Telus: Coming back better
Amid a wave of local investments and upcoming network projects, Telus CTO Ibrahim Gedeon speaks to Natalie Bannerman about the new tech that it is making it happen – and how they got it wrong on 5G
For those paying attention, news from Canadian telco Telus has been nothing but wave after wave of local investments and connectivity projects.
From its $1.8 million in the North Island region as part of its $13 billion investment in network infrastructure and operations across British Columbia to its $300 million pledge in Edmonton as part of its $14.5 billion investment in infrastructure and operations across Alberta, the company has network expansion and enhancement at the forefront of its objectives.
Ibrahim Gedeon, chief technology officer at Telus, says that it’s all part of what they call generational investments.
“You have to do infrastructure replenishments every X number of years, and it has been made even more crucial with Covid. We quickly realised that our fibre was such an advantage and then a disadvantage for our clients and competitors who don’t have it.
“So that’s why we made all these announcements of the foundational – or what we call generational – investments where the payoff could be 10 or 15 years down the line, but we need to make them.”
With these investments from Telus as part of a cyclical upgrading of its network, rather than as a result of some external influence, conversation soon turned to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and how it has affected the regions where Telus operates.
Looking at Telus customers across both consumer and enterprise segments, from the perspective of businesses, Gedeon says, “they have three things on their minds: digital, cloud and 5G”. By his own admission, though, many are not even sure what the differences between them are and what they do; they just know that they “need to be part of the network”.
On the consumer side of things, he says, it’s all about “the adoption of digital and the shedding of things that you may have worried about, such as privacy”.
Overall, he says, there has been an “acceptance of digital” as well as the realisation that “you need to digitise your supply chain” not just an app and cloud-based enterprise parts. “You need your end-to-end supply to be digital, so you could be part of the digital economy, and that’s what we have noticed. And the pandemic actually turned us into a mission-critical utility,” he says.
As a company that was already largely work from home, continuing operations during this time has proved straight forward for Telus, demonstrating how crucial connectivity services are in this environment.
“These days, if you ask somebody if they would take a water disruption for four hours or their internet service interrupted, they will take the water disruption for four hours.”
As conversation turns to open radio access network (O-RAN) and the popularity of this disaggregated approach to project builds, Gedeon says that the original intention of it was that “you weren’t tied into a single vendor”.
“We firmly believe that, with where the technology is going, you can disaggregate the pieces with the right standards,” he explains.
Fundamentally, it is O-RAN’s ability to enable operators to “build in small pieces” that aligns with the Telus ethos.
Another piece of the connectivity puzzle touted as a real game-changer for rural connectivity is satellite, and for the most part Gedeon agrees.
“We firmly believe in rural connectivity,” he says. “Telus is the only telco in the world that uses idle spectrum from our wireless internet for rural.”
“I think eventually we need to partner with low Earth orbiting satellites; they are becoming very viable, and we have some trials with a bunch of partners such as OneWeb, Telesat and Starlink, which are going really well.”
But despite the opportunities it creates where there is no wired infrastructure, it doesn’t have a model for managing high levels of traffic, which could prove problematic, depending on where it is deployed.
If for no other reason, these satellite companies “do need to partner with us for them to get landing sites”. Although some are growing out that presence, they have a long way to go to compete with a wire DOCSIS cable network or a fibre network operator.
On how the company is leveraging AI across its business, Gedeon explains that “we have to be an insight-driven organisation, both on the consumer side and on the network side”.
Using O-RAN as an example, there can be in excess of 38 moving pieces, so “if I don’t have some sort of co-ordinated intelligence to provide me with insights to operate my network, then I will fail,” says Gedeon. “So, there’s that AI that I need on the engine. With another AI on top, paired with privacy and security.”
As for ‘new kid on the block’ quantum, Gedeon acknowledges that the Googles, the Amazons and the IBMs of the world have taken the lead in the space, but there are four distinct use cases that he sees.
The first is for malicious purposes, “using quantum computing, because of its speed and depth, to “break encryption”. The more positive uses include security – or, as Gedeon puts it, “if you can break it, you can secure it”, though he says that for the most part it is expensive for the average person and telco. But he adds, “I do believe we will deploy quantum keys for major transport.”
Last but not least, he says, quantum will be used in hybrid chipsets for things such as your home router or at the access point to your provider.
“We are planning a bunch of trials, but I don’t see anything emerging from an operational point of view for the next couple years.”
In keeping with the security theme, Gedeon is personally a big advocate for security and secure by design. In Telus’s organisational structure, the chief analytics officer and the chief privacy officer report to Gedeon as CTO, underpinning the connected approach to its safeguarding operations.
Speaking on the increasing attack surface created by increased digitisation, Gedeon says it all depends on where the demarcation is. “If you do whatever you want on your mobile, that doesn’t translate back to me on the network.”
For Telus’s part, he says, “nothing gets put on the network and the network itself is reviewed with our chief security office and validated, and we do black box testing, where we try to break things all the time.”
2020 saw Telus and the Government of Canada announce a $15 million subsea cable between Sept-Îles and the Gaspésie. Due to go live in 2023, it will connect to Telus’s network, which serves the 14 isolated communities in the Lower North Shore.
Sharing a few details of the project, Gedeon says that Nokia, Netcracker and Huawei are the leads from a vendor point of view. Although it won’t be the largest cable, there are plans for the system to interconnect with another planned system that is “going to go through South America and around northern Canada”.
In other news, Telus recently announced its sustainability-linked bond framework, which contained its goal to achieve operational net carbon neutrality by 2030, a move that Gedeon says was to “put our money where our mouth is” and show action against its sustainability goals.
“We demonstrated two things. One was the spectrum of options and how we never look to liquidity. We also demonstrated that we are ready to be penalised, as a corporation, by putting skin in the game on a sustainability bond.”
With decades of experience in the Canadian telecoms market, Gedeon shares some insights into what has changed during his career – and the biggest, unsurprisingly, is bandwidth consumption.
“The growth is unbelievable,” he says. “The challenge for all operators is keeping the cost in check, because your revenue per bit is dropping faster than your cost per bit.”
When it comes to 5G, Gedeon admits that “we haven’t done quite a few things right”, describing the “nuclear race” that was centred on outdoing the competition – as opposed to who is actually experiencing low latency and optimal performance when they need it most.
“We were just were so busy building to announce for the sake of announcing and getting caught up in the dryness and the emptiness of the marketing of 5G that has carried on down this nuclear war.”
As such his top priority is “developing 5G right”, which involves it having its own business case, a fact that Gedeon is very vocal about.
The rest of the network, he says, has got to be software-based; that’s the other priority, and this involves the use of AI, because of the complexities that exist.