Spotlight on Tech

“We are on day 1 of the next 30 years”: CMO calls for change on World Telecommunication and Information Society Day 2024

Geoff Hollingworth
Chief Marketing Officer
Rakuten Symphony
May 17, 2024
minute read
Rakuten Symphony CMO Geoff Hollingworth reflects on telecom’s past, present and future - and how the industry can fulfil its long-term potential.

Telecom’s Global Impact

On World Telecommunication and Information Society Day 2024, I thought it would only be fitting if I took a moment to not only pay homage to telecom’s significant global impact but also lay out a vision for how it must adapt in order to thrive in the future. Mobile networks are an essential requirement in order for countries and individuals to fully participate in modern society. The lack of equitable quality nationwide coverage is causing a digital divide that cannot be allowed to develop further.

"We need to view today as day 1 of the next 30 years where the world will look very different from what it did 30 years ago."

Telecom’s Marvel and Shortcomings

Telecom is a marvel. It is the cornerstone of global communications and a fundamental component of humanity’s infrastructure. It is currently irreplaceable. However, it is a very long way from being infallible. By the end of 2022, over 5.4 billion people globally subscribed to a mobile service, while mobile technologies and services generated 5% of global GDP - $5.2 trillion of economic value added, according to GSMA Intelligence. It will continue to create value in the coming years - global data consumption over telecom networks is expected to triple from 3.4 million petabytes (PB) in 2022 to 9.7 million PB by 2027, according to PwC. The industry has always focused on delivering coverage in markets with high returns, but its compound annual growth rate (CAGR) is predicted to only grow 1.8% over the same period, Analysys Mason predicts. With 2.6 billion people still unconnected, glaring digital gaps hinder innovation across much of the world. And gaps exist even in the most modern countries where population densities and non-effective returns on investment hinder coverage in rural and less populated areas. This is not sustainable.

Major Shifts in Philosophy, Architecture and Technology

We might be fooled into thinking that each new generation of mobile infrastructure will bring big change from the last, but we have not seen that that with the latest generation of upgrades. What is actually needed is a major shift in philosophy, architecture and technology beyond the ‘G’ definition.

We are no longer building mobile network infrastructure for the same reasons. We need to view today as day 1 of the next 30 years where the world will look very different from what it did 30 years ago.  We cannot build networks for the next 30 years in the same way as we built them in the previous 30 years. It will be prohibitively expensive, too complicated to manage and will take far too long.

Education on Building Modern Networks

This requires education on how to build modern cloud-native, fully automated, dynamically operated, fully automated software-defined networks. We should not rush this transition, but it is imperative that we move quickly and with discipline. This shift needs to be led by countries and each operator. If we do not make this change as an industry we will continue to fail and be forced into more managed decline, asset sales and weakened business positions.

Building a Distributed Computing Infrastructure

That transition means moving away from building mobile networks to building a distributed computing infrastructure that supports mobile networks and everything else. This requires a fundamentally different mindset. This new infrastructure shall become fundamental to a country's security, growth, and quality of life. This infrastructure will define how countries work, compete and are kept safe. 

Telecom’s Future and the Change Needed

There’s absolutely no doubt that telecom’s future - and the change needed to get us there - is daunting. Change is hard. This new start to telecom infrastructure must shift from vertical to horizontal integration, from static to dynamic operations, and must be able to scale up and scale down based on demand. This will lay the foundation for the next generation of AI workloads where processing is done wherever the data resides - at the edge. Fundamentally speaking, this is how the industry must innovate in order to ensure its long-term sustainability and prosperity. Gone are the days where telcos built infrastructure to support static operations where hardware defined what software ran where, and manual operations were used to plan, build and operate the life cycle of the network.

"Data powers monetization improvements.  Automation and AI are as good as the data that guides it."

Key Pillars of Network Deployment and Operations

There are several key pillars that will drive this next model of network deployment and operations. Fundamentally speaking, they are open interfaces, automation everywhere and cloud-native principles. Automation will increasingly become AI-powered to augment human scale with machine scale. The center of gravity has moved from hardware to software, and operational complexity has exponentially increased leading to the need for automated augmentation of operations rather than manual solutions of before.

The Movement to Software and Automation

The movement to software is the movement to automation. The fundamental nature of software is to automate what was previously done manually. Traditional software automates workflows. AI software and models automate decision making that can then trigger software automated workflows. Both work at an infinite scale. Every single activity can be automated but the management, governance, and security of automation and AI operations is a prerequisite to success in reality. The proven cost savings of the new network design come from automating everything that can be automated, and to remove anything that is no longer needed, including vendor islands, vendor isolated supply chains, vendor-specialized knowledge, and siloed operations.

Data is everything

All businesses are software businesses, and all businesses are powered by data. Data is the oil that enables system-level automation and the opportunity for AI to be implemented towards autonomous network operations. Data powers monetization improvements.  Automation and AI are as good as the data that guides it. Increasing network complexity over the next 30 years demands automated and machine-assisted operation in the same way modern aircraft all fly with machine assistance.

In conclusion: Make a choice. Change how you do telecom or specialize in managed decline.

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