Big Interview

The age of technological optimism

Laurinda Pang_16_9.jpg

As she approaches the end of her tenure as chair of the Global Leaders’ Forum, Laurinda Pang takes stock of the last 24 months and outlines her vision for the future. Natalie Bannerman reports

This is the year that Laurinda Pang ends her tenure as chair of the ITW Global Leaders’ Forum (GLF). Leading this global organisation since 2020, through what has been one of the biggest global crises in decades, she reflects on what it takes to be at the helm of one of the most prestigious groups at the heart of the digital communications ecosystem.

Passing the baton

“The GLF team and I have been thinking about that and asking ourselves, what do we want and what do we need? There are a few dimensions to it.”

The first she says is diversity, not just in terms of the person and where they are located, but diversity of thought and how individuals reflect the global nature of the organisation.

“The past couple of chairs have been from Asia-Pacific and now North America. So, do we think about Europe especially, as somewhere we should look to target, for example.”

This extends into looking at the telecoms industry’s role in digital transformation and sustainability, or as Pang asks “is there somebody who is going to look at this topic through more than just a traditional carrier lens, really thinking through the impact that the industry has on broader topics and how we enable that?”

Above all else, whoever is next in line for the coveted seat must think about the GLF’s future and its evolution. Pang says: “As I understand it, the ultimate aim of the GLF when it started was to enable the globalisation of businesses and close the digital divide by enabling consumers and enterprises to communicate and transact, for any service or application on any device and on any infrastructure in any geography.”

While the GLF still holds this ethos and purpose, Pang says “as we start to think about our strategic pillars for the next decade, that needs to mature. Simply saying, ‘we are connecting the world’ is not going to be enough”.

Towards the start of her tenure, Pang shared her immediate priorities as the GLF’s newly elected chair with Capacity. At the time she said her “first priority is to continue to advance the mission of the GLF, that is to uphold the principles of interoperability and to advocate for the industry, and it’s certainly to also provide and create action around particular initiatives that members can collaborate on, such that we can help to transform our industry”. Circling back on these promises, Pang believes she and the GLF team have made good on them.

Unprecedented times

“My tenure has been interesting because it has entirely been during Covid. But I’m really proud of what the GLF did, relative to the initiative of keeping the world connected throughout Covid and in response to Covid,” she says.

During this time the group orchestrated crisis management meetings to discuss and set the best practices to keep everything up and running during the pandemic.

“That was a role that we needed to play in order to enable all carriers globally, whether they were members of GLF or not, to at least be able to maintain that connectivity,” she says.

Pang’s tenure also saw the GLF work with world governments to classify telecoms infrastructure, communications services and their related workforces, as essential.

“What was shocking to us was that there were parts of the world where local governments didn’t think of communications and telecommunications as critical or essential services,” she explains. “We really advocated to be able to send that message globally, to ensure that carriers were able to get to their equipment, turn up services on behalf of their customers, to ensure that connectivity. The GLF did a really good job as it relates to that.”

The war in Ukraine is the latest crisis and Pang says the priority for the GLF and its members during this time is to “maintain communications”.

After Russia’s invasion of its neighbour, Lumen, where Pang is president of global customer success, wholesale and international, disconnected its network in Russia “due to increased security risk”. But Pang explains that Lumen “shut down our physical infrastructure in the region, but we’ve maintained connectivity into the region through interconnects outside of the country. We continue to believe it’s incredibly important for the citizens of Russia to be able to communicate. We continue to maintain the same perspective as the rest of the GLF members”.

Whether examining the ICT landscape as the current GLF chair or as an executive at Lumen, Pang’s view remains the same: the industry is constantly changing and it is our job to try and keep up.

With interoperability still central to the GLF’s ethos, questions on the organisation’s evolution remain the most prominent, and Pang has been considering what the GLF’s strategic priorities should be for the next decade.

“The conversation I have been having with the GLF members is around this whole notion of technological optimism,” she says.

She says Covid-19 vaccines are an example of a time when innovation was leveraging technology and “pivoting to truly, the absolute power of it”.

This in many ways, is also an example of where Pang’s role as GLF chair overlaps with her role at Lumen, which has a similar purpose of “furthering human progress through the use of technology”.

“So, whether it’s our [Lumen’s] investment in real quantum fibre, interconnecting networks, the deployment of 5G and edge computing, in storing applications, everything that we do, that’s squarely in the heart of it,” she says.

Pillars and principles

In keeping with this, Pang’s position when speaking with GLF members is that they have a responsibility to not just be the connection, but to take on an even more meaningful role.

Breaking it down into four key pillars, this expanded role is firstly about taking a leadership position in environmental, social and governance (ESG). Pang says this speaks to more than just diversity, but also about whether our industry has a positive impact on the wellbeing of society through ensuring inclusiveness, not just diversity, and building sustainable economies, not just environmental sustainability.

The second is to ensure there is trust in technology. This speaks to trusted internet, trusted use of data and trusted collaboration, which brings in the work around blockchain technologies. The GLF’s Communications Business Automation Network (CBAN), which is developing a blockchain-enabled platform for inter-carrier settlement processes, continues to lead in this space, with Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, Colt and PCCW Global working to develop further use cases and proofs of concept.

In 2021, CBAN launched an identity service that verifies partners for any use case, to automate settlement between ICT Service Providers. Designed to be distributed ledger technology (DLT) agnostic, providing unique identities to every organisation in the network and validate these across any number of DLT chains – key in a de-centralised network.

Advancing automation is Pang’s third pillar. “There’s a thirst and a need for consuming our services – the need for bandwidth and connectivity continues to increase,” she says. “Delivering our services with speed and quality is going to enable the broader consumerisation that’s happening in the world today. In delivering this pillar, we ensure future competitiveness of our services, but also understand and enable the customers that we serve, to meet their goals which are customer experience, ease of doing business and cost efficiencies.”

The fourth pillar is centred on interoperability. Pang says this is foundational to what the GLF does, but it continues to evolve as we usher in the next-generation of networks that include network-as-a-service, the Internet of Things (IoT) and edge computing.

“These are my thoughts for the next decade, but I’m sure that it will change in two years, because technology moves so quickly and the world is changing so rapidly.”

The GLF’s other work includes fighting against fraud, which has resulted in the launch of the GLF’s Code of Conduct, a set of six key principles that all carriers should adhere to, as well as its IoT working group, which was established to address the lack of technical and commercial standards regarding the separation of different types of IoT traffic – both of which have made strong progress during Pang’s tenure. “We should feel really proud about that because we’re setting standards both in terms of quality and security,” she says.

With the GLF’s third diversity report due to be launched at International Telecoms Week 2022, conversation turns to how the industry is fairing, both in terms of its inclusivity goals and in recruiting and retaining talent. Pang’s view, in a nutshell, is that “it’s far from being solved”.

The GLF’s first diversity report from its diversity, inclusion and belonging working group, chaired by Eric Cevis, president of Verizon Partner Solutions, focused on gender, and the second on racial equity. This year’s report is intended to deep dive into inclusion.

“Inclusion is not just the right thing to do, it’s a business imperative,” says Pang. “We’re not going to be able to participate in all of the areas that I talked about, in terms of how we play a role in the industry and across society, if we don’t have the right resources and talent across the industry.”

Reforming practices

Pang acknowledges that telcos now have to compete with the ‘who’s who’ of technology, when previously carriers just competed with each other for talent.

“We’re now having to look at any of the born in the cloud-type of organisations, frankly anything software-oriented, because that’s where next-gen networks are and we need people with that skill set,” she explains.

Part of the problem in Pang’s view is attempting to solve this issue at scale, as she believes that “when we talk about it at that high of a level, it feels very generic in terms of how we’re trying to solve it”.

Describing those types of conversations as a “nothing burger” due to their lack of insight and helpfulness, Pang says the solution is to “look much deeper into our own organisations”, at the simple things, she adds, like what is the employee value proposition.

“Forget about the industry for a moment,” Pang advises. “You as a business, company or team: why should somebody want to be a part of that? Why should they want to stay and how are you attracting them because of your employee value proposition?”

This value proposition should go beyond compensation but understanding that who you are as a business, what you stand for and what your values are make the difference.

“Best practices are good – they’re an important a data point – but I think everybody has to look within their own space and understand what their specific challenges are and get creative and unique in terms of solving them,” says Pang.

A different quantum

With many feathers in its cap, next-gen fibre has been at the top of Lumen’s network expansion plans.

Most recently, during the company’s Q4 2021 results call CEO Jeff Storey announced that it would be expanding its Quantum Fiber FTTH network during 2022 with an investment of US$1 billion.

Pang says the company aspires to reach 12 million locations across its US footprint, making the clear distinction that Lumen connects more than just homes.

“It’s really about the deployment of fibre to densely populated locations,” she says. “We’re in the process of making that investment and we’ve got expectations of getting to the 12 million locations within the next five or so years.”

Unsurprisingly, Lumen’s drivers continue to be demand, the excellent returns on such investment and customer experience while championing the ethos: “If it’s not dead simple, it’s dead wrong.”

“The customer experience associated with [Quantum Fiber] is extraordinary in comparison to what we’ve seen in our traditional mass markets,” says Pang. “The Quantum Fiber business is 100% digital. So rather than trying to figure out how to fix all this old and legacy technology, we’re pivoting and going very aggressive with fibre and with digital.”

The rural fibre problem remains a pivotal part of the conversation. As a participant in the Federal Communications Commission’s Connect America Fund I and II programmes, Lumen continues to leverage all resources at its disposal to get fibre where it needs to be.

When asked if satellite is the best solution for providing rural connectivity, Pang says that “satellite is a great way to go, I’m not sure if it’s the only way to go”, adding that government funding would be required and that challenges remain in meeting expectations around service levels.

Although Lumen’s Quantum Fiber infrastructure is largely concentrated in urban and densely populated locations, some of the 16 states where it is deployed are some of the fastest growing suburban areas in the US.

In tandem the company has welcomed Martin Nystrom as vice president of security development, underscoring Lumen’s empasis of cybersecuity and its growing importance in the market.

The next 12 months promises so many things across the industry, with the evolution of emerging technologies and the maturation of new trends, such as the promise of the metaverse. And Lumen’s wholesale unit is no exception.

First, the company will continue to expand its markets and its capabilities, including further investment in edge, SASE and security services. Next Lumen will double down on the markets it is in, leveraging the “deep investments” and “physical network assets” that it has already made with services such as traditional networking, VPN and IP.

Next it will continue to offer operational and customer excellence, based around the notion of automation and “creating a much easier way to do business”.

The company’s final priority is around talent, or as Pang puts it, “making sure that we are building the organisation of the future”.