Category Archives: Telecoms Future

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.

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.

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