Big Interview

Connecting through the air

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Natalie Bannerman speaks to Ivan Landen, CEO of Blue Wireless, about how the wireless telecoms sector is changing and his company’s place in it

The world of wireless communications is continuing to evolve as the demands placed on it and new use cases for the technology are increasing. 2022 has been a year of tower deals, M&A and innovation in the space, and this is not showing any signs of slowing as we head into 2023.

One company making waves in this market is Blue Wireless – a relative newcomer based in Asia, led by its founder and chief executive, Ivan Landen.

“We’re an enterprise internet service provider,” says Landen. “It’s a bit of a new thing. Most telcos are doing wired, but we are a wireless internet service provider. We provide wireless 5G network connectivity to global enterprise customers.”

Launched in 2015 in Singapore, Landen says Blue Wireless has expanded its service capability to more than 80 countries, “where we deliver local wireless internet access to our customer base”.

The company’s 70-strong team is based in Singapore, Australia, Amsterdam, and a global support centre in Malaysia.

“Last year, we opened up in the US. Our US expansion is a key priority for us,” says Landen.

Like many other businesses in this sector, Blue Wireless is not exempt from the global talent shortage and skills deficit. Although Landen acknowledges that being based in Singapore has advantages when it comes to this.

“It’s a global phenomenon, the staff shortage, but there’s definitely differences in countries. I’d say, in Singapore it is still relatively easy to find talent compared to Europe or US,” says Landen. “Asia is still in a relatively good position in terms of talent, but there is a crunch. The good thing for us is that as a global company, customers can leverage our global capabilities.”

Industry lifer

“I’ve been in telecommunications all my life,” says Landen, an industry veteran, who began his career at Infonet, prior to it being taken over by BT, and then moved on to work with StarHub and Expereo.

“In all that time I’d been selling access internet access. But in 2015 I said, ‘There must be a better way.’” That was Landen’s lightbulb moment. “Access was still too expensive. It was taking too long and we were waiting too long. So let’s try to build a new service offering that is based on wireless internet access, based upon LTE/4G and now 5G. We were trying to come up with a new concept for wireless internet access globally.”

The consensus across the industry is that while 5G is coming at pace, the rate of its deployment and adoption is slower than expected.

“5G is an evolution, not a revolution,” says Landen. “For our segment, which is the enterprise segment, they’re really interested in reliability and performance. In that sense, 5G is really delivering what it says it would.”

In Landen’s view, some of the cooler 5G use cases have to be enabled by solution providers and customers doing new things with those new 5G capabilities, rather than by the telcos.

“So, it’s not for lack of telcos building networks – of course, that can always be a bit faster – but it’s really about what are solution providers making out of those new capabilities,” he says.

For the most part, until work on defining 5G use cases is complete, Landen believes the way key telcos can maximise their 5G assets will be to partner more closely with solutions providers.

“Telcos have traditionally been very conservative, typically building the network and sweating the assets,” says Landen. “They’ve been very focused on keeping customers on their network, selling SIM cards, keeping everything within their control with their own shops and the like. The trick to really open up the capabilities and deliver on the promise of 5G, is for telcos to be more aggressive in their wholesale offering towards solution providers.”

As an example, Landen says drone operation and fleet management companies should have access to 5G capabilities to serve their customers, but he does not see telcos developing these types of services.

“[Telcos] are good at building and operating networks, but turning that into a service that can be used by end customers, I think that’s where virtual network operators like ourselves make the best of the new capabilities,” he says.

Hand-in-hand with these use cases is an increasing need for standardisation and open regulation to ensure there is continuing innovation and development. Interestingly, Landen does not believe that regulation is a roadblock to 5G, pointing again to the need for a mind shift within telcos to embrace network providers, mobile virtual network operators and other partners to maximize investments telcos make into their networks.

As for wireless standards, Landen says that Blue Wireless is “doing excellent” on that front.

“From the experience that we have in our market, modems used to be very country-specific and a lot of certification needed to happen in every market,” he explains. Today, “thanks to LTE/4G and 5G standards”, any modem will work on all of these networks, which is a major advancement from where things were 10 or 20 years ago.

Increasingly tech labs and universities, particularly those in Asia, continue to work on the next generation of networking technology, 6G, despite some places not having 4G/LTE yet, let alone 5G as standard.

“Continuous development is essential,” says Landen. “But [6G] is something for the labs. In meetings that we have with companies like Ericsson, they’re already working on that next generation. But at the same time, they acknowledge 5G hasn’t reached its full potential. But that doesn’t stop them from developing the next level already, which will take at least another 10 years or so to come to market.”

Robots and metaverses

For Landen, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning go hand-in-hand with the wireless space, as, for the most part, one cannot exist without the other.

“If it can be wireless, it will be wireless,” says Landen. “Any device that you will pick up or are going to use will be wireless. In that sense, you know, wireless technology is essential for any success in AI.”

Virtual and augmented reality are examples, he says. “None of that works wired. It has to be personal, mobile, sensory,” which means wireless technology is essential for VR’s and AR’s application.

Landen says that he is already seeing the next phase in the convergence between AI and wireless in Singapore’s cleaning and security robots. “Robotics is exactly that first step in that wireless evolution,” he says.

When it comes to the metaverse, Landen says there are no believers or non-believers - it simply is.

“It’s already there and it’s going to get bigger whether we like it or not,” he says. “Ultimately, the momentum is there, and there’ll be niches that have the first adopters, which will be gaming related, but more and more things will go online.”

Although Landen says that we will likely settle on having “one leg in both worlds” – one in the digital and one in the real – rather than full-blown virtual existences.

Another area that Landen is excited about is satellite connectivity.

“There’s a lot of customers who already are leveraging both wired and wireless lines,” says Landen. “But now [Blue Wireless] can also adopt satellite much easier as part of their offering.”

Landen does not see much difference between providing his customers with wireless services from towers and from space.

“[Satellite] is the same thing as any other wireless technology, it’s just a lot further from the cell tower. It’s up in the air, bringing more capabilities to more people around the world. The more connectivity options there are, the better it is for our customers.”

New year plans

For Lande, 2023 is set to be about managing Blue Wireless’s team and the company’s growth.

“We’ve expanded quickly over the last the last few years, covering 80 countries,” he says. “Now we want to make sure that we deliver that complete depth and breadth of services in all those countries, so that’s really where we’re investing.”

In addition, while the company’s bread and butter remain fixed wireless access, it aims to do more about connecting users.

“One recent addition we’ve made to our portfolio is frontline workers,” Landen says. “Connecting field engineers, the people in the frontline, with reliable connectivity, without being tied to a desk or to a wire at a specific location.”

Announced in October, Celerway GO, a cloud-based service Blue Wireless developed in partnership with Celerway, offers enterprises a robust and compact mobile connectivity solution that has a range of data options and services.

As our conversation draws to a close, Landen reminds me of the differences between mobile and wireless, and the mindset needed to recognise them. After all, static things that don’t move still need to be connected wirelessly.

“Traditionally people always talk about mobile phones,” says Landen. “But I think there’s this realisation now that wireless technology is here to connect everything, not just phones. If you really look at where the innovation and growth is, it’s not happening in the devices. It’s happening while connecting all that other stuff”.