APAC Telcos Rethinking What It Means To Be An Operator

November 10, 2021

Written by Alex Lawrence

Whether we think of NTT DoCoMo’s early ‘4G’ deployments in the 2000s or South Korea beating the rest of the world to 5G rollout, Asia-Pacific has long been at the leading edge of technology deployment in the telecoms industry. Today, the extent of Chinese telcos’ 5G rollouts – including for enterprise and industry – or the development of companies such as Rakuten Symphony or Jio Platforms suggests that the region remains at the forefront. Strikingly, at the recent Futurenet Asia event the standout messages were less about the technology and more about a change in the operator’s role, business models and mindsets where Asia-Pacific may be leading the field.

New Capabilities and New Roles

Randeep Sekhon, CTO at Bharti Airtel, began by making explicit connections between technology evolution and business evolution. For him, investing in edge capabilities is not just about connecting things, it’s about building services around online provisioning, on-demand payment, sensors and more. The telco will provide analytics, identify correlations, safety, etc on the data travelling over the network. “We can start to charge based on the value delivered, not by bits and bytes”, Sekhon explained.

Nathan Bell, Chief Digital Officer at Singapore operator M1, concurred, noting that “the network becomes an output”, not the client solution in itself. This is, not least, because services are becoming much more complex and cannot create or control the end-to-end value chain. Instead, M1 is aiming to become a co-creator of services along with other bodies, with the network acting as a platform to build services on.

For example, according to Bell, the telco can enhance its role in monitoring its network performance. Instead, it can take on the role of tracking delivery end to end across all elements of the service, and then proactively engage the end customer with information; for example, to tell the end user if their device needs updating to deliver the right performance. This not only delivers value to the service delivery partners but supports the customer and gives the telco constructive engagement with the customer.

Telstra’s Group Executive for Product & Technology, Kim Krogh Andersen, is taking a different tack, based on the digital transformation that other industries are undergoing. “In the future all companies have to be technology companies. If they are not, they won’t be able to compete,” he noted.

This is true for Telstra’s clients, but also for the company itself. “We have believed that our core network was strong enough to compete, without strength in other layers,” he said. Now he sees Telstra needs to be strong across the stack to compete: against the likes of Nokia and Ericsson in private networks, against the hyperscalers in cloud and edge, and against a host of young companies in analytics, AI and more. In a model of co-opetition they have developed Telstra Purple as a professional services firm and systems integrator, to help companies develop services in partnership with Telstra and/or other players in the service chain. They see it as the growth engine for the future.

A New Wave in Operations

With these new approaches to service creation and delivery, operators across APAC are reshaping their mindsets to suit. “We’re going to enter a much more dynamic phase,” said Bell. “Enterprises say ‘I want an outcome. How are you going to give me that outcome?’… How do you make that a self-service? How do you give them that empowerment, but in a safe way?”

Bell is changing M1’s operating model to focus increasingly on the details of service creation and delivery. They are bringing together cross-functional “squads” with different skills to support this, with inputs from engineering, IT, marketing, customer service and more. As the networks themselves become more automated and customer self-service becomes more the norm, this is an opportunity for M1. “We’re going to shift more staff to […] build new services,” he commented.

This is an approach that Telstra’s Krogh Andersen echoes. They are using Telstra Purple as the lever to move the organisation from a network-centric company to more of an IT services and product creation mindset. As he commented, “We haven’t really made products since SMS, we’ve done pricing.”  

Still, change such as this requires both patience and an acceptance of risk which is unfamiliar to traditional telecoms. Asif Naimur, CIO at Robi Axiata, underlined this in the Bangladeshi company’s push towards zero-touch network automation. “We have to come with a beginner’s mind,” he explained. Especially with systems like this, “We know we will make mistakes along the way.”  As a result they have put responsibility for restructuring the technology and operations not under the CTO or CIO, but with the Strategy organisation. They feel it creates less pressure to get things right first time, more acceptance of learning through doing.

This need to change mindsets and operations is industry-wide. As Sandeep Gupta of Bharti Airtel noted,  they depend on OEMs to change the nature of their operating and billing systems. “We need more of their capabilities as cloud-native functions,” he pointed out. However, effectively using the technology will then need Airtel to step up.

“We have a lot of unlearning to do across teams,” he warned.

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