"We’re ready to embrace the future of telecom": TELUS CTO

Suddhaloke Choudhury
Global Content and Social Media Manager
Rakuten Symphony
September 7, 2023
minute read

In telecom, geographic or population coverage can make or break a mobile operator’s success. Canada, the world’s second largest country spans almost 8,000 kilometers from east to west yet is home to only 40 million people. Its size provides a unique challenge for Canadian network operators, including TELUS, who are challenged with keeping customers connected with thousands of kilometers of fiber and cellular base stations. The company’s Chief Technology Officer, Ibrahim Gedeon, sat down with us at Rakuten Optimism 2023 in Yokohama, Japan, and summed up Canada’s complex situation: “That’s a lot of base stations needed with a small amount of people…especially now with 5G,” he said.

Speaking virtually from Edmonton, Canada, Gedeon joined Rakuten Symphony’s Chief Operating Officer, Hideyuki Hirama and Chief Business Officer, Rabih Dabboussi, at Rakuten’s annual marquee event. Gedeon explained that while the challenge of population density coverage in Canada is poles apart from the densely populated cities of Japan, Canadians are similar to the Japanese in their high expectations of network quality.

TELUS and its competing Canadian operators, Bell Canada and Rogers, are tasked, just like Rakuten Mobile, with ensuring that customers experience uninterrupted coverage and negligible call drops. To meet this challenge, TELUS is looking to the future of telco technologies to get ahead of its peers.

“Is it painful to prove the technology? Yes, it requires a bit of courage, a bit of joint investment. But I think the reward is worth it.”
- Ibrahim Gedeon, Chief Technology Officer, TELUS

Optimism for tomorrow

Rakuten Symphony’s Hirama remarked on the similarities between Rakuten and TELUS, that both companies have expanded business services to meet the needs of large and diverse customer bases. Gedeon agreed, noting how he’s optimistic about being able to bring more relevance to clients as an industry because TELUS, like Rakuten, has a strong presence in multiple industries and sectors like healthcare, agriculture and television. “For this, we are partnering with Rakuten in other areas, not limited to Open RAN and Rakuten Symphony,” he said.

Dabboussi shared Gedeon’s enthusiasm, adding, “I am optimistic about what we're doing together with Ibrahim [Gedeon] and the TELUS team in Canada — we're looking forward to seeing great results there.” Dabboussi detailed Rakuten Symphony’s journey over the last four years disrupting and transforming the telecom industry. “I have seen the expansion in interest and the increased appetite in adopting the new and forgetting the old. I'm not just optimistic. I am very confident that this will only continue,” he commented. The future, according to Dabboussi, will be based on open architecture that is software-defined, to serve customers at reduced costs and improved efficiencies.

Why buy today’s model when you can drive the 2028 version?

While developing Rakuten Mobile, the world-first cloud-native telecom network built with technologies using open RAN specifications, industry experts expressed concerns about the feasibility of the open architecture and network quality. They claimed it wouldn’t work in densely or sparsely populated areas, that it would not be secure and unsustainable. Rakuten proved these myths to be wrong.

It’s taken four years for skeptics to have finally believed. Gedeon noted a marked change in industry sentiment from experts at Mobile World Congress Barcelona 2023 where he says global telecoms suppliers finally said: ’Yes. ORAN works.’

Ibrahim Gedeon, Chief Technology Officer, TELUS
Ibrahim Gedeon, Chief Technology Officer, TELUS

For Rakuten Mobile, the company’s successful launch of 4G services at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic was possible only because of the adoption of a software-centric approach, noted Dabboussi. Discussing why Rakuten Mobile chose Open RAN,  Dabboussi highlighted one of the key pain points of telecom operators and service providers around the world. “In many cases, the cost of operating the network is more significant than the actual cost of installing it,” he said.

Leveraging advanced technologies and commodity hardware systems is not new in the tech space, Dabboussi said, highlighting how this happened earlier in the enterprise and IT world by migrating to a common platform — the cloud.

Gedeon added that this change in mindset has helped to drastically reduce the investment needed in running a mobile network. He believes that with the right investments in R&D and the right organizational mindset, telecom leaders can realize the potential of technologies like Open RAN today.

Gedeon added that he believes the COVID pandemic has given many lessons from a supply chain perspective, like the importance of being current on technology. He said, “If we had the chance to buy a 2028 car model, how many of us will buy a 2019 model? This is what's happening. So, is it painful to prove the technology? Yes, it requires a bit of courage, a bit of joint investment. But I think the reward is worth it.”

It requires courage, but the reward is worth it

Migrating towards Open RAN and a software-centric architecture offers unique benefits. For example, machines and scripts, when designed well, dramatically remove network issues, which more often than not are attributed to human error. Dabboussi remarked that these are only some of the benefits when introducing artificial intelligence (AI) and automation into the mobile network architecture. He noted that AI and automation reduce costs significantly, and that Rakuten Symphony is integrating AI and automation to create industry-first innovations like:

  • Zero Touch Provisioning: Automating the steps to setup, configure and turn on radios for them to start emitting signals and provide coverage to customers.
  • Closed Loop Automation: Enabling machines and network elements to talk to each other and configure themselves to help build a more resilient network.
  • Auto scale and auto heal: Auto scale refers to the ability for capacity to be adjusted basis network dynamics while auto healing allows operators to reconfigure the network during constraints or outages.

These innovations have been developed by moving away from proprietary, rigid and opaque technologies to open, software-centric and highly scalable technologies. Gedeon agreed that the proof that Open RAN works has already been demonstrated by Rakuten Mobile and the industry is only now starting to come around. “The opportunities TELUS saw with Open RAN are only now being noticed by the larger industry,” he said.

“I have seen the expansion in interest and the bigger appetites in adopting the new and forgetting the old. And I'm not just optimistic. I am very confident that this is here to continue.”
-Rabih Dabboussi, Chief Business Officer, Rakuten Symphony

More than talk

TELUS is an organization that’s not afraid of innovation. In fact, Gedeon prides himself on driving innovation at the company. He noted how TELUS always like to do things first. Not for the sake of being first, but through a desire to avail the benefits of adopting the right technology. “We are not afraid to try things, and once we see the results for a little bit, we are all in,” he said.

Gedeon revealed just how far TELUS is in exploring Open RAN, AI and automation in its network. He highlighted a pilot program being conducted in Canada with live customers and traffic. TELUS is currently operating seven sites, each with a single radio per sector and three sectors per site, using a total of 21 Open RAN radios, he said. By the end of Q3, TELUS plans to have 84 radios and servers on the 7 sites but with multiple radios per sector, all deployed and powered by Rakuten Symphony.

TELUS and Rakuten Symphony discussing the future of telecom at Rakuten Optimism 2023.

TELUS is also implementing Rakuten Symphony’s Zero Touch Provisioning solution, which was trialed and proven in August 2022 by the two companies. Dabboussi noted that the solution removes human error by automatically turning the radio on and configuring it with all of its parameters to offer the services to customers.

Dabboussi noted that the automated solution is helping TELUS and other operators to achieve tasks without human eyes and hands involved, and that by doing this, operators don't only reduce cost, they minimize the amount of human error that takes place. Speaking on why automation is critical to mobile networks, Dabboussi explained that most of network outages, and most of network issues stem from at least a source of human error, because humans are not perfect. But machines and scripts as you design them well, and as you improve them, they can become perfect and predictable.

For the Canadian operator, the opportunity with Open RAN is to showcase how mobile operators can change, build and deliver modern networks in a brownfield environment. Gedeon is set out to prove that operators don’t need to purchase yesterday’s technologies when the future is already here. “If we had the chance to buy a 2028 car model, how many of us will buy a 2019 model? This is what's happening. So, is it painful to prove the technology? Yes, it requires a bit of courage, a bit of joint investment. But I think the reward is worth it.”

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