor elements more inclusive. The range of ‘things’ that can potentially be connected is dramatic; from a seismic sensor plugged into a mine wall to a major piece of industrial equipment costing millions. Having them connected allows cleaner and frictionless flow of information to support the business. In the mining example, it allows tracking seismic activity as a background function whilst also controlling the expensive vehicles that trundle around mining locations. Both have a realtime component. One seems more critical but, in fact, running those vehicles more efficiently, feeding back location, maintenance status, operational efficiency and even human behaviour can all contribute to a more efficient running of the business.  Take any business environment, and a similar range of data capture can be tracked to improve the use of physical and human assets.

In the past these elements would have been addressed by separate and often isolated technologies. Different networks for different aspects of the business from TETRA and WiFi to good old fashioned wiring. All of these come with individual applications for their areas and their own life cycles. The arrival of private mobile networks and the availability of spectrum for this purpose is the real game changer. The business can, for the first time, consider using cellular as the means of bringing it all together. This is easier where spectrum has been allocated for this specific purpose, such as in Germany, but it can also be addressed in conjunction with the mobile operators. The difference is that each piece being connected does not require a separate subscription. The business invests in its 5G private network and essentially controls the flow of everything within the factory, campus, retail environment and office. Resultant data is kept local where appropriate, and processed via suitable edge compute facilities. Where the public network has to be involved, then the route out to the cloud and a more centralised, global element can easily be incorporated.

5G moves the role of communications on from monitoring to controlling. Connected everything will come from improved operational efficiency of vehicles, reduced maintenance on equipment and more efficient distribution of product and service to customers. The calculation of how the cost of increased connectivity stacks up against the cost of investment is an individual company issue. What is clear is that a combination of 4G, 5G, WiFi, fibre, cloud and the Edge gives business the flexibility to deal with that data and turn it into executable information locally, nationally or globally, according to requirements.

Hence, where business formerly saw cellular as an expensive and inappropriate service for supporting business processes and analysis, it should now be seen as an enabler.  This is a way of dramatically improving the supply chain, improving information flow between suppliers, partners and customers and driving efficiency into all parts of the business. No doubt the Boards of enterprises will want to hear the business case. Identifying an anchor tenant for the private network is an obvious start point. However, once the investment is identified for that anchor tenant, the other elements contribute dramatically to the business. In the mining example, the payback on those massive trucks is justified through more efficient operations, uptime, proactive maintenance and potentially even removing the need for human operators. All the other elements of the mine are also connected through the private network, delivering everything from tracking the raw materials being extracted through to building management and the services employees require on site or remotely. In short, the networks allows for a holistic view of the business to be captured in real time. Yes, the analysis of that data is the vital element but it can be done remotely if required and all parameters adjusted accordingly.

Education cuts both ways. Gone are the days of business force-fitting their requirements into rigid telecoms service offerings. The services that CSPs now provide have to fit into and around the business processes that drive the particular enterprise. Connectivity is truly embedded into every aspect of the business, but today’s and tomorrow’s connectivity services must not constrain the way the business works. This requires a greater degree of industry knowledge and may require integration and management skills from a number of parties. As one Group CIO put it to me, we need ubiquitous, high quality connectivity in the context of “my” business. 

In short, the roles are reversed: businesses can now have an open-mind to think of every process within their organisations and expect connectivity to be built into the support infrastructure. The CSPs, and others building and managing private networks, can no longer expect the business to adapt to fit in with the constraints of technology, but need to build the different generations of connectivity into those business flows. This will require deeper sector knowledge from the suppliers and their ecosystem but it will embed them into these businesses for the long term.

What investment in 5G today means for the world tomorrow

As an industry, telecoms are obsessed with introducing the next generation.  None more so than 5G.  Not only has it naturally been promoted by the chipset and telecoms equipment manufacturers, but it has also been hijacked by the world’s politicians as an easy attention grabber during election campaigns. 

5G around the world

Given the universality of the marketing push, you would expect some consistency across the globe. In reality, the rollout of 5G is very patchy for a number of political, economic, and technical reasons.

  • China has the largest number of 5G users today. The industry has consolidated under the guidance of the government, and the push for 5G as an inherent part of the next wave of economic acceleration has helped drive adoption.
  • South Korea has also seen a major push from the government in conjunction with the main mobile operator, SK Telecom, all backed up by a strong play from Samsung.
  • The United States has seen major activity around claims of 5G firsts from the top three operators with the newly merged T-Mobile/Sprint providing an aggressive catalyst for the industry as the ‘uncarrier’. 
  • Europe has been somewhat slower in its push for 5G, perhaps primarily due to the success of 3G and 4G, and the regulatory environment resulting in higher competition. 
Source: GSMA Intelligence, December 2020 (U.S. and Europe data is based on estimates, as data has not been reported)

The inconsistency in figures being used does cause some problems when trying to analyze how quickly the 5G market is growing. Since the 5G label indicates innovation and faster speeds, we often hear of 5G-ready radio, 5G-capable handsets, and availability of 5G in certain locations – even though they may not actually be using a 5G service since there isn’t ubiquitous coverage yet.  

What should be noted is that every country and every telecom provider is different and should be taken on their individual merits. What is interesting, is that markets like China and the US have settled down around three major mobile service providers whilst the more fragmented European markets have not had the same success pushing 5G so early.  

5G hardware availability for consumers

The availability of 5G handsets has, of course, been a factor. Apple’s entry with its 5G devices in October 2020 has certainly given the market a welcomed boost. At the same time, the advent of lower-cost handsets has been most welcomed in markets where they can only dream of the sky-high ARPUs that US players enjoy. (A fellow analyst moving from the US to Europe recently reported he had reduced his communications bill by 90 percent!) While the top end of the market sees handsets pushing well past $1,000, any mass market is going to need the sub $200 handset to gain any sort of scale.

Talk of a 5G premium for consumer users was initially seen as inevitable. Early market activity has seen most of these premiums removed, hence raising questions about the profitability against the significant investment required to get 5G across the whole of a market. This could change if new use cases or “killer app” emerges that justifies a price premium.

5G opportunities for telcos: Network slicing and private networks

In some ways, the world’s telcos have been swept along in the 5G marketing momentum. The availability of spectrum and its auctions play a major gating role. Under previous generations, telcos were looking for data rates that would easily support requirements from business and consumer applications, which should be satisfied by the gigabit speeds promised by 5G. New low-latency offerings including ‘slicing’ will bring new dimensions to mobile offerings, but initially, these will likely be focused on the enterprise market. 

The availability of spectrum for industrial purposes is one of the more immediate areas of actual application of 5G. Private 5G networks have captured the imagination of businesses where large campus or high bandwidth video-based applications are vital. Early examples in ports, airlines, factories, and oil & gas facilities have all witnessed encouraging activity. Private networks are most likely to see the greatest commercial activity of any 5G use case, as campus and larger facilities’ implementations benefit from a fresh approach to building out their communications infrastructure. 

If 5G is to thrive in the enterprise market in the short term, it will be essential for telcos to partner with companies who have the essential industry knowledge of how processes work. Embedding 5G into every aspect of a company’s activities requires a lot more knowledge of how each business operates and how technology can be used to solve their specific problems. 

From the telco perspective, the investment in 5G end-to-end is a much bigger story. New radio is one thing, but building out the 5G core, getting the right connectivity in place to link the radio towers back into the main network, and rolling out ubiquitous, consistent service is a long journey. While it might be ‘available’ in some large cities, it’s sometimes proving patchy. The promise of 5G changing society and industry requires consistent delivery of the service everywhere. 

Longer-term, as the different national fiber backbones are built out to connect the tower infrastructure, 5G will become the default service for consumers and businesses alike. The arrival of ‘slices’ dedicated to different corporate customers or different next-generation service providers, will enhance the underlying role of connectivity. But what is most important now is getting the house in order to prepare for whatever is thrown its way in the future. The telecom industry should prioritize 5G investment to put all parts of the fixed and mobile network infrastructure, service creation, and delivery into a new framework, align itself with the cloud and device sectors and prepare for a new role in the broader digital economy.

This article first appeared in Futurithmic on 1st Feb 2021.

How the telecom industry adapted to underpin the world response to a pandemic

In 2020, the telecom industry took on the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic and came through the test with a very positive scorecard. Many outside the industry thought that fixed and mobile networks would creak and fall over as traffic patterns shifted and soared through the new reliance on video-based collaboration for work and the increased demand for Netflix, Disney, Amazon, etc. Those skeptics were wrong:

  • The fixed broadband networks took up the bulk of the new traffic demand from home with mobiles alongside laptops latching onto the home WiFi in order to keep business communications flowing and entertainment customized around our individual preferences.
  • Mobile networks adjusted their radios to literally point away from business locations and directly into the homes where we were all plotting the WFH revolution that many had dreamed of for decades.
  • In the early days of different lock-downs, good old-fashioned voice traffic rocketed as we wanted to check on our friends and family and a basic phone call seemed the easiest way to keep in touch, especially with the more elderly members of society who have never heard of WhatsApp, Facetime, Zoom or Skype.

The seemingly impossible, made possible

Telcos don’t have the reputation of being fleet of foot but in this case, they did experience swift and significant changes.

  • Tens of thousands of workers formerly tied to their office desks were switched to home working in a matter of days.
  • Customer service staff were transported from noisy contact centers into their sitting rooms, kitchens, and even bedrooms to handle an explosion in calls.
  • With physical stores closed, customer interaction across all digital channels was accelerated.
  • Thanks to the automation of many systems and processes, minimal operational staff were required in buildings.
  • Engineers entering data centers for their telcos, willingly carried out tasks for their competitors, making use of the sheer fact they were physically in the building.
  • In some emerging markets, people were recruited to literally stand on street corners and offer to ‘top-up’ accounts in order to keep people connected.

The industry did a great job both in keeping its networks and systems up and running against this dramatically different demand whilst also continuing the on-going transformation of many aspects of the business.

In short, this has been a real shot in the arm for an industry not known for its agility to change direction quickly and respond to different market circumstances.  

However, the pandemic has not changed many of the underlying trends at play in the telecoms market around the world, including:

  • Pressures from a competitive landscape continue to push prices down and keep industry revenues flat or even shrinking;
  • The content market is increasingly dominated by global players with deeper pockets than the now fundamentally national telecoms operators;
  • The advent of SD-WAN, which represents a potential reduction in spending per location and per customer as the services flex around the way the business is organized, benefiting from the broadband connections already in place and replacing the expensive legacy services;
  • Hyperscalers encroaching on the telecom patch with their direct internet connections and Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) offerings;
  • Datacenter giants, wholesale fiber and tower companies benefiting from the more open software environments and positioning themselves to offer host neutral and edge services that will compete with telcos directly;
  • Systems Integrators, with their industry-specific knowledge, looking to leverage both the more open supplier ecosystem and private 5G spectrum, where available, to strengthen their own position in the market.

In many ways, this plays out the idea that telcos are mere utility bandwidth providers that I first heard at Logica back in 1992. The difference today is that telcos are competing with some very strong global players with vastly different scales to their own national footprints. At the same time, governments and regulators are pushing for the final piece of truly universal coverage to get broadband out to the rural communities. The net/net of this, for me, is the need to deliver high quality, ubiquitous connectivity that everyone and everything can enjoy. I jokingly labeled this “Plain Old Broadband” (POB) in an homage to the Plain Old Telephone System (POTS) that was the mainstay of the industry for decades. Telcos cannot play in all the adjacent markets of media, enterprise applications, data centers et al. They need to focus on their sweet spot of providing the connectivity that everyone needs in usual and, of course, the most unusual times.

Brand awareness and affinity

In the brand world, we talk about awareness and affinity. Telcos were formerly in the Awareness category with relatively lower NPS scores. The reliability of broadband to keep us all connected during the pandemic has certainly improved the Affinity we feel to our telecoms providers. This more positive position should not be read as a green light to push aggressively into the next generation of connectivity nor into adjacent worlds of media, finance, or business applications. The focus should be on building out that ubiquitous, reliable set of connectivity services on the one hand coupled with partnerships with those companies driving the personal and business environments.    

The economic impact of COVID-19 is still unknown. We saw pre-paid mobile markets suffer as people pulled back from spending during lock-down. Doubtless, the businesses that are floundering across the world will aim to reduce their spending, including connectivity. We saw many of the world’s telcos undertaking activities to support healthcare staff, the most vulnerable in society, and continue much of their foundation work with charities and the unconnected. This may well need to be extended into 2021.

This article first appeared in December 2020 on Futurithmic.

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