Author Archives: Chris Lewis

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. https://lnkd.in/dXj8ran

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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.

Navigating partnerships in telecoms: You’re joining my ecosystem, I’m not joining yours!

The term ecosystem is bandied around almost as often as “You’re on mute,” during the explosion of video conferences of late. However, the difference is the mute thing is pretty obvious whereas the ecosystem angle depends heavily on your start point and background. Common terms include open, multi-stakeholder, federated, frictionless, mutual benefit, dynamic, and adapting to market conditions. So, how does this all apply to the telecoms industry and its transformation into the digital world?

Telecoms was formerly a self-contained industry with its own rules, standards, acronyms, and practices. This was made possible since all equipment and services were controlled by the world’s PTTs. The conservative nature of telcos, combined with lucrative moves into mobile, helped maintain the prevalence of inward-looking strategies. Well, that is, apart from spending chunks of the ‘ill-gotten gains’ on systems integrators, media companies, and sporting rights, in an attempt to build non-telecoms revenues into the portfolio.

A power shift in the telecommunications industry

Liberalization of the market combined with a revolution of cloud-based computing brings us to a very different environment today. Behind the scenes, the telecoms industry has failed to build on the major shifts in the worlds of cloud and applications development. In many ways, the hyperscalers, device players, traditional equipment providers, and integrators have all developed their own global ecosystems combined with the skills to allow them to encroach on different areas of the telecoms business. 

At the same time, the world’s telcos have retrenched to be primarily national-level players and revenues have begun to flatten whilst premiums on further generations of mobile and fixed broadband are uncertain, to say the least. What is evident is that the connectivity of a broadband type is critical to building out the digital marketplace. This includes non-telecom services such as WiFi, Bluetooth, infrared, and doubtless others to come. The balance of power has shifted and the telecoms industry and its stakeholders need to adapt to a new way of working, talking the language of the cloud, of applications developers, and of the businesses and public bodies that it serves. Out go the acronyms that nobody else ever understood. In comes those of the world of app developers, cloud, user Interfaces, Industry 4.0, and of the gig economy (or whatever that turns into post-Covid).

How telcos can adapt to a new era

In order for the telecoms players to adapt to the new ecosystem era, there are both technological and cultural changes required at two levels:

  • Internally: To build a simplified future-ready network environment. This is complicated by the tension between disaggregation of the network, balanced against the simplification of the environment, and rationalisation of the supplier roster.
  • Externally: To provide the hooks to allow the digital ecosystem to flourish and build on the improved reach and quality of connectivity.

Both dynamics have significant technological elements. The blending of IT and network (and the roles of the CIO and CTO) come with massive changes, luckily facilitated by the power of the cloud. The business model and cultural implications are, in many ways, far greater. For example, connecting buildings and people was the end goal in the past, hence being able to retain end-to-end control of the process and service. Today’s and tomorrow’s services will be part of a solution, often subordinate to the applications, content, and business processes used by consumers and businesses alike.

 The telecoms industry has to bring its fixed and mobile services to the ecosystem and accept that they may well be subsumed into other companies’ offerings. After all, the broadband element is rarely unique to the service or business process involved. In order to play this new role, the industry must make its services simpler to embed in other offerings, open up APIs to facilitate the free flow of data, and help ecosystem partners deliver their services. 

As well as potentially restricting the absolute role of the telecoms industry, the emerging ecosystem dynamic will throw up new opportunities. Securing this more open ecosystem, gathering relevant data, and analysing it through artificial intelligence and machine learning present significant opportunities for the worlds’ telcos. Similarly, being one of the ecosystem partners with regular monthly billing interactions helps provide a platform for growing the relationship. 

The cloud ecosystem

Despite this more all-embracing ecosystem, the cloud era seems to be producing specialists in key areas: compute, storage, connectivity, apps, and AI all have their specialist protagonists. In theory, anyone can bring these building blocks to the table or integrate them to form a super player. In reality, in order to share the business risk, accepting your relative role in the ecosystem is critical. Technology is important, APIs are important, analytics is important but focusing on what you bring to the ecosystem is critical.  

Of course, everyone would like to be in control of the ecosystem and draw down attached revenue and margins similar to companies like Apple and, for example, its Airpods. The ecosystem here is the glue that brings the digital lifestyle elements together on the device for the individual. For businesses, the focal point for integrating services varies dramatically between industries and countries. Cloud players such as Salesforce have built their market presence by bringing together many business functions into their cloud. 

Edge is a good example of where ecosystems converge. Is the edge on the enterprise premises, in the Hyperscalers cloud, on the telecoms network, on the device, or in the home? Each requires a blend of compute, storage, connectivity and access to the apps and content for that particular situation. The mix of technology capabilities within a telco will shape which flavour of edge they are able to deliver but a willingness to work closely with adjacent providers will be essential to build out the offering.

Current developments around the potential of 5G across consumer and business markets should be used as a catalyst to change the approach.

Flexibility and adaptability are essential to maintaining a working partnership

It should be noted that the scenario for every country and telco is different. Competition, regulation, and the political complexion with telecoms alongside other utilities and data center build-out has its own set of dynamics to be considered. Whilst some have ventured into media, financial services, and integration services, this still only represents low single figure percentages of total revenue. For the majority, it looks like they will need to transform themselves internally to provide the agility that others require from the connectivity piece of the puzzle. 

As an industry, we have been so technology and inward-focused that we have missed the dramatic changes in business and how technology as a whole fits into the broader economy. Current developments around the potential of 5G across consumer and business markets should be used as a catalyst to change the approach. Being curious about how people and businesses leverage technology and how connectivity can be adapted to fit in with those changes will help drive the cultural change required. The technical aspects can follow, but only if the right ecosystem positioning is identified and built into the DNA of the telco.

[This article first appeared in Futurithmic in November 2020]

Embedding telecoms into post-pandemic healthcare

The telecommunications market has been inward-looking for most of its history, focusing on the technology transitions and what it allows people and businesses to do. Now it’s beginning to shift that emphasis to the industries that telecoms serve and how it needs to adapt. Tackling one market at a time is the only realistic approach, and healthcare (including social care) is an industry that impacts every body in different ways at different points in our lives. 

To understand how telecoms and healthcare can interact, it is essential to start with the industry structure and how the technology available for each element can be implemented to facilitate change.

Healthcare infrastructure: From centralized to localized

For many people, healthcare consists of occasional and temporary interactions. For others, it involves on-going appointments, tests, care, and treatments. The sector, like the telecoms industry, demands high quality, secure devices to deliver its services. These devices continue to break new limits of analysis, which in turn generate vast volumes of data. The tendency had been to centralize activities into ever-expanding medical facilities, requiring people to travel to receive consultations and treatment. 

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was beginning to witness a shift away from these larger medical facilities and a trend towards more localized delivery of care. The availability of broadband, fixed and mobile was undoubtedly one of the most significant contributors to this trend. In addition, the increasing power of consumer electronics acting as proxies for medical-grade devices was growing. The sensors available on smart devices (e.g., wearables, smartphones, smart speakers), along with the powerful impact of health trackers, have made the medical industry embrace these formerly dismissed technologies.

The cultural barriers overcome during the pandemic regarding doctors and patients accepting video-based consultation should not be underestimated.

The pandemic has also forced medical practitioners to embrace remote technology and video, especially since face-to-face appointments have become challenging. This varies by healthcare area, but for example, a renal consultant told me his video consultations have gone from 5 to 90 percent (and some doctors report 100 percent). We will undoubtedly swing back to more face-to-face interactions in the future, but the critical breakthrough has been made to give patients and doctors alike the confidence to use the technology. Some medical authorities still insist on proprietary security video platforms to protect patients’ privacy and keep data within hospital systems, with applications such as Zoom and Teams being used only for internal meetings.

If we had suffered this pandemic ten years ago, this shift to telemedicine would not have been possible. Fortunately, the reliability of broadband combined with the ubiquity of high-resolution cameras and high-quality audio facilitates these interactions and provides a far more efficient service for all parties.

What the future of healthcare can build upon is the ability to bring a high level of expertise and analysis into everyone’s homes. This may smack of Big Brother, but it is a matter of balance as with any technological advance. For example, the benefits of monitoring an older adult in their own home both by relations and the medical profession have potentially massive positive financial implications. 

Can private networks help deliver services to the most vulnerable communities?

Early 5G hype was around remote surgery and leveraging the low latency and high bandwidth of new mobile generations. While these benefits will gradually materialize, it is the more mundane set of services that will have an early impact. For example, the Liverpool 5G Hub initiative uses a one-way video device to allow carers to monitor people taking their daily medication – resulting in both patients getting the right treatment and reducing wasted medicines. 

The Liverpool example is also important for another reason: it is delivered over a private 5G network. Hopefully, this will be a blueprint for other healthcare authorities to bring effective services into communities. As an industry, we tend to think of the latest smartphones and the shift to an even bigger or unlimited data package. In reality, many of the most vulnerable people in society have little or no access to those services. Increasing the digital poverty gap seems inevitable unless an intervention of this kind takes place. Liverpool is now looking at bringing their private network together with cellular offerings to build out the service. Once again, it is not a question of one or the other but a blend of public and private, which will deliver a community solution.

The assumption is often that increased smartphone penetration is the answer to this problem. The Internet of Things brings a myriad of other devices into play. A simple movement monitor can inform a carer that an individual is active and moving around their home. Sensors in beds, doors, floors, and even embedded into prosthetic limbs can all feed information back to families, specialists, and authorities as appropriate. Most of these require small amounts of bandwidth. The key thing is that the technology in terms of devices and connectivity is affordable. As always, who pays is an issue, but the Liverpool example shows that local government can deploy private networks to deliver this at a sensible price.

Financial barriers aren’t the only concern for telcos

These solutions may not provide the boom in revenue that the telecoms industry has been expecting. It is, however, a relatively straightforward path to delivering a future-proof healthcare system. Technology does not have to have an extra zero on the price tag just because it is medical. Governments will have to intervene to different degrees depending on their respective healthcare systems, but the technology is available and affordable. See also

The cultural barriers overcome during the pandemic regarding doctors and patients accepting video-based consultation should not be underestimated.  And whether the shift from city to more rural living is a temporary reaction to the pandemic, it is supported by the ubiquitous broadband initiatives of most governments around the world. 

My initial analysis of telecoms’ potential in healthcare had assumed it would be built on an individual‘s mobile and/or fixed broadband subscriptions. I now believe that community networks, private authority networks like that in Liverpool, or even an MVNO for the sector will help deliver and maintain healthcare services. Multiple new business models will be evaluated under 5G. Healthcare is no different, with a range of essential services that can benefit from fresh thinking about how the technologies can be brought to the people rather than how people have to go to the technology.

The telecoms industry’s lesson is clear: allowing the healthcare industry’s processes and systems to exploit the power of communications in their own way is vital. We should not fall into the old trap where technology restricted activities. When asking medical professionals about how technology and especially 5G might change their particular role, they assume that the connectivity will be there. COVID-19 has certainly accelerated the shift to digital healthcare. Still, the telecoms industry now needs to ensure that all stakeholders deliver against the promise of ubiquitous high-quality connectivity to facilitate society’s future vision.

This article first appeared in Futurithmic in October 2020.

How tech can bridge the disability divide for a billion people

When I first went to a blind school in the early 1970s, the only technology available for visually impaired people was a braille machine and magnifying glasses. Fifty years later, we are on the brink of fully bridging the disability divide through the use of communications devices and general-purpose technology. 

Back then, technology was expensive and specific for each disability. At university, I used a Kurzweil reading machine that was the size of a photocopier, cost $100,000 and only managed to produce low-quality Optical Character Recognition (OCR)  to help me consume content relating to my course. I also sent documents off to the Student Tape Library to be recorded (getting them back weeks later).

What has changed in the interim? In a nutshell, the content has gone digital, and devices can render content in an audible format in real-time provided from mainstream suppliers rather than the past specialists. Furthermore, the growth of the apps economy and its global scale means that I can now access industry and news content through my smartphone and laptop as well as specialist apps that help me with things like navigation, object recognition and technical support. In addition, the wealth of collaboration apps has put me on equal footing with everyone else during the lockdown shift to home and webinar-centric working. One other important component is the shift to the cloud. As long as we have broadband, information is accessible from anywhere, and pretty much on any device.

This transformation has allowed me to develop my career as a telecoms industry analyst working alongside non-disabled people. This shift from expensive disability-specific technology to mainstream devices means that former barriers are being torn down for the world’s billion disabled people getting access to the digital economy. 

The main categories of disability are hearing, visual, learning and physical impairments – each of which has many degrees and complexities. The evolution of the tech industry, international standards and apps mean that scale can now be applied across all disabilities. For example, sign language was physically limited to the speaker’s location but can now be supported through a smartphone with the interpretation delivered remotely. It is too simplistic to say that a microphone, camera, speaker or screen can replace any sense that is impaired but they can certainly be great proxies. 

One of the most striking changes has been the arrival of the smart speaker. Using speech as the means of interaction helps the visually impaired and physically impaired easily access a wealth of content. Furthermore, linking these smart speakers to household items such as lights, heating, security and television all contribute to a more intelligent home for all people – irrespective of whether they have a disability or not. Are they, in fact, the ultimate companion device? 

Furthermore, be in no doubt, Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI) are coming. The ability to interpret brain waves and take action accordingly comes with some obvious concerns. However, for those suffering from locked-in syndrome, this may be the best solution to communicating with the outside world. 

How accessible tech helps increase diversity and inclusion

Coming at it from a slightly different perspective, the range of communications options also plays well into inclusion. The goal of unified communications was to bring all forms of interaction together. What is evident from the disabled community is that the blend of text, speech, collaboration tools and social media all have their relative roles. The hearing impaired have relied heavily on text messages in the past and are now benefiting from lip-reading via high-quality video.

Many visually impaired use screen readers to turn text into the spoken word and, if my blind cricket team is anything to go by, record messages in social media rather than typing them. There is, however, a responsibility on developers to label and design their offerings more cleanly. For instance, in a conferencing app, finding the unmute button, identifying and using the Chat or Q&A function shouldn’t be a major ordeal, but believe me, it is. App designers must include accessibility from scratch. And, of course, a well-designed app is better for everyone. If you think about it, modern in-car interactive technology is based on the same text-to-voice and voice-to-text technology that I use every day. 

This diversity of communications options also applies to the area of customer service and experience. When I was researching different disabilities, I had extensive email and social media exchanges with someone with cerebral palsy. I suggested we tried a voice call, but we failed to communicate. We reverted to messaging and continue the dialogue to this day. Companies interacting with the ‘Billion’ need to identify the most appropriate channel for individual customer’s needs – and human voice can still be the best option. 

As we build out a more digital society, the availability of smart devices, connected via the latest generation of communications services, can help bring that ‘Billion’ into the digital economy. According to my calculations, people with disabilities have a spending power of roughly $4 trillion. This not counting the value of the improvement in lifestyle it also brings to often isolated people. 

I usually present the world of communications services as a series of concentric circles with the individual at the centre surrounded by layers representing the household, business and society. Leveraging all mass-market communications services not only brings the ‘Billion’ into the digital marketplace but also allows public services such as healthcare and government to communicate with the individual – and vice versa.  

For example, the COVID-19 lockdown has demonstrated how relatively straightforward and effective remote healthcare can be for many situations. Opening the communication channels to the ‘Billion’ will undoubtedly improve healthcare and social care in the long term. 

Is everything in place? 

Mostly but not quite. Devices have become more accessible with assistive technology ready-built into smartphones, computers and televisions, helping different disability groups gain immediate access to digital services to improve their lifestyles. Website and apps are increasingly better labelled to allow easier navigation but there’s still work to be done.  

The move to 5G and increased fiber roll-out offers an opportunity to bring all individuals and households into the connected world. However, this requires a stronger political will to keep penetration levels at the highest for rural as well as urban communities. 

Perhaps most importantly, the education of individuals is still needed to increase awareness and raise confidence levels in using the technology and accessing services. Lastly, employers require a cultural shift in making internal systems accessible for all and opening up employment opportunities for the disabled.   

In some ways, this shift is the ultimate personalization service. We talk about putting the customer at the centre of our industry. This is the ultimate test of how we bring all of the technology and services down to that individual level. As we enter the 5G era of high speed, low latency communications affordable for all, let’s not lose sight of the goal of bringing the ‘Billion’ into the digital community.

This article was originally published in Futurithmic in August 2020.

Does that guide dog really know where he’s going?

Having been registered blind for over 30 years it may come as a surprise that I have never had a guide dog. My residual sight was sort of good enough to bluff my way by waving a white stick and very, very occasionally (being a bloke) asking for help. Having never had a dog before and after an eighteen-month stint on the waiting list, my life changed irrevocably when I was introduced to Varley. He’s aged two, three quarters retriever, a quarter Labrador and at 35 kilos, he’s a big dog! After intensive residential training at Guide Dogs, involving many walks around the environs of the Premier Inn in Euston, he finally came home with me.

At first, it’s very much like having a new baby: leaving the house means a checklist of poo bags, food, wet wipes and a portable water bowl. Remember those reigns you’ve seen on a toddler? The harness I use for Varley is similar. I can feel his movement through the handle on my left side, so my right hand is free apart from when the lead needs a tug to reinforce direction or distract him from the quantities of pavement food available to him in London.

Talking of movements, picking up poo gets a lot of questions – and was my biggest concern – but actually it’s pretty straightforward: Varley heads into the gutter, assumes the peeing or pooing position (which are very different). If it’s No.2, I apply the poo bag like a surgeon donning his rubber gloves, target where his rear end was, then swoop and quarter the area to find the deposit – the most difficult bit is actually finding a bin to leave it in. I have often been tempted to hang it on the handlebars of the rental bikes which I often stumble over somewhere on my walk!

The main benefits of having a dog are ironically invisible to me. Varley has an amazing ability to make me avoid obstacles such as lampposts, bollards, poster boards and people (often looking at their mobiles). Apparently, my right shoulder is often within millimeters of hitting something, but Varley seems to know exactly what he’s doing. Luckily, he is very wary of water (apparently, he had a scare involving a duck and a pond when he was a puppy) and this pays dividends when he diligently avoids anything more than a tiny puddle.

I’m asked the questions repeatedly, but of course he doesn’t actually know where he is going or when the crossing light has turned green (he’s a dog remember?). I still need to know how to find my location, where we are on the route and when it’s safe to cross. However, he does have an incredible memory of places we have visited such as coffee shops, the gym and the station. He can find ‘the button’ at crossings, the entrance to office blocks and stops at flights of stairs. He has been on trains, tubes, buses and has joined us in restaurants, pubs, church, the theatre and in meetings. He generally just flops on the floor and lies quietly until summoned back to action. One lesson learned is not to give him his favourite bone during meetings. His slurping can be very disconcerting to colleagues or more importantly to those on stage presenting! I have not taken him abroad yet, but his pet passport is in progress and that’s a whole other Brexit-oriented story for another day.

Of course, Varley isn’t always on duty. At home he is ‘just a dog’. He has times during the day when he chases cats, squirrels or birds, demands aggressive tug-of-war games with various slobber-covered cuddly toys, collapses in a heap in the office or kitchen before miraculously becomes very animated around feeding time. The rest of the family love him as much as I do. They too have to follow rules when they walk him to reinforce stopping at curbs etc. but we can’t remember life before him.

Bizarrely, my favorite thing is ‘seeing’ or more realistically, hearing him when he’s free-running off the lead in the park. He’s a big dog and sounds more like a horse when galloping at full tilt. He generally wears a bell on his collar, so I have an idea of where he is and avoid another major collision like the one we had on one on his first runs in the local park!

Luckily for me he is very good natured and extremely friendly – needy even. This is good as I am bombarded with requests to stroke him whenever we are out. He has also attracted considerable attention at every industry event I’ve attended with him but he’s shown significant disinterest in the content as he just sprawls on the floor looking bored. Telecoms is clearly no substitute for a new toy and a warm fire.

All of this is a massive credit to Guide Dogs as an organisation. Huge thanks go to Dave his puppy walker for the first year, and Mel his boarder who had him for the six months of his training before he was handed to me, and especially to Barry the trainer (the dog whisperer) who put us through our paces together.

The experience has been a steep learning curve for me on all levels. The best bit, apart from the confidence I have walking down the street, is that he offers an instant distraction from work, current affairs and the disappointments of being a Derby County fan!

So, feel free to say hello to him whenever our paths cross. But please don’t, as one person did, begin to pet him while we are still walking. Once he is static or preferably sitting, he is game for as much friendly interaction as you can offer. In fact, he will probably just roll over and demand you to tickle his tummy!

A taste of the Great Telco Debate 2018

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The dust has finally settled on the Great Telco Debate 2018. The months of planning for the interaction-packed debates and panels left us all reeling from the wealth of inputs, cross-questioning and new ideas on the future of the telecoms industry. This was our fifth event and feedback is that it was the best yet – so no pressure for 2019!

Watch the video and interview highlights here.

One of the main challenges for the Great Telco Debate is identifying the topics for debate throughout the year. The six debates summarised below reflect the diversity of opinion and variety of stakeholders at play. What was clear throughout, was that a more open approach to partnering with other ecosystem players is vital if telcos are to throw off the mantel of being the laggards of the digital economy.

Summary:

Debate 1: The role of the telco in the broader digital economy
Motion: Telcos should confine themselves to connectivity – DEFEATED

Input from Jean Yves Charlier former CEO of Veon, Akira Tada of Softbank, and Mike Blanche of Google left us in no doubt about the wealth of opportunities outside of connectivity. However, the telco’s role in providing high quality, ubiquitous connectivity across fixed and mobile has to be the focus for the industry.

Debate 2: Filling the fibre gap
Motion: The only way to get full fiberisation is to nationalise fixed telecoms infrastructure – DEFEATED

Clive Carter from Ofcom, Dana Tobak from Hyperoptic and Mike Magee from SSE Enterprise Telecom all emphasised the changing nature of the telecoms infrastructure build-out with funding coming from a wide range of sources. All are looking to get involved in the fibre and 5G build programmes. Despite the emphasis on mobile, the debate centred on fibre being critical to underpinning all connectivity activities, and how the open market, accompanied by regulation, is stimulating the shift to higher bandwidth services for all customers.

Debate 3: Progress in softwarising and virtualising the world’s telcos
Motion: Virtualisation is a poisoned chalice – DEFEATED

Dr Steffen Roehn, Senior Advisor to Reliance Jio, set the scene for the softwarised telco whilst Ian Massingham from AWS outlined how the web-scale giant is working on many different levels with the telco community, with Cloud becoming the de facto standard for developing applications. Sanjay Mewada from Netcracker, Martin Taylor from Metaswitch and Colin Kincaid from Cisco presented their diverse perspectives before we dove into a tetchy debate about the role of open source versus the traditional world of suppliers.

Debate 4: Analytics, Machine Learning and the Edge – DEFEATED
Motion: The first priority for AI deployment is in network optimisation.

Charlie Muirhead of CognitionX boiled down the enormous volume of activity around AI into a few key initial steps for the telecoms world, whilst Simon Aspinall from SWIM AI demonstrated how the start-up is building intelligence at the Edge to help real time analysis and Marisa Viveras from IBM talked about the shift to Watson and hyper intelligence in the telecoms industry.

Debate 5: Security is everywhere but which aspect can generate revenue?
Motion: Security can generate significant long-term income for telcos – DEFEATED

Nicolas Thomas from Fortinet and the Security Alliance opened up the security debate followed by Laurence Pitt from Juniper and Derek Roga from Equiis. The diversity of perspectives on security make it very difficult to pin down whether it’s a revenue or a cyber-defensive play. The one common view is that customers expect the telcos, with their conservative positioning, to provide secure, reliable service, whether this is connectivity, messaging or building on the Edge to deliver real time solutions.

Debate 6: 5G And IoT meet Industry 4.0 but where does it leave the Telcos?
Motion: 5G is revolutionary in enterprise terms but evolutionary in consumer terms – CARRIED

Phil Skipper Head of Business development for IOT at Vodafone showed how industry is benefiting from the potential of 5G. Ericsson through Hakan Duphama and Nokia via Phil Twist demonstrated how their telecoms expertise is being applied to the industry 4.0 revolution and Darrell Jordan Smith from Red Hat outlined how the open source uprising is demanding more and more from all partners in the emerging ecosystem.

We will return with the next Great Telco Debate on December 5th 2019 in London. In the meantime, we will also return with TelecomTV at the Digital Service Provider (DSP) Leaders Summit in May. This is part of the closer cooperation between the Great Telco Debate and TelecomTV – bringing a truly independent platform for debating the future of the telecoms and media industry to all.

The formal summary document will be available shortly. Please drop me a line chris@lewisinsight.com if you would like to receive a copy or if you would like to get involved in the formal proceedings for the DSP event or next December’s Great Telco Debate.

 

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The global telco dream is over: Mark Gregory, Chief Economist EY gives me his perspective.

The Great Telco Debate is all about putting the industry trends into context. Mark Gregory of EY can’t join us this time around but he sent the following in reply to my questions about the telecoms industry, its dynamics, broader economics and future industry structures. It is great food for thought ahead of November 29th when we next assemble for the debate.  

Image result for mark gregory Ey Mark Gregory, Chief Economist UK & Ireland EY

With telcos under pressure in a complex world…

As the first sector to be liberalised and privatised at scale across countries, telecoms has been in the vanguard of change for 4 decades but now needs to consider where it goes next.

With the freedom to develop, the telecoms industry has changed out of all recognition in its search for profitable growth. Telcos today tend to be a mix of businesses with very different economic characteristics ranging from utility like local network operations to fast-moving, constantly changing content provision. These complex business combinations have grown out of a desire to capture more of the value that the telco enables but they risk destroying value by making the company both hard to manage and difficult for investors to value accurately.

The slowing economic global outlook as identified by the IMF recently will create extra pressure on telco business models and at the same time increase the political risk that companies in the sector face. Confronted with slower economic growth and increasingly squeezed consumers, politicians will look at industries that account for significant shares of consumer spending and corporate costs for opportunities for short-term political gain. The recent introduction of a retail price cap in UK energy and the proposal to nationalise certain UK utilities are good examples of possible ad-hoc intervention.

There is also a growing disparity between the largely national operations of telcos and the multinational scale and scope of their suppliers. With the seemingly never ending process of innovation, telcos risk losing control over their technology roadmaps to companies with much greater resources and economies of scale.

…time for a new stakeholder led model…

The low growth economy without any real productivity improvement is not going to provide much if any support to telco growth ambitions. It is time to change the model and for telcos to consider how they can best contribute to economic growth and increased prosperity. In particular, how to drive improvements in labour markets as these are where so many of the issues underpinning today’s economic and political challenges originate from.

In many countries, concern over the “left behind” have become increasingly prominent in the political debate – the people in traditional industrial towns who find themselves on the margins of the modern economy. Typically these groups live outside of cities and larger towns and struggle to participate in the workforce. One option might be to take investment to these people with the telcos leading the way. Rather than starting the roll out of technologies in the major population centres, telcos could look to reach further out and bring people into the labour market providing the infrastructure for remote working. People would be given the chance to participate electronically in the labour market, reducing the level of transport infrastructure investment required and in so doing enhancing productivity and growth in the economy.

Telcos could also use their national presence and knowledge in the digital arena to support wider digital skills development at a local level. Again remote learning could be part of this approach with the aim being to increase significantly the level and number of digitally skilled people in the economy. This would serve to improve the skills pool available to telcos but also provide a platform for faster digital growth with the benefits accruing to all.

Greater local reach and capability would also open the door to cross-sector collaboration with other utility like providers such as power and water and with other major sectors such as health. As Bell Labs showed, cross-sectoral digital innovation could provide a major leg up for economic growth in local markets. Working closely across sectors at a local level would provide telcos with the opportunity to identify new applications and to participate in developing and deploying these.

…in a brave new world.

Telcos have been at the forefront of economic change in the last 4 decades, innovating with a range of business strategies. It is increasingly clear that the global telco dream is over and that the core business is of providing connectivity that enables economic activity. In this context, telcos should focus on how best they can help increase the rate of economic activity across the full geography of their markets building stakeholder centric telcos.

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