The Race to 5G and Full Fibre
How Telecoms, Media & Entertainment Leaders are Reshaping the Future
TechPros.io Thought Leadership series
The future of a connected Britain rests on the widespread availability of 5G and Full Fibre to homes and businesses.
However, for the network operators and vendors, this is a complicated journey to navigate. The race towards 5G and Full Fibre is a marathon, not a sprint, and there are many hurdles to leap over, as well as plenty of obstacles in the way of success.
To complement the eBook (see below), sponsored by Esri UK, TechPros.io invited 3 industry leaders for a fireside chat.
Thank you to Shawn Nolan (BDUK), Letizia Guadalupi (Viberoptix) and Alessandro Bovone (Nokia) and again to Esri UK for sponsoring.
Head of Technical Operations - BDUK
Jermaine Edwards: Welcome again to the Esri podcast, hosted by TechPros.io. This is the conversation around the race to 5G and full fibre, so how telecoms, media, entertainment leaders are reshaping the future.
I'm going to start with this really big statement which comes out of the upcoming ebook on this topic, and one of those statements was this:
The future of connected Britain rests on the widespread availability of 5G and full fibre to homes and businesses.
That's quite a big statement and obviously the government manifesto currently has a commitment to getting a minimum of 85% of premises nationwide with gigabyte broadband by 2025, so a lot of really ambitious targets.
First question to you: what do you see as some of the major challenges to rapid deployment of fibre, particularly in the areas of things like partnership or access to technology or tools, or even knowing where to deploy fibre to maximise return on investment? Any thoughts around that I’d welcome, maybe starting with you Shawn.
Shawn Nolan: Yes, so that government commitment of the year 2025, that's the team that I sit on, actually trying to hit those targets. It's quite poignant, we hear that quite often, every day, to try to hit these. So yeah, I think, from a high level in my experience, probably less on the technical stuff and then the data science stuff I think probably Letizia could probably emphasise a little bit better than me around that, but the biggest challenges that I've seen so far, working with multiple altnets across the UK is very much their ability to actually deliver against their plans to be very blunt.
We see a lot of altnets springing up all over the place, I think there's currently around about 150 altnets trying to deliver fibre, and they're in various states of investment, various states of design, and what I see at the moment is that it seems to be a lot easier to get funding than it is to actually deliver the technical capabilities. Where that could be, you know, getting the right civils, contractors on board, it could be delivering the realistic numbers of what has been advertised to the investment body, whoever the investors are or what indeed they say every month to the board. So that's my biggest one, is that there seems to be, at least, a lot of cases and a little bit of an over commitment on delivery targets without necessarily having that technical or civils capability to deliver against those numbers. So very ambitious numbers and obviously to get funding, the investors want to know that there's a really good return of investment, but at the same time, I see that there's more people in that kind of business here, and less people in the technical delivery taillight, people like Letizia and the other technical people who actually deliver something besides a flashy PowerPoint. So it kind of sounds like a cynical take on it a little bit, but with my engineering hat on, I look for what's broken and not necessarily what's fixed. It’s more or less an overcommitment on deliverables, which doesn't always align with people's actual capabilities, so that's kind of my takeaway from it.
Podcast Host, TechPros.io
Jermaine Edwards: Clearly you’ve got an array of varying different kinds of things that may come into play into wireless capabilities, which may not necessarily be there against those deadlines. So I'm curious to hear from Letizia, what your thoughts are around that, considering your position and the business as well.
Letizia Guadalupi: Based on my experience, I'm more into data, and I think these numbers, set up by the current mentor or vendor, the race for the fibre increases the competition. For companies, the aim is to make it right from the beginning, but how can you make it right? I think that planning strategically is the key here.
We should analyse the context from different perspectives, so in the business, you have sales priorities, you have civil priorities, so you want to know the most populated areas or where there's more need of connectivity. When there's less competitors, then you have service priorities, so you need to understand from a geographical point of view, if there are constraints like bridges or railways, the need to to ask for permits, or to pay for charges or fees on the roads. Then you have the fibre planning route perspective and you need to choose the right architecture, maybe, based on what is on the ground already, or based on how many aggregates there are in homes. So this kind of planning needs to be done ahead and you need the right tool to do it. I think that the main challenge for the businesses is to rely on the most advanced tools and especially to be sure that people are not scared about this, but they will embrace the new tools available, and develop within the tool, and stay up to date with technologies. That's my opinion.
Design Director, Viberoptix
CTO North & West Europe, Nokia
Jermaine Edwards: That’s interesting, clearly it’s a complicated journey to navigate here in this kind of race to 5G, and clearly it’s not a sprint but a bit of a marathon, as we work through competitively but also collaboratively in terms of how that works out across different businesses. Alessando, from Nokia’s perspective, how do you view this as you look at the business case for return on investment, or the way in which you might serve your clients as well?
Alessandro Bovone: It's a very interesting discussion because I can see all of these altnets, as Shawn mentioned, at the moment. So I think that in the past, if I look back 3-4 years ago, the main issue was to find investment, and find these kind of opportunities. Now they are there, the investment is coming from many investors who want to put money in the UK, so that is definitely solved. I think everybody got a good idea where to go and we see a diversification, where all these altnets, they are deploying and so on, without too much of a build. But at the same time, I think the two main things that I’ve heard, the delivery, yes it’s a challenge, it’s been always a challenge.
It’s a challenge today also because the workforce, perhaps, is not fully trained and is not there to support this massive amount of deployment that we have all in one go. And maybe the problem comes from the past, we don't invest in the growth of the workforce in the UK, because a lot of the companies rely on people from abroad to come and work in the UK and so on. That means that as an impact, of course, you’ve got high demand, less level of availability of the workforce, but also the problem that has been always there and for many years in telecommunication, deployment to access is one of the last things to do when building an infrastructure. Could be the fibre, could also be the mobile, there is always something little that is missing. In the chain of everything that needs to happen, sometimes just the closure of our order, or the closure of a role that was planned for this day but unfortunately, for some reason was postponed due to everything going on. So this is still, unfortunately, today, the kind of feedback that I hear from many of my customers. We see these are constantly appearing as a very challenging situation for many of them.
Technologies, this is an important point, we have all the gear now so we know what to do, fibre and 5G, they go together. Maybe the use of more 5G, or a wireless capability could be an option to speed up and reach some of the numbers that have been set up.
But at the same time, of course the idea to have all these premises connected with gig internet, and fibre is really appealing and, of course, in the same way, the fibre that we use for the home can be used for many other things. I talk with a lot of operators and many want to extend the additional kind of capability in the same kind of link. This is a benefit for the return of investment, so we can use it for multiple business cases that only connect to the home, and that is something that I see more and more of an appetite for in the UK.
It’s a challenge today also because the workforce, perhaps, is not fully trained and is not there to support this massive amount of deployment that we have all in one go. And maybe the problem comes from the past, we don't invest in the growth of the workforce in the UK, because a lot of the companies rely on people from abroad to come and work in the UK and so on. That means that as an impact, of course, you’ve got high demand, less level of availability of the workforce.
Jermaine Edwards: This is interesting, so considering the array of challenges that you've all shared: delivery and execution, workforce, as you've mentioned Alessandro, and perhaps maybe Brexit and some of those things around high demand, low available talent, maybe come into the fact that you're planning technology deployment. What would you say today, is the biggest challenge directly to be able to support, generate or move to that particular role, and what are you doing as an organisation to perhaps mitigate some of these risks or take advantage of the full fibre development? I'll go back to you Letizia on that.
Letizia Guadalupi: I think it's about communication, coordination and integration between people, but also between the activities and the data in itself. So, that's what we need, when we run a business, we want to have communication between people, that’s the first key point there, but we want to go up at a hardware level, so we would like to have a unique platform to work on, to plan, to coordinate, and execute, to record, to analyse, to maybe manage and monitor and report everything that is produced in the same platform. Creating automation for the quality checking of the job. This will save time, reduce the manual areas, miscommunication and, obviously, increase the quality of the job and the productivity. I think the challenge here is to overcome the miscommunication within a company between people and data.
There's a huge amount of value in being able to have a very robust business process and to be able to automate that.
Jermaine Edwards: Thank you for that. Shawn, would you agree with those particular points or recognise them? What would you add to that?
Shawn Nolan: Yeah absolutely, I 100% agree with that. So, two points from a high level view, I would say that business process which links into the communication across the individual departments, whether it's on a task level or a program level, I think a company really has the advantage, or the edge if they really understand that end-to-end order-to-cash pipeline, which we can throw in the civils, build in the stream, design the full end-to-end delivery on this.
But what you'll find is a lot of the younger companies still haven't understood the value yet of being able to track each individual item through that chain, whether it's the deployment of either a particular street or a village and the actual life cycle through that, to tracking things like their supply chain and being able to come with an exceptions process, so if this doesn't happen then do that.
There's a huge amount of value in being able to have a very robust business process and to be able to automate that.
Going on to automating those things for that, for some of the reasons Letizia mentioned, for that monitoring and reporting to be able to see this anomalous data starting to appear, and if you do all this stuff manually and you just can't really trend this data well at all, it becomes extremely difficult, especially on volume, so my view is companies who will gain the edge on their competitors or even just being able to deliver other companies who understand that there are so many opportunities to automate processes, to automate their big data sifting, to have proper dashboards monitoring and reporting really in depth, like coding everything. I always say to code everything, if you can get some developer to code it, then why not code it, like why apply config on equipment manually, why do that? Why find out that your capacity is at 90% before you trigger an order, when you've got a 12 week lead time and you've got global supply issues. There's so many things you can code to make sure that you're not only meeting your delivery targets, but exceeding them.
The companies I've seen in my experience that do that, they do it really well. There are sometimes slightly younger people who come from that logical background of code or at least understand things like process management and logic trees and decision trees. There's my two pence worth. Anything manual, it's just going to slow down things. Anything manual on volume, you're gonna have to hire more people, and that talent pool is quite small. So certainly code where you can code, and where you can't, make sure you document stuff properly, that’s what I would say.
Jermaine Edwards: Extremely pertinent, particularly that transformation element of digital and how that's being deployed, particularly in younger companies, but also with those mature companies who perhaps could lead the way in supporting the best practices of how to go and reach those goals. I’m curious to hear more about that in a second, but Alessandro, what would you add to that in terms of a number one challenge, or ways in which you mitigate your own risk, to take advantage of for fibre development as well.
Alessandro Bovone: Yeah I totally agree with what has been said about how automation is fundamental, particularly in this era, where we want to speed up everything. You want to do the things right in the first attempt so that means you really need to have automation, again the kind of capability for anomaly detection, and is something that also we are supporting most of our customers to develop these capability tools. It’s right, normally they are the youngest.
They mostly have this skill set and it's good because it means that we have a new generation coming along. We have been always told that telecommunications is a bit of an old environment in some aspects, so that means we really need an injection of new ideas. The other point is that sometimes I see companies that are a bit stuck in delivery, the same things over and over because they think it’s still the right thing to do, although sometimes a more aggressive approach is needed, to take a bit of a risk, to change a bit of the architect, or change something little that overall can generate a huge success in terms of maybe the speed of delivery or maybe even achieve targets that seem impossible. So definitely it is this kind of willingness to try and have this kind of possibility to have a portfolio of architectural changes that you can deploy when you are stuck. Maybe in some of these kinds of situations, there is a lot more that is possible to do, to push boundaries. The investment is there, so I don't think that any of the companies we are talking to are too short of money to invest in these kinds of capabilities.
Jermaine Edwards: This is interesting. So clearly 5G and full fibre infrastructure is a complicated jigsaw to get right. Massively complicated ecosystems, operators, vendors, suppliers to navigate and so forth. So, considering those things that you've identified there, what role is current or emerging technologies playing, being able to support? We talked about automation and things like this, but what roles like location intelligence, automation or others, you know other kinds of enablement tools out there, would you say people should be adopting or thinking about much more readily inside their businesses? We will come to you Letizia first.
Letizia Guadalupi: I can give an example from my past experience. So if I can name two instances, we used mapping form for a long time, basic GIS software, and so we were delivering designs that were fine, but we decided to migrate towards GIS, which meant we were able to save half of the time. There was a 50% increase in performance and that's just because we changed the tool without changing the process, we were able to automate some of the steps, using the model builder inside it. Very easy. User friendly and I personally think this should be a standard for all the companies to work with.
So that's my experience, obviously there's a lot there that you can do. The software is very powerful and it's full of processing tools. You can do analysis, design, and mapping obviously, dashboard, share with other people so it's really something I would recommend to everyone actually.
We decided to migrate towards GIS, which meant we were able to save half of the time. There was a 50% increase in performance and that's just because we changed the tool without changing the process.
Jermaine Edwards: That’s high commendation, so I'm curious for you Shawn, what do you see in terms of current and emerging technologies, things that you may say, is enabling your business today or things you might recommend?
Shawn Nolan: Yeah just from a broad industry point of view, and I think there's technologies, and I know it also exists in Esri, things like augmented reality for civil construction, being able to see what's under the ground with some sort of AR glasses, which would help for things like maintenance and support and being able to Geo-locate breaks a lot more quickly and being able to have things like service restoration and turnaround times a lot quicker. But I suppose, on probably a less shiny thing, some of these projects, for example, what Network Rail is doing. They have a project called Project Reach at the moment, it's a 1 billion pound project where they're inviting other providers to bid to help lay fibre along the tracks. So as anyone knows, if you're on the train, you might as well just go to sleep, because you can't do any emails on there, I certainly can’t ever. I was on a three and a half hour journey to Manchester the other day, and there's literally no point, you might as well just stare out the window and think about life or something like that.
So I think a lot of the rail companies are starting to get aware of things like this, and they're wanting to put the 5G by the track side and there's something to open up their ducts, masts and poles, especially on big sites to actually allow this connectivity. I think wider industry and the wider, large CAP companies are starting to see that they need to change that line of thinking. And being able to actually have that value add towards the rest of the UK and towards the fibre market, which then leads on to other funner technologies like mobile edge computing. There's a lot of stuff like next computing that is a bolt on, you can say it's a bolt on for 5G, however you want to carve up that technical assessment, but you can't do that without getting a signal, even on a mobile phone and 5G is starting to be rolled out but is it 5G standard, or is it you know the 4G fallback method, which pretty much as most of 5G these days.
And other emerging technologies, do we look into things beyond 5G? Things like Elon Musk's program of Starling, etc, and delivering internet down to very hard reach areas, and how viable technology is. So that's more future technology and, certainly, there's a huge market for that. Is there a market for that in the UK? I'm not sure, but if you've been to Scotland or some parts of Wales on the Brecon Beacons, you'll know that the connectivity up there is not great, so you might be looking forward to getting access through Starling satellites. And then obviously the other stuff Letizia is saying about being able to assist the large data and machine learning, I think ML it's quite a big one, certainly being able to find anomalous data and trends in that large data, well before any normal human could find it and being able to capitalise on that data before anybody else, before the competitor.
Jermaine Edwards: Thank you, lots of powerful points here. In the last few minutes together Alessandro I'd like to get your poignant points on any new technologies you're seeing. The final question for me will simply be what areas of technology development are you actually most excited about using in the future, any particular innovations that you're seeing actually hey, this is what we're working on that you'd be willing to share, so i'll be coming to you on that as well.
But Alessandro, last points from you specifically on any particular technologies and then perhaps any things that you’re excited about using or seeing in the future.
Alessandro Bovone: There’s a lot of technology today being used to solve problems. Some has been management, some on digital twin is something that is really powerful, in particular in delivery mode for a lot of the aspects that we have discussed before. In the future, a lot of technology is emerging that will help in many aspects, and not just only the delivery and so on, but the optimisation, the other things that we haven't discussed here but everything needed also to be optimised and to be careful. So we need to also to ensure that in the future we can continuously improve what we have deployed, that is not just only a single deployment with the job done, but things like 5G will move to 5G advanced, to 6G and so on, a lot of numbers, but the point is technology is moving into an environment where the network will become a network of sensing and where the fibre deployment that we see today would become the backbone of these new infrastructure. Everything that is worse, call 6G, 7G, call as you like, will be able to identify all the objectives that are around us, and without the need to continuously check on stuff, we’ll be able to absorb all this information in different media, different devices, different capabilities. It is why one other important aspect of all this discussion about deployment of fibre 5G, is that in the future, devices will be a bit more simple. Simple, in the sense of the processing capacity, today in devices, is quite powerful, but we don't see this curve going up because what we see is more and more capacity building the network to elaborate the data, instead of to transfer the data.
At this point you have the capability to have, for example, a device with longer battery life, but also the possibility to enable continuously new services, one or the other without ways to mantle years before something is delivered or deployed. Kind of what we experience today with the likes of Android or Microsoft that push out updates all the time, and we'll have the same kind of capability embedded in this new infrastructure of the network that we are building, and the direction of sensing is really the future that I'm excited for.
Jermaine Edwards: Excellent. Letizia, any last things for you, anything you're excited about? Technology to develop more innovation you’d like to see in the future?
Letizia Guadalupi: Yes, and I want to go back to the concept that Alessandro just said about optimisation of everything. That's why I said in the beginning, we would prefer to have a unique platform where all the data can be visible to the full company at the same time. So I think the GIS system is the best platform to use and I'm actually excited about a new tool that is available now. It is called the utility network tool. So on the GIS system, where you can overlay different kinds of information on the ground. If you're also able on the same platform to create your own network there, you can then have a global vision of everything. The utility network tool has just been released a few years ago, not used in the UK yet so that's why i'm really excited about this. So let's see if we can integrate everything on the same platform, we will not have miscommunication transferring files from one software to another, making mistakes. Transformations will be automated, you will work on the same geographic system at any time, and you can use different sources of data on the same platform, so that's where I want to go, and I would recommend this.
Jermaine Edwards: Excellent, thank you Letizia. Any last words from you Shawn? Anything in particular that you're most excited to see?
Shawn Nolan: I’m quite a big geek, I really am. I try not to be! So I would say Internet of Things, but that's kind of here already, and if I buy another Alexa, my wife will kill me. Anyway, I'll probably say things around VR and AR really, really excite me. I think there's a lot of utility in general, not just on the entertainment front, but things like I said before, as civils delivery and medical and training, there's a lot of things, the good connectivity to those overlay tools. As Alessandro was saying before, the fibre will become like a silent thing under the ground, very much like your gas, water or electricity, just kind of there. And all these fun technologies, interesting technologies, overlay technologies, they're the ones that the end user sees every day. So, the two things I'm kind of looking forward to are AR and VR. One of the things I'm doing at the moment, I'm teaching myself Python programming, and I'm also learning about machine learning and teaching myself from books as well. There's quite a lot of interesting machine learning, I suppose, an application you can insert into the AR and VR world as well. Once your brain starts thinking of the possibilities, you kind of wish somebody had already figured out how to do it, so I'm just trying to learn myself in a very slow way, but yeah that's it for me.
Jermaine Edwards: Excellent, well I do appreciate it. Clearly some exciting innovations, lots of prospects, but some real challenges to overcome as well in order to really maximise and benefit from all the things you're talking about.
So I do want to thank everybody for being on the podcast, thank you for your experience, for your expertise, for your thoughts. Shawn, Alessandro, Letizia, it’s been really cool to hear your contributions, so wishing you success obviously in the race to 5G. Thank you again for contributing.