Big Interview

The changing face of telecoms

Keri Gilder 2020 NEW .jpg

Colt’s Keri Gilder talks to Natalie Bannerman about the evolution of the telco, with the arrival of next-generation networks and the requirements they will bring

We exist in an ICT landscape that is constantly evolving. While carriers will always be the builders of infrastructure, new innovations have forced the community to take a more comprehensive view of the products and services it offers.

One of the keynote panels at this year’s International Telecoms Week will discuss how the carriers are ‘rediscovering their purpose’. Keri Gilder, CEO of Colt Technology Services and one of the panellists for this session, shares her views on how the role of the telco is changing.

Critical infrastructure aside, Gilder believes that the role of telecoms is to be the universal connector.

“The disaggregation of software and hardware creates an environment that requires collaboration, standards and adherence to those standards, as well as commercial agreements that are different from those that existed in the past,” she adds.

“Whether it applies to use cases such as the metaverse, AI or automated cars, collaboration can play a big part in creating value for other enterprises and for our own – which historically has been a problem.

“When cloud came in and over-the-top [OTT] services spread, the value proposition for telecoms was lost,” says Gilder.

"We are a very kind industry, and we were very nice to let the OTTs run over infrastructure. What we didn’t recognise was that, in parallel, this disaggregation of software and hardware was happening – which meant that all the value out of those services was being held.”

For telcos to find their way back into the value chain will require collaboration, orchestration, and a lot of automation. But such innovation needs a lot of “softwarisation”, which in turn poses a real dilemma over how to acquire the resources to deliver on this growing trend.

“I think talent is a real problem in the industry, especially on the software side. I have been working with the TM Forum on ways to change this equation,” Gilder says.

“The reality is that, with the softwarisation of network services – whether it be SD-WAN or anything else – we are asking for the same resources that every other industry is asking for, and our ability to attract talent into our industry is very limited.”

One of the reasons for this, she says, is that the communications connectivity providers don’t appear in many use cases – even those at university level – despite all the work being done in areas such as subsea, satellite and fibre.

“Why aren’t we talking about subsea and 5G? Elon Musk made satellites cool, but we have been doing satellites for ever. Why aren’t we talking about the fibre connectivity required in all of those environments?”

Gilder concedes that universities aren’t the only answer, adding that “there are tech schools and apprenticeship programmes that we can build as well”, but “we have to look at the talent base very differently from the way we have in the past”.

In the short term, she predicts, telcos will be heavily reliant on systems integrators and companies that “saw this train coming” and built out their software development early.

In the long term, however, “that’s not sustainable” and so “there are two things to consider’.

“First, can we share resources? The programme that we have ideated with the TM Forum is really just that. As people come out of university, apprentice programmes, tech schools or reach the industry through other routes, could we create some momentum by having a talent consortium?” Gilder says.

“And if we build a talent consortium, then maybe we start to build some interest in coming into this industry.”

In this way, individuals could be provided with global experiences that enable them to learn the different parts of the industry. This is turn will allow the sector to attract more directly and then keep the keep talent it needs.

“We have to think collaboratively around talent, and we need to build apprentice programmes in order to bring in more of the diverse talent base that’s out there – and completely capable,” Gilder says.

Part of this challenge involves creating an inclusive culture, because without that “it won’t matter how good we are at recruiting, we are not going to be able to retain talent”.

Some of her work in this area includes collaborating with the TM Forum to create a single, universal index that can be used to measure the inclusive culture of the industry. Having this in place, alongside a company’s own strategy, will help to drive the change needed.

Unfortunately, since the Covid-19 pandemic, much of the work across diversity, equity and inclusion has “gone backwards instead of forwards”. According to figures from Verizon, 68% of women who left their jobs during the pandemic did so because of burnout, with many having to manage additional home-life responsibilities, with little support.

“You have to think about diversity of thought and what that brings to innovation. We are way behind where we need to be, and the pandemic has had a multiplying effect on the on the impact on women in particular. We need to find a way to help them get back,” Gilder says.

Things such as flexible/hybrid working, or even fully remote working are the key, forcing us to take a personal approach, recognising “each individual has different requirements”.

Such personal requirements will be even more important when delivering the next phase of the internet – or the metaverse as it’s also known.

“There is a lot of change that has to happen within infrastructure in order to make the metaverse a reality,” Gilder says.

“Functioning without delay, low latency, total coverage, a universal CPE [customer premises equipment] environment and universal access environment is going to be required in order to make that happen.”

But this also comes at a cost. Gilder predicts that “there is going to be a lot of capital investment required into the infrastructure – as well as developing the software that's going to enable an environment that's universal across any access”.

The relationship between telcos and OTTs will be central to this, creating an opportunity to have a different conversation around what collaboration and partnerships look like.

“But we need to take off the armour around this competitive stance and this ‘us versus them’ mentality, because I don’t see it that way,” she says.

“We have to work together. They need us as much as we need them in order to make this successful. This isn’t a marriage that starts with the prenuptial, talking about divorce. It starts with a marriage that talks about how we can make this a long-term resilient relationship that’s sustainable.”

Colt at present is working on many proofs of concepts and initiatives in order to drive innovation further forward.

“Whether it be fully on demand, building out digital exchanges, looking at collaboration, driving 800G wave services over terrestrial networks, and so on,” she says.

Colt will also continue to put capital investment into fibre. It has fibre in place to 29,000 buildings in more than 1,000 data centres at present. It will also continue to work closely with strictly infrastructure players to further sustainability goals.

“What we don’t want in seven to 10 years from now – which could happen, based on all the building that’s going on – is an oversupply. While we continue to build, we are going to partner and collaborate heavily, as we have always done, and we are going to drive value back into the enterprise.”

Accountability, responsibility, customer and community are the four key pillars of Colt’s business activities.

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