Mobile World Congress this month brought the industry a huge number of demos; some of 6G, but much more strikingly of 5G being given a context. Rather than showcasing 5G systems themselves, telecoms companies – and especially operators – were highlighting use cases where 5G enables other technologies such as holographic communications, IoT, robotics and XR to deliver services.
While this is exciting, we are living in an era when operators aren’t yet seeing significant revenue from their 5G investments, even in areas where it has been most heavily deployed. 5G and evolutions in the radio grab the headlines and the focus of the telecoms community, but there is a renewed pressure for telecoms infrastructure, systems, and services to earn their keep.
The new API push from the GSMA, Open Connect, is one very public manifestation of this philosophy; another is the NGMN’s recent position paper on 6G, which essentially seeks to set expectations that, if it requires major investments in advance of revenue generation, operators aren’t going to buy it.
Open Connect is one of the multiple approaches over the years that have sought to take advantage of mobile operators’ data. After all, operators argue, who has a more complete picture of what customers are doing than the telcos? Yet they have been stymied repeatedly in using that data to its full extent.
There are, however, developments beyond the traditional telecoms domain that might help to turn that around.
The Data Challenge
Chuck Teixeira is a former HSBC executive managing digital transformation, where they struggled to identify and unite disparate data, and fought again with data governance and access issues.
“One of the biggest complaints that I always experienced myself, and I get now as I start to talk to clients is the time it takes to get approvals,” Teixera smiled ruefully in conversation with 6GWorld. “We’re not talking days, we’re talking months.”
That challenge – finding data and then understanding how it can be used in compliance with different legal regulations, internal policies and security requirements, especially in an environment as regulated as financial services – slowed down the development of services and use cases to a crawl.
Battered and bruised from the experience, he has spent a couple of years coming up with a radically different approach to the process of finding, identifying, accessing and applying governance to a company’s data.
“It’s a software that you instal within your own network. You basically bulk-upload from your IT ID function where all the database locations are into the software, and then that software goes and connects to those databases similarly to how Google would go and spider the web,” Teixeira explained.
“It’s like a universal connector sitting between all the databases and all the users.”
In other words, instead of bringing together data from multiple locations into a single place, you leave it where it is and start accessing and using it through the equivalent of hyperlinks for data. Teixeira’s company, WCKS RZR, calls their service Data Now for a good reason. The applications are evident and immediate.
“A lot of telecoms companies have been born out of a history of acquisitions. Especially as they’ve entered new territories, they bought new companies. So actually their database environment is still very fragmented many years after some of these companies have been purchased and integrated. And so one of the biggest use cases is about helping you start to link all your disparate data environments so that actually you can start to deal with it as if it was one database environment.”
Managing Compliance Complaints
Having that basic “intranet of data”, you can then start to apply other services on top of that platform.
“If you’ve built a really sexy AI solution that geared towards telecoms, every single telecoms company that you want to sign up as a potential customer has a different database environment. None of those telecom’s customers have a homogeneous, singular database environment,” Teixera explained.
“So as fancy as and as sophisticated as your AI may be you still need the most basic thing, which is access to the data.”
Indeed, WCKD RZR has been developing compliance software to automatically limit what people can see based on the regulations, company policies and more in play in any given context.
“Even once you get your data, it doesn’t mean you’re allowed to use it because there are cross-border data sharing rules; there are data privacy rules like GDPR; if you’re in government, it could be security clearance rules; there may be client restrictions to what you’re allowed to do, especially if you’re processing client data on their behalf; and there are other departmental rules – for example, HR might not want people to see bonuses or all sorts of things.
“So as part of that thin middleware, you can actually put all your different access controls, data governance rules, privacy, security clearance – all of those things in that layer in a thin way. You only have to put the rules in once to manage it across your entire data estate, whether on-prem or in the cloud.”
This is a way to drastically simplify the compliance process and ensure that data can actually be turned into usable intelligence, in accordance with regulations. Teixeira gave an example.
“Let’s say you’re trying to access Chinese data from ten databases and Chinese data has to redact anything that’s identifiable to an individual or a customer – no customer name, address, customer number, IP address, or any of those things. You would be provided with the data but those components that need to be redacted would be redacted on the fly without altering the underlying data source.
“You’re able to do your research, but what you’re not allowed to see doesn’t get shown to you, and you don’t have to get the database owner to approve each of those ten different databases.”
An Internet of Data
An accessible intranet of data is a good starting point for most companies and immensely welcome, but there’s more that can grow from there.
“The next logical extension is to extend it to external data,” Teixera pointed out. That opens up a wide variety of possibilities, but there is some low-hanging fruit.
“If we have started to map what’s in that external world, then we can create relationships with data vendors. You could almost have that Amazon-like experience where you click a button and then you can pull in that external data, whether you have to pay for it or if it’s readily available, then that makes your experience even more seamless.”
Up until now, one of the byproducts of data not being readily usable has been that it prevents it from spreading in an uncontrolled manner. To some, this might sound like a very risky prospect, insofar as it may help spread personal data. However, there are ways to finesse the proposition.
As a former banker, Teixera gives an example from the payments system of how the use of automated compliance – including customer permissions – might work.
“In any financial transaction, there are really three parties; for example, Starbucks as a vendor, me as the customer but a finance company underneath it. With what we’ve built you can manage that governance and provision a different view of the data for the customer versus Starbucks versus the financial institution that supports it.”
Such a process could be extended to authentication or authorisation too; so that a user’s personal data is invisible to a company, but the system can still ensure that a user is, for example, of the correct age or an authorised individual to use a system.
Teixeira is excited about this possibility and has already started to see demand from areas such as medical research.
“When I used to speak at AI conferences I heard a lot of labs complaining about the fact that they struggled to share data amongst other researchers because every lab was in its own separate database even within the same educational institution. So how do I actually get access to other people’s research while being sensitive to all the privacy concerns around trial data, patient confidentiality, all of those things? I think we can manage issues like that.”
The underlying principle seems deceptively simple. Much as the early internet set out to bring together different pages of information in a simple way, this seems to be a nascent version of the same thing but for the underlying data itself.
Will Teixera’s company and its Data Now service take off? Impossible to say at this point, but it’s clear that there are applications that can both make data more usable and improve privacy management. Whether WCKD RZR ends up owning this arena, it’s clear that this is an early movement in an industry which is very much needed.
The co-evolution of an “internet of data” alongside the metaverse, the internet of things and future autonomous networks should offer some exciting opportunities for telecoms providers.
Alex Lawrence is Managing Editor at 6GWorld. His mission is to bring together stakeholders from across industries, countries and disciplines to make sure that, as technology evolves in the coming decade, it’s meeting the changing demands of society, government and business.
He has been involved as a professional nosy person in the telecoms sphere since 2004, with short detours through industrial O&M and marketing.
If you’d like to talk to Alex about your ideas or projects he’d love to hear from you. @animalawrence or firstname.lastname@example.org.