Driving telco 3.0
Natalie Bannerman speaks to Maria Lema, co-founder of Weaver Labs, about telcos’ responses to the latest Web3 innovations
Maria Lema’s goal when co-founding the Web3 start-up Weaver Labs – as outlined in Capacity’s 20 Women to Watch – was to “to break down silos in telcos and open the market up to new owners of telecoms infrastructure, foster collaboration and network sharing models and address demand for connectivity vs infrastructure investment”.
At the time, Lema was managing an innovation lab at King’s College London and was part of the team that deployed the first 5G test network in London, which gave her and her team at King’s College, a good understanding of where which direction the market was going in.
“We wanted to capitalise on the first-hand experience we had in 5G and look at solving some of the inefficiencies of the telecoms supply chain through Weaver Labs,” she says.
Described as “Sonos for networks” Lema says that while Weaver Labs provides telecoms infrastructure for mobile and is “aiding connectivity for absolutely everything”, its operating model is in flux.
“[The industry is] moving from an ownership model where your classic service providers would go and deploy the telecoms infrastructure and provide services on top of that, to what is called the ‘network-of-networks’, where many other players would invest in telecoms infrastructure; not necessarily to provide a service on top, but just to provide the telco infrastructure,” she explains.
As a result, she says there is a need to integrate all the networks that currently exist in silos, which is where Weaver Labs comes into play.
“Our software creates this kind of Sonos, if you will, of networks,” she says. “Essentially, it enables this network-of-networks.”
One part of Weaver Labs’ work is centred on how NFTs, a form of blockchain technology, can used to give public assets digital values, creating opportunities to accelerate the development of smart cities. To Lema, an NFT is just a type of smart contract.
“[An NFT] is a way to digitise an asset that can exist in the real world or in a digital environment. It includes all the properties of the asset, and [the asset’s] ownership can be exchanged in a way that cannot be duplicated,” she explains.
Continuing the line of thought that all telecoms infrastructure is accessed as a service by multiple service providers, Lema says that the industry needs to find a way to transact with providers.
“That can be anything from a lamppost where you place an antenna to an entire network. The way that we leverage that is we digitise those assets, onboard them into a marketplace and use a type of smart contract tool, but it’s an NFT, to transact with it,” she adds.
Another area that Weaver Labs has been focusing on is democratising access to telecoms infrastructure, specifically by using 5G and the application of other types of blockchain technology.
Lema uses service level agreements (SLAs) as an example of this. She says SLAs, which range from contracts made with local infrastructure providers, for local authority access or to work with landlords, are “different contracts that are happening in the entire supply chain”.
“As we move into more disaggregated infrastructure and more pieces of the puzzle need to be put together, these chains of contracts and quality of service guarantees get increasingly complex,” she says.
According to Lema, there are two ways to resolve this. The first, she says, is shrinking the supply chain and having one provider for all these needs. But she points out this does not work well, giving BT and Openreach as an example. “Ofcom is actually moving in the other direction of promoting more fragmentation of the market,” she says.
Lema believes that continuing to adopt these types of quality-of-service agreements based on SLA contracts will hinder sharing models. But she sees blockchain technology as one option to resolve this, as it creates a way of handling all these contractual agreements with no trust having to exist between the players.
“On the other hand, there’s the use of smart contract platforms that trigger payments only if certain conditions are met,” she adds. “You have a layer of metering, and you have a certain level of upholding that contractual agreement.”
As telcos increasingly wake up to the potential that blockchain holds, Lema says she is witnessing a general shift in thinking around next-gen networks.
“The telco market is moving into the idea of the network-of-networks, and if we look at what’s being discussed now in the context of 6G and what’s next, it’s more integration and we’re always talking about interoperability,” she says.
In this context, she says “blockchain is just a technical solution to solve a problem” and if you describe it that way “the telco industries are very open to hearing about it”.
“The ones who I see as being the most receptive to these types of technologies are the neutral hosts, because they’re the ones who are building the infrastructure to be used as a service and they don’t want to be just dumb pipes,” she says. “Technologies like this can definitely help onboard customers faster.”
Other emerging tech is continuing to make waves, but Lema believes some of it is still too early in its development cycle to be applied in practical settings.
“The only thing I’m seeing from quantum in general is research-based,” says Lema. “Which is great as there’s a lot of money being invested in it and we’re where we are today because someone put a lot of money into accelerating software and networks. I just don’t see any real-life applications of quantum being deployed.”
But artificial intelligence (AI) is an area where Lema is seeing a lot of development. Weaver Labs is working on a project in Manchester which uses CCTV to continuously gather information about the city and use AI to monitor and learn what is happening in order to improve productivity or apply any other policies they want to the learning algorithm.
As the telco industry discusses how AI can help network automation and learn how networks behave, Lema says finding the sweet spot is not as easy as we think.
“The traffic is not as predictable as we think, that’s why we always end up provisioning networks for the worst-case scenario, which is the peak hours. But maybe with all these software elements, we can gather more information and finally be able to apply more intelligence into how we plan networks,” she says.
With the growing rate of innovation, finding talent, particularly in Lema’s line of work, remains the top priority. “Right now, I spend about 50% of my time hiring,” she says.
Lema believes telcos are struggling now is because “telco is not sexy” – it is not thought of as cool in the way blockchain, Web3 or crypto are. She adds that part of the reason is that “as an industry we’ve always been very closed and very seemingly complicated and complex”.
She also recognises that “it’s very difficult to capture young talent if you tell them that they need to have X number of years of experience in 3GPP interfaces or things like that” as “there is very little talent that comes with a telco background”.
But she sees an opportunity lying in the fact that companies are increasingly software-based and telco is the application of that software.
“Seven years ago, when I was building the team for the innovation lab to deliver a 5G network, I made a bet and instead of hiring network engineers, I hired software developers,” said Lema. “That was the best decision I ever made because these people can learn fast, and the networking part is not that complicated. Plus, they have the necessary knowledge of cloud and software to modernise telecoms.”
Lema’s approach to hiring these days is to bring in people from other areas and to be open to educating people from other verticals. “That’s something I think the hyperscalers have done really well,” she says.
Young recruits are also in short supply, especially female applicants. “Women CVs, they just don’t come,” laments Lema. At least, not in the hard sciences. Instead, women make up the majority of softer fields, such as HR and marketing, and those Lema describes as “predefined” for them.
At the same time, Lema says the old issue of engaging young women in STEM during their early education also plays a part. “Which is a shame, because it’s really fun to do engineering,” she says.
“I started in this industry because I saw a woman working here and I thought ‘if she can do it, I can do it’,” Lema recalls. “Despite the fact that she had a family and other at home responsibilities, she was kicking ass in this industry.”
Another thing Lema says that the hyperscalers do very well are partnerships. And if the telco industry really wants to compete, there are a lot of start-ups doing great things in orchestration and automation software.
“I think that the big telcos don’t need to solve all the problems themselves, they just need to learn how to work with other smaller companies,” she says.
Weaver Labs’ roadmap for the next year is 100% product development, with two smart city projects underway in the UK.
“Our first should be live in April 2023. And we’re working with Cellnex on developing public private network integration with the use of CellSTACK and planning commercial trials next year for our NFT marketplace,” she says.