The move to inter-carrier collaboration

13 December 2018 | James Pearce

Cover

“I’m very enthusiastic about inter-carrier orchestration,” admits PCCW Global CEO Marc Halbfinger CEO, as we sit down to discuss its acquisition of Console Connect a year after the deal was announced.

The deal, announced in November 2017, saw PCCW Global acquire Console Connect’s brand, platform and technology team, but its network assets and customer contracts were hived off and put under separate ownership under the name IX Reach.

I interviewed Halbfinger at a MEF event just weeks after the deal was completed and he seemed confident that the acquisition would give PCCW Global an opportunity to increase the depth of its capability around software development and agile development.

“The team we acquired – a few people in California, a few in Europe, but the bulk in Brisbane, Australia – have become the hub of technology development and innovation at PCCW Global,” Halbfinger explains.

Paul Gampe, who was previously CTO of Console Connect, has also become CTO of PCCW Global.

“We have, for the past year, used the tagline internally that we didn’t acquire Console Connect for it to be integrated into PCCW Global, but rather we acquired Console Connect so PCCW Global can be integrated into it,” he adds. “Console Connect was a software-only platform – we left the network elements – and we have, in less than a year, been able to write the code to integrate it into our systems.”

This time, I sat down to interview the CEO, who also chairs the Global Leaders’ Forum, in PCCW Global’s London office, but he is sitting in the company’s Hong Kong headquarters and we chat over its video conferencing system.

What does “outstandingly well” mean in terms of numbers? Halbfinger says Console Connect is now enabled at more than 70 of PCCW Global’s data centre locations. It is on-net in over 33 countries across four continents, and integrates cloud providers including Alibaba, Tencent, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud.

Console was acquired with cloud-to-cloud capability. After four months the team was also able to facilitate network-to-cloud capability, says Halbfinger. “Around a month and a half ago, we completed production work on our first line of network-to-network automation with a customer. That means our customer can come in and provide us with two points on-net. Provided there is x amount of bandwidth on either side they are able to automate anywhere up to x bandwidth on an on-demand basis.”

This, he adds, is potentially “huge” as a new network capability. So what next for the integration? PCCW Global plans to “enhance the network capability geographically, to access as many clouds, to start the process now of interoperating with other network-based service providers technically and commercially.”

Carrier co-operation and inter-carrier collaboration is something Halbfinger has been driving for a number of years. He’s a big fan, he adds. However, to really get this to function, the industry needs a serious shift. It needs to move to a new commercial on-demand model, something being looked at by the GLF.

One of the GLF projects is around blockchain. Key wholesale carriers are aiming to put their blockchain-based voice settlement system into commercial operation as soon as possible – perhaps as early as March 2019, a panel at Capacity Europe heard.

PCCW Global, alongside Colt, was one of the first carriers to demonstrate how carriers can work bilaterally to demonstrate how the inter-carrier settlement of wholesale international voice services could be automated through the use of blockchain. (For more on blockchain see pages 26-27.)

The need for a new model filters through to the blockchain story “because we think that one of the keys for getting us going from an interoperability point of view is ensuring the backend is automated as well – sourcing, quoting, provisioning and settlement –which takes place at the inter-operator level for bandwidth capability,” he explains. “If you go cloud-to-cloud or network-to-cloud you don’t need the same ubiquitous structure from the backend all the way to the front end that you need for operator-to-operator.  That’s where we are headed and all of that is very innovative.”

One thing that strikes me is that, if the backend functionality such as settlements are automated through blockchain or another system, it could have a major impact on people working at carriers. I put this to Halbfinger.

He says “any economic transition” has an impact on staff base, but this is less like to affect the front-end workers who deal with contracts. The people who manage the backend – measuring, clearing, verifying, disputing and settling – “may see their activity impacted”, however.

Halbfinger is keen to point out that, although this new technology can help to create efficiencies, he sees this as an opportunity for people working in the industry. He explains: “I see the positive side of that on individuals who are engaged in the industry, provided they are willing to train up to fit the new environment.”

He adds: “One thing I think is a truism now is that the pace of change is so rapid. If we as individuals are unwilling to retool then we will struggle to keep up. Myself included.”

PEACE de resistance

I’ve sat down with Halbfinger at busy time for PCCW Global. Beyond it continuing integration and expansion of the Console Connect platform, the Hong Kong-based company has also made a number of significant announcements.

One of the most recent was around the PEACE subsea cable system, with PCCW Global and Orange partnering to land the cable system in Marseille. PEACE, which stands for Pakistan and East Africa Connecting Europe, is a 12,000km long system which is due to be ready for service in 2020. (Find out more about this cable in our exclusive interview with PEACE COO Xiaohua Sun on pages 56-57.)

PCCW Global became involved at the request of Chinese technology and industrial firm Hengtong, which is behind the cable project, and manufacturer Huawei Marine, which is building it.

When complete, the high-speed PEACE cable system will offer the shortest routes from China to Europe and Africa, interconnecting three of the world’s most populous continents while at the same time dramatically reducing latency, delivering a superior connectivity experience which will be ideal for a vast array of commercial and consumer applications.

“We believe Hengtong’s work is really top notch and they asked us to be involved because we know the market. They offered to create a collaborative environment where PCCW Global can be a channel to develop these systems which we believe fit market demands. For PCCW Global, beyond its network capability, on a people side is a great value set – we have many western people
and many Asian people, including a strong view of China.”

PCCW Global’s role in the PEACE Cable is part of its involvement in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative – a key strategy of Chinese president Xi Jinping to enhance regional connectivity while promoting Chinese enterprises across countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.

For PCCW Global, its infrastructure – including PEACE – will help play a
key role in helping “facilitate the expansion of Chinese enterprises into other markets along the one belt, one road environment”, says Halbfinger. PEACE is a “natural, privately capitalised extension of what is necessary for One Belt, One Road”, he adds.

The PEACE Cable lands in Djibouti. Does this mean we’ll be seeing increased activity from PCCW Global in the East Africa region? Halbfinger replies: “Because there will be Chinese capacity coming terrestrially through Pakistan, it will be one of the shortest hops from mainland China to East Africa. We’ve been seeing investment from China in Africa, and we see this as a logical progression of economics by producing more capacity on that route.”

UCaaS

Another recent announcement from PCCW Global was that PLDT, a telecoms operator in the Philippines, has turned to the Hong Kong-based company for unified communications (UC) voice services.

When I ask Halbfinger about this, he points out that we are chatting on a UC tool – one supported by PCCW Global’s own network.

He adds: “PLDT’s enterprise team reviewed what we were doing at both the wholesale and retail level, and asked whether we’d be willing and able to facilitate their downstream retail environment at the wholesale level to effectively use our physical and software infrastructure. We then provide them with a service they can package and brand to have their own qualities and applications so they could deliver value to their end users.”

This isn’t the only example of PCCW Global offering this service. He alludes to two other European partners that offer this service, although these can’t be named, as well as Australian provider Virtutel.

With PLDT, it expanded an existing relationship. He adds: “We were eager to work with them. We value the relationship with PLDT greatly and are honoured to work with them.”