Deloitte predicts 50k 5G smartphone in the UK by 2019-end

While the vast majority will have to wait some time before experiencing the euphoria of an extra ‘G’ Deloitte is predicting there will 50,000 early adopters in the UK.

After several years of slugging, the glorious 5G world is upon us. First in the US and South Korea, though pockets are starting to emerge everywhere else as well. San Marino is live while it won’t be long before countries like China and Japan start hitting the green button.

“The introduction of 5G handsets expected this year will look a lot like 2010, when 4G phones first entered the market,” said Dan Adams, Head of Telecommunications at Deloitte.

“There will be a lot of noise in the first year from vendors vying to be first to market, and relatively little action from consumers. We’re not talking about an overnight switch to faster connectivity with lower latency, we will see 5G used by consumers in hotspot locations in the next two to three years, with mass adoption by 2025.”

The first devices are likely to be with us in Q2, though this year’s Mobile World Congress will almost certainly be a shouting contest between the main smartphone manufacturers. It’s already rumoured Samsung will be launching a foldable-phone (albeit not 5G) prior to the event, while LG and Motorola are also in the running to produce a 5G compatible phone.

In total, Deloitte predicts roughly 20 handset brands will launch 5G-ready handsets across 2019, with shipments totalling one million. This is still a tiny fraction of the 1.5 billion smartphones which will be sold through the year, though 50,000 of them could be heading to the UK.

Looking at the networks, there might not be much to choose from across the UK. EE has confirmed it will launch 5G across 16 cities in 2019, though these will only be in the busiest locations. Vodafone will also launch this year, though it is being coy as to when. Three is telling the same story, while O2 has confirmed its customers will have to wait until 2020. One thing is clear, these will be incredibly limited deployments and it will be years until coverage reaches what the demanding user would consider adequate.

Whether this justifies the hype, or the extortionate amount handset manufacturers will inevitably charge the glory-seekers for the new devices, we’ll leave you to decide, but it will take years for the devices to be considered mainstream. Deloitte expects worldwide 5G smartphone sales to represent 1% of the total smartphone sales by the end of 2020, with 2-3 million Brits getting their hands on the devices. As Adams points out above, 2025 is when the team expect 5G devices to hit mass adoption.

Another interesting growth area the Deloitte team is keeping an eye on is the smart speakers segment.

“Smart speaker adoption has seen phenomenal growth in recent years,” said Paul Lee, Global Head of Research for TMT at Deloitte

“With improvements continuing to be made, demand for smart speakers could be in the many billions of units, possibly even higher than for smartphones. In the future, smart speakers have the potential to be installed in every room in a house, hotel, office, school and even beside every hospital bed.”

Smart speakers are the flashy product which will attract a lot of the consumer market, but the power of the virtual assistants is what could take the segment to the next level. We’ve long anticipated the breakthrough of artificial intelligence in the workplace, but perhaps the slightly sluggish resistance has been down to the delivery model of the applications.

Should smart speakers be adopted in hotel rooms, hospitals and offices in the way which Deloitte anticipates, the world is opened up for industry specific applications of virtual assistants. One area which might help this adoption is the price point.

While smart speakers were initially an expensive appliance for the home, the normalisation of the product in the eyes of the consumer has peaked the interest of traditional consumer electronics manufacturers. With more manufacturers, including those with the ability to produce goods at greater scale, entering the fray competition will increase, bringing prices down, while advertising will also grow, fuelling interest in the bellies of the consumer.

Deloitte anticipates the marker for internet-connected speakers with integrated digital assistants will be increase to £5.6 billion in 2019, selling 164 million units at an average selling price of £34. This would represent a 63% growth rate, making smart speakers the fastest-growing connected device category worldwide, leading to an installation base of more than 250 million units by the end of the year.

This is a price point which would make enterprise adoption of the devices more interesting, and as time moves on, it will get cheaper. The increased introduction of industry-specific virtual assistant and AI applications will certainly help this segment also.

After years of promises and false-dawns, 2019 might prove to be a blockbuster year after all. There’s still a lot which could go wrong, but here’s to hoping.

Telefónica pulls its SOCs up with Nokia’s help

Operator group Telefónica is changing its UK Network Operations Center into a Service Operations Center to show how customer-centric it is.

That was the distilled message from a press launch in central London this morning, co-hosted by its vendor for this project – Nokia. Building a SOC will allow O2 UK to make customer-led, as opposed to engineering-led, decisions about its network, we were told by Brandan O’Reilly, the CTO of O2 UK.

Telefónica has apparently already got started on this process in some of its other markets, including Chile and Germany, but this is a first for the UK and also the first time Nokia has been the vendor. So this seems like a big deal for them – hence the press event.

Tim Smith, VP of Nokia Software Europe, explained its SOC platform aggregates and standardises the various network data feeds in order to be able to compare and optimise them. It’s all about being proactive rather than reactive when it comes to network management and AI seems to play a big part, as you might expect.

A lot of the questions from the grizzled telecoms hacks in attendance focused on what specific benefits a SOC offers over a NOC and how they might be measured. While reduced churn is an obvious way to track ‘customer delight’, as Smith put it, Telefonica has its own metric called NCX (Network Customer Experience), which is currently at 79 and O’Reilly hopes will jump by at least a couple of points as a result of this shift. Here are the canned quotes from the press release.

“Telefónica has always aimed to offer the best possible experience to our customers which a reactive network monitoring approach to operations could never guarantee,” said Juan Manuel Caro, director of network and IT operations at Telefónica. “With SOC we have already transformed this in three of our markets reaching the next level in automated customer experience management, granting us flexibility and adaptability that serves as a key differentiator. Nokia’s solutions and services will allow us to achieve this goal in a competitive market like the UK.”

“Telefónica is pioneering the transformation toward customer-centric operations with the deployment of Nokia eSOC,” said Bhaskar Gorti, president of Nokia Software. “Nokia is proud to support Telefónica’s digital transformations and SOC deployments across the globe and with the flexibility to adapt to existing ecosystems in local markets.”

This all seems like quite a lot of effort to go to just to labour the ‘customer-centric’ concept that has become endemic to the point of cliché in the business world. But to be fair to both companies they are at least announcing concrete measures being taken in pursuit of that aim and thus holding themselves publicly accountable for delivering it.

The biggest stories of 2018 all in one place

2018 has been an incredibly business year for all of us, and it might be easy to forget a couple of the shifts, curves, U-turns and dead-ends.

From crossing the 5G finish line, finger pointing from the intelligence community, the biggest data privacy scandal to date and a former giant finally turning its business around, we’ve summarised some of the biggest stories of 2018.

If you feel we’ve missed anything out, let us know in the comments section below.

Sanction, condemnation and extinction (almost)

ZTE. Three letters which rocked the world. A government-owned Chinese telecommunications vendor which can’t help but antagonise the US government.

It might seem like decades ago now but cast your mind back to April. A single signature from the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) almost sent ZTE, a company of 75,000 employees and revenues of $17 billion, to keep the dodo company.

This might have been another move in the prolonged technology trade war between the US and China, but ZTE was not innocent. The firm was caught red-handed trading with Iran, a country which sits very prominently on the US trade sanction list. Trading with Iran is not necessarily the issue, it’s the incorporation of US components and IP in the goods which were sent to the country. ZTE’s business essentially meant the US was indirectly helping a country which was attempting to punish.

The result was a ban, no US components or IP to feature in any ZTE products. A couple of weeks later manufacturing facilities lay motionless and the company faced the prospect of permanent closure, such was its reliance on the US. With a single move, the US brought one of China’s most prominent businesses to its knees.

Although this episode has been smoothed over, and ZTE is of course back in action, the US demonstrated what its economic dirty bombs were capable of. This was just a single chapter in the wider story; the US/China trade war is in full flow.

Tinker, tailor, Dim-sum, Spy

This conflict has been bubbling away for years, but the last few months is where the argument erupted.

Back in 2012, a report was tabled by Congressman Mike Rogers which initially investigated the threat posed by Chinese technology firms in general, and Huawei specifically. The report did not produce any concrete evidence, though it suggested what many people were thinking; China is a threat to Western governments and its government is using internationally successful companies to extend the eyes of its intelligence community.

This report has been used several times over the last 12 months to justify increasingly aggressive moves against China and its technology vendors. During the same period, President Trump also blocked Broadcom’s attempts to acquire Qualcomm on the grounds of national security, tariffs were imposed, ZTE was banned from using US technologies in its supply chain and Huawei’s CFO was arrested in Canada on the grounds of fraud. With each passing month of 2018, the trade war was being cranked up to a new level.

Part of the strategy now seems to be undermining China’s credibility around the world, promoting a campaign of suggestion. There is yet to be any evidence produced confirming the Chinese espionage accusations but that hasn’t stopped several nations snubbing Chinese vendors. The US was of course the first to block Huawei and ZTE from the 5G bonanza, but Australia and Japan followed. New Zealand seems to be heading the same way, while South Korean telcos decided against including the Chinese vendors on preferred supplier lists.

The bigger picture is the US’ efforts to hold onto its dominance in the technology arena. This has proved to be incredibly fruitful for the US economy, though China is threatening the vice-like grip Silicon Valley has on the world. The US has been trying to convince the world not to use Chinese vendors on the grounds of national security, but don’t be fooled by this rhetoric; this is just one component of a greater battle against China.

Breakaway pack cross the 5G finish line

We made it!

Aside from 5G, we’ve been talking about very little over the last few years. There might have been a few side conversations which dominate the headlines for a couple of weeks, but we’ve never been far away from another 5G ‘breakthrough’ or ‘first’. And the last few weeks of 2018 saw a few of the leading telcos cross the 5G finish line.

Verizon was first with a fixed wireless access proposition, AT&T soon followed in the US with a portable 5G hotspot. Telia has been making some promising moves in both Sweden and Estonia, with limited launches aiming to create innovation and research labs, while San Marino was the first state to have complete coverage, albeit San Marino is a very small nation.

These are of course very minor launches, with geographical coverage incredibly limited, but that should not take the shine off the achievement. This is a moment the telco and technology industry has been building towards for years, and it has now been achieved.

Now we can move onto the why. Everyone knows 5G will be incredibly important for relieving the pressure on the telco pipes and the creation of new services, but no-one knows what these new services will be. We can all make educated guesses, but the innovators and blue-sky thinkers will come up with some new ideas which will revolutionise society and the economy.

Only a few people could have conceived Uber as an idea before the 4G economy was in full flow, and we can’t wait to see what smarter-than-us people come up with once they have the right tools and environment.

Zuckerberg proves he’s not a good friend after all

This is the news story which rocked the world. Data privacy violations, international actors influencing US elections, cover ups, fines, special committees, empty chairs, silly questions, knowledge of wrong-doing and this is only what we know so far… the scandal probably goes deeper.

It all started with the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and a Russian American researcher called Aleksandr Kogan from the University of Cambridge. Kogan created a quiz on the Facebook platform which exposed a loop-hole in the platform’s policies allowing Kogan to scrape data not only from those who took the quiz, but also connections of that user. The result was a database containing information on 87 million people. This data was used by political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica during elections around the world, creating hyper-targeted adverts.

What followed was a circus. Facebook executives were hauled in-front of political special committees to answer questions. As weeks turned into months, more suspect practices emerged as politicians, journalists and busy-bodies probed deeper into the Facebook business model. Memos and internal emails have emerged suggesting executives knew they were potentially acting irresponsibly and unethically, but it didn’t seem to matter.

As it stands, Facebook is looking like a company which violated the trust of the consumer, has a much wider reaching influence than it would like to admit, and this is only the beginning. The only people who genuinely understand the expanding reach of Facebook are those who work for the company, but the curtain is slowly being pulled back on the data machine. And it is scaring people.

Big Blue back in the black

This might not have been a massive story for everyone in the industry, but with the severe fall from grace and rise back into the realms of relevance, we feel IBM deserves a mention.

Those who feature in the older generations will remember the dominance of IBM. It might seem unusual to say nowadays, but Big Blue was as dominant in the 70s as Microsoft was in the 90s and Google is today. This was a company which led the technology revolution and defined innovation. But it was not to be forever.

IBM missed a trick; personal computing. The idea that every home would have a PC was inconceivable to IBM, who had carved its dominant position through enterprise IT, but it made a bad choice. This tidal wave of cash which democratised computing for the masses went elsewhere, and IBM was left with its legacy business unit.

This was not a bad thing for years, as the cash cow continued to grow, but a lack of ambition in seeking new revenues soon took its toll. Eight years ago, IBM posted a decline in quarterly revenues and the trend continued for 23 consecutive periods. During this period cash was directed into a new division, the ‘strategic imperatives’ unit, which was intended to capitalise on a newly founded segment; intelligent computing.

In January this year, IBM proudly posted its first quarterly growth figures for seven years. Big Blue might not be the towering force it was decades ago, but it is heading in the right direction, with cloud computing and artificial intelligence as the key cogs.

Convergence, convergence, convergence

Convergence is one of those buzzwords which has been on the lips of every telco for a long time, but few have been able to realise the benefits.

There are a few glimmers of promise, Vodafone seem to be making promising moves in the UK broadband market, while Now TV offers an excellent converged proposition. On the other side of the Atlantic, AT&T efforts to move into the content world with the Time Warner acquisition is a puzzling one, while Verizon’s purchase of Yahoo’s content assets have proved to be nothing but a disaster.

Orange is a company which is taking convergence to the next level. We’re not just talking about connectivity either, how about IOT, cyber-security, banking or energy services. This is a company which is living the convergence dream. Tie as many services into the same organisation, making the bill payer so dependent on one company it becomes a nightmare to leave.

It’s the convergence dream as a reality.

Europe’s Great Tax Raid

This is one of the more recent events on the list, and while it might not be massive news now, we feel it justifies inclusion. This developing conversation could prove to be one of the biggest stories of 2019 not only because governments are tackling the nefarious accounting activities of Silicon Valley, but there could also be political consequences if the White House feels it is being victimised.

Tax havens are nothing new, but the extent which Silicon Valley is making use of them is unprecedented. Europe has had enough of the internet giants making a mockery of the bloc, not paying its fair share back to the state, and moves are being made by the individual states to make sure these monstrously profitable companies are held accountable.

The initial idea was a European-wide tax agenda which would be led by the European Commission. It would impose a sales tax on all revenues realised in the individual states. As ideas go, this is a good one. The internet giants will find it much more difficult to hide user’s IP addresses than shifting profits around. Unfortunately, the power of the European Union is also its downfall; for any meaningful changes to be implemented all 28 (soon to be 27) states would have to agree. And they don’t.

Certain states, Ireland, Sweden and Luxembourg, have a lot more to lose than other nations have to gain. These are economies which are built on the idea of buddying up to the internet economy. They might not pay much tax in these countries, but the presence of massive offices ensure society benefits through other means. Taxing Silicon Valley puts these beneficial relationships with the internet players in jeopardy.

But that isn’t good enough for the likes of the UK and France. In the absence of any pan-European regulations, these states are planning to move ahead with their own national tax regimes; France’s 3% sales tax on any revenues achieved in the country will kick into action on January 1, with the UK not far behind.

What makes this story much more interesting will be the influence of the White House. The US government might feel this is an attack on the prosperous US economy. There might be counter measures taken against the European Union. And when we say might, we suspect this is almost a certainty, such is the ego of President Donald Trump.

This is a story which will only grow over the next couple of months, and it could certainly cause friction on both sides of the Atlantic.

Que the moans… GDPR

GDPR. The General Data Protection Regulation. It was a pain for almost everyone involved and simply has to be discussed because of this distress.

Introduced in May, it seemingly came as a surprise. This is of course after companies were given 18 months to prepare for its implementation, but few seemed to appreciate the complexity of becoming, and remaining compliant. As a piece of regulation, it was much needed for the digital era. It heightened protections for the consumer and ensured companies operating in the digital economy acted more responsibly.

Perhaps one of the most important components of the regulation was the stick handed to regulators. With technology companies growing so rapidly over the last couple of years, the fines being handed out by watchdogs were no longer suitable. Instead of defining specific amounts, the new rules allow punishments to be dished out as a percentage of revenues. This allows regulators to hold the internet giants accountable, hitting them with a suitably large stick.

Change is always difficult, but it is necessary to ensure regulations are built for the era. Evolving the current rulebook simply wouldn’t work, such is the staggering advancement of technology in recent years. Despite the headaches which were experienced throughout the process, it was necessary, and we’ll be better off in the long-run.

Next on the regulatory agenda, the ePrivacy Regulation.

Jio piles the misery on competitors

Jio is not a new business anymore, neither did it really come to being in 2018, but this was the period where the telco really justified the hype and competitors felt the pinch.

After hitting the market properly in early 2016, the firm made an impression. But like every challenger brand, the wins were small in context. Collecting 100,000s of customers every month is very impressive, but don’t forget India has a population of 1.3 billion and some very firmly position incumbents.

2017 was another year where the firm rose to prominence, forcing several other telcos out of the market and two of the largest players into a merger to combat the threat. Jio changed the market in 2017; it democratised connectivity in a country which had promised a lot but delivered little.

This year was the sweeping dominance however. It might not be the number one telco in the market share rankings, but it will be before too long. Looking at the most recent subscription figures released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), Jio grew its subscription base by 13.02 million, but more importantly, it was the only telco which was in the positive. This has started to make an impact on the financial reports across the industry, Bharti Airtel is particularly under threat, and there might be worse to come.

For a long-time Jio has been hinting it wants to tackle the under-performing fixed broadband market. There have been a couple of acquisitions in recent months, Den Networks and Hathway Cable, which give it an entry point, and numerous other digital services initiatives to diversify the revenue streams.

The new business units are not making much money at the moment, though Jio is in the strongest position to test out the convergence waters in India. Offering a single revenue stream will ensure the financials hit a glass ceiling in the near future, but new products and aggressive infrastructure investment plans promise much more here.

We’re not too sure whether the Indian market is ready for mass market fixed broadband penetration, there are numerous other market factors involved, but many said the initial Jio battle plan would fail as well.

Convergent business models are certainly an interesting trend in the industry, and Jio is looking like it could force the Indian market into line.

Redundancies, redundancies, redundancies

Redundancy is a difficult topic to address, but it is one we cannot ignore. Despite what everyone promises, there will be more redundancies.

Looking at the typical telco business model, this is the were the majority have been seen and will continue to be seen. To survive in the digitally orientated world, telcos need to adapt. Sometimes this means re-training staff to capitalise on the new bounties, but unfortunately this doesn’t always work. Some can’t be retrained, some won’t want to; the only result here will be redundancies.

BT has been cutting jobs, including a 13,000-strong cull announced earlier this year, Deutsche Telekom is trimming its IT services business by 25%, the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint will certainly create overlaps and resulting redundancies, while Optus has been blaming automation for its own cuts.

Alongside the evolving landscape, automation is another area which will result in a headcount reduction. The telcos will tell you AI is only there to supplement human capabilities and allow staff to focus on higher value tasks, but don’t be fooled. There will be value-add gains, but there will also be accountants looking to save money on the spreadsheets. If you can buy software to do a simple job, why would you hire a couple of people to do it? We are the most expensive output for any business.

Unfortunately, we have to be honest with ourselves. For the telco to compete in the digital era, new skills and new business models are needed. This means new people, new approaches to software and new internal processes. Adaptation and evolution is never easy and often cruel to those who are not qualified. This trend has been witnessed in previous industrial revolutions, but the pace of change today means it will be felt more acutely.

Redundancy is not a nice topic, but it is not always avoidable.

Telcos are missing the AI trick

We’ve spoken about this before, but our bugbear has been renewed at The Great Telco Debate; telcos have too narrow a view on artificial intelligence (AI).

AI is the buzzword of 2018, and perhaps this is one which is justified. In years gone we’ve seen the likes of digital transformation and virtualization become so over used they becomes tedious to discuss, but the scale, breadth and depth of AI mean each time it is mentioned it is almost an entirely new conversation.

That is, until you talk to a telco about it.

For many telcos, AI seems to directly translate into another phrase; network optimisation. Now there is nothing wrong with trying to create a lean, mean, analytical machine, all the best companies do it, but with such a narrow focus on a single area of the AI bonanza, you have to question what the long-term consequence will be.

A couple of weeks back we had the chance to attend the Telco Data Analytics and AI conference in London where Tractia Research Director Aditya Kaul suggested roughly 60% of all AI R&D investments at the telcos was heading towards network optimisation. This is a significant proportion, and you have to wonder whether tricks are being missed.

That is certainly the case for Google’s Mike Blanche. Network optimisation is clearly an obvious contender for AI research funds, as the network swallows up such a considerable amount of CAPEX and OPEX, but there is low hanging fruit which can have a more immediate (and positive) impact on the business. Skipping over this fruit will necessarily not have a detrimental impact on the business, but why miss out on easy wins which can add value?

Charlie Muirhead of CognitionX also echoed this point, stating there is so much more to AI than just network optimization, while Marisa Viveros of IBM reeled off the work which her team is engaged in. The point is, there is more to AI than network optimisation, but not much if you generally speak to telcos.

Going back to the Telco Data Analytics and AI conference, at the time we asked BT’s Pratik Bose, who was appearing on a panel session, whether he thought the intensive focus on network optimisation is a dangerous game to play. His response was simple; sort out the network and that leaves a lot of free time and cash to explore more interesting AI applications. This is a perfectly reasonable idea, but you have to wonder when that time comes will the telcos be playing catch-up to others who have been more adventurous with their AI research.

Chris Lewis of Lewis Insight made a couple of fair points at The Great Telco Debate. Firstly, concentrating all the AI efforts on one aspect of the value chain will mean new opportunities and applications will be missed. The telcos are searching for diversification and additional revenues streams, and considering the role connectivity is going to play in every aspect of our lives from here forward, the telcos could be a useful partner to various members of the ecosystem. But not if research is being laser focused on a single segment.

But why is this? Telcos are of course less adventurous than the webscale players, though this is partly due to the business model and pressure from investors who have bought into a certain type of business model, but another point (made again by Lewis) is from a leadership perspective. A lot of the CEOs throughout the telco world are business managers. Compare this to the Silicon Valley fliers who have technologists in-charge, and you start to see why AI is playing the role it currently is. If you have an accountant in charge of the business, that person is naturally going to be more risk adverse, leaning towards technologies which create operational efficiencies.

Bouke Hoving, EVP of Networks & IT at KPN, pointed towards the digital transformation journey his business went through recently, and part of the reason it was such a success is the digital-first, engaging and adventurous mission was led by the CEO. The culture of a business is led from the boardroom, and the strategy reflects the nature of its CEO. Perhaps this is why BT went down the audaciously flashy and risky route of sport content and Kevin Bacon (Gavin Patterson was a marketer), and why T-Mobile US has such a colourful approach to telecommunications (John Legere is John Legere).

Of course, it is worth restating there is nothing wrong with making a business more efficient. However, in this case it is a dangerous road to take. Such initiatives will only make a business more profitable, improving what is already there. This should be an objective for the telcos, though a bigger concern should be securing new revenues. The telco industry is massive, but it is not growing. For all the money which is being spent on improving and enhancing connectivity, others in the ecosystem are claiming the vast majority of the newly created value. This is not something which the telcos can allow to continue.

Culture is holding back operator adoption of open source

If open source is the holy grail for telcos, more than a few of them are getting lost trying to uncover the treasure; but why?

At a panel session featuring STC and Vodafone at Light Reading’s Software Defined Operations and the Autonomous Network event, the operational culture was suggested a significant roadblock, as well as the threat of ROI due to shortened lifecycles and disappearing support.

Starting with the culture side, this is a simple one to explain. The current workforce has not been configured to work with an open source mentality. This is a different way of working, a notable shift away from the status quo of proprietary technologies. Sometimes the process of incorporating open source is an arduous task, where it can be difficult to see the benefits.

When a vendor puts a working product in front of you, as well as a framework for long-term support, it can be tempting to remain in the clutches of the vendor and the dreading lock-in situation. You can almost guarantee the code has been hardened and is scalable. It makes the concept of change seem unappealing Human nature will largely maintain the status quo, even is the alternative might be healthier in the long-run.

The second scary aspect of open source is the idea of ROI. The sheer breadth and depth of open source groups can be overwhelming at times, though open source is only as strong as the on-going support. If code is written, supported for a couple of months and then discarded in favour of something a bit more trendy, telcos will be fearful of investment due to the ROI being difficult to realise.

Open source is a trend which is being embraced on the surface, but we suspect there are still some stubborn employees who are more charmed by the status quo than the advantage of change.

What to bin and what to keep; the big data conundrum

Figuring out what is valuable data and binning the rest has been a challenge for the telco industry, but here’s an interesting dilemma; how do you know the unknown value of data for the usecases of tomorrow?

This was broadly one of the topics of conversation at Light Reading’s Software Defined Operations & the Autonomous Network event in London. Everyone in the industry knows that data is going to be a big thing, but the influx of questions are almost overwhelming as the number of data sets available.

“90% of the data we collect is useless 90% of the time,” said Tom Griffin of Sevone.

This opens the floodgates of questions. Why do you want to collect certain data sets? How frequently are you going to collect the data? Where is it going to be stored? What are the regulatory requirements? How in-depth does the data need to be for the desired use? What do you do with the redundant data? Will it still be redundant in the future? What is the consequence of binning data which might become valuable in the future? How long do you keep information for with the hope it will one day become useful?

For all the promise of data analytics and artificial intelligence in the industry, the telcos have barely stepped off the starting block. For Griffin and John Clowers of Cisco, identifying the specific usecase is key. While this might sound very obvious, it’s amazing how many people are still floundering, but once this has been identified machine learning and artificial intelligence become critically important.

As Clowers pointed out, with ML and AI data can be analysed in near real-time as it is collected, assigned to the right storage environment (public, private or traditional dependent on regulatory requirements) and then onto the right data lakes or ponds (dependent on the purpose for collecting the data in the first place). With the right algorithms in place, the process of classifying and storing information can be automated, freeing up the time of the engineers to add value, though it also keeps an eye on costs. With the sheer volume of information being collected increasing very quickly, storage costs could rise rapidly.

And this is below the 5G and IoT trends have really kicked in. If telcos are struggling with the data demands of today, how are they going to cope with the tsunami of information which is almost guaranteed in tomorrow’s digital economy.

Which brings us back to the original point. If you have to be selective with the information which you keep, how do you know what information will be valuable for the usecases of tomorrow? And what will be the cost of not having this data?

Telcos are getting pretty good an impersonal communications

They might be slowly headed in the right direction, but telcos are still not great at relating to customers.

In the pursuit of relevance in the digital economy, personalised experiences are a hot topic, but the telcos are no-where near as good on the delivery front as the internet giants. There are of course many reasons for this, but one of the most apparent is the structure of the organization according to Intent HQ CEO Jonathan Lakin.

Here is the current state of affairs. The telcos have access to the same technology, a tsunami of information on the customer and (in theory) access to the same talent pool as the internet giants. The ingredients for success are on both the telco and OTT work surfaces, suggesting the organization itself is to blame.

The FANG companies are incredibly well-known for personalising experiences for customers. Not only does this create more opportunity to drive revenues, placing the right product in front of the right person at the right time, it creates a tie to the customer. The customer feels heard and has a stronger emotional connection to the brand, ultimately reducing churn. Both are benefits which would be of interest to telcos.

But the issue is structural. Telcos are organized in siloes, each of which is excellent at building an in-depth, narrow image of the customer. Whether it is insight on customer churn, or interaction and product history, the telco can build knowledge of the customer but without combining all of these images personalisation will never be a reality.

A good example is product offerings to customers, and a bugbear of many around the world. Whether it is offering products who have already been purchased, or even ones which might be out of the customers price range, without combining the siloes and making more use of the swathes of information available, personalised messaging will not be achievable.

The other issue for the telcos is that of priorities. Lakin pointed out that the main priority for telcos is profitability, which influences how products are developed and sold, and in turn evolving communication strategies and platforms. This not only creates a nightmare for integration in the IT department, but reinforces the siloes. The customer is sitting down the priority list, which is not going to aid the push towards personalised messaging.

Right now, the structure in not in place to create a personalised messaging culture. The ingredients are all there to create a sumptuous recipe, but the organizations are set up right.

Sky flexes its AI muscles

Artificial intelligence might be the buzzword of 2018, but few actually know what to do with the technology. That said, Sky seems to be surging ahead of the pack.

At the Telco Data Analytics and AI conference in London, an interesting statistic was put to the audience; 60% of the AI R&D spend in the telco industry is being directed towards network optimization. This is certainly a valid quest, though the problem with inward R&D investment is that it won’t prevent the slow wander towards utilitisation. To create value, telcos need to be investing in projects which actually create value, drive diversification and capitalise on new revenues. This is exactly what Sky seems to be doing.

“We have a data liquidity problem,” said Rob McLaughlin, Head of Digital Decisioning and Analytics for Sky UK. “Getting data is not an issue, we get it without trying, it’s about getting value from it.”

It seems the Sky UK team has a lot of ‘nice to have problems’, which demonstrate the effective steps forward the business is making in the intelligence-orientated world. While many telcos are struggling with the basic concepts, Sky is really setting the pace.

Aside from the overwhelming amount of data, McLaughlin complained of the management teams attitude towards artificial intelligence. Here, the team aren’t resisting, but asking for solutions which are overly complex. McLaughlin pointed out the Sky business was missing out on the low-hanging fruit, the simple problems which AI can address, instead the management team is looking for the top-line, super-complex solutions which can bring about revolutionary-change.

As McLaughlin told the audience, this is frustrating, but at least the management team is embracing new concepts and technologies, even if they are trying to run before they can walk. This is arguably a perfect scenario however. Change is led from the top of an organization, and McLaughlin seems to be describing a culture which is desperate to embrace change and create value.

Another interesting point made by McLaughlin was a claim there was no POC.

“We launched these projects at scale from day one,” said McLaughlin. “We didn’t want to do a POC as it was a bit of an insult to our intelligence. Why do they need to test whether data is good for the business?”

This demonstrates the much-hyped fail fast business model which has been employed so effectively by the internet giants. These companies don’t need to prove there is value in personalising services, they just need to make it work. The only way to get the algorithms to work is to get them out in the real world, trained by data, honed by machine learning and real-time experiences. This culture of creating results, not trying to prove perfection, will certainly drive value for Sky.

McLaughlin’s team are implementing AI in four different ways at Sky. Firstly, using customer information to cross sell services and products. Secondly, increasing engagement with products and services customers have already bought. Third, anticipating customer needs and problems, a project which is saving Sky millions in customer services and improving the overall NPS score. Finally, AI is being used in media optimisation to improve the advertising platform.

While these projects are still in the early days, the results are clear according to McLaughlin. NPS has been improving, cost saving are being realised and proactive selling of product through personalisation is increasing. With the cross-selling side, the results are quite remarkable. The success of sales of Sky Sport products are up 57% due to two simple changes. Firstly, putting the product in front of the customer at the right time, Saturday afternoon not Friday night for example, and Secondly, selling the product in the right way. If you know you are engaging a football fan, tell them about the football benefits not Formula One.

“Just crazy we haven’t been doing this for 30 years,” said McLaughlin.

All of these initiatives are built on identity. For McLaughlin this is the most important aspect of any data analytics and AI programme, and receives more attention than anything else. If you cannot identify your customer, it is impossible to personalise services effectively. It seems simple, but it is an aspect which is often overlooked.

“If we have the opportunity to speak to someone, don’t tell them something, treat them as the person the data says they are,” said McLaughlin.

Sky might not have a reputation as an particularly innovative organization, nothing out of the ordinary at least, but this approach to data analytics and artificial intelligence is certainly worth noting. The culture is accepting and proactive, there is an attitude which is geared toward doing, not planning, and the objectives are clearly outlined. McLaughlin might have his frustrations, but if you want an example of an organization which is proving the value of intelligence, you won’t have to look much farther.

Microsoft recognises AI might screw over some employees

Artificial intelligence has been hyped as the technology which will drive profits in the next era, though few in the technology want recognise how painful the technology will be for some segments of society.

The propaganda mission from the technology world was incredibly present at Microsoft’s UK event Future Decoded. Of course, there are benefits from the implementation of AI. Business can be more productive, more intelligent and more proactive, tackling trends ahead of time and gaining an edge on competitors. There is a lot of buzz, but it might just turn out to be justified.

Despite this promise, Microsoft has seemingly done something this morning few other technology companies around the world are brave enough to do; recognise that there will be people screwed by the deployment.

“There is a risk of leaving an entire generation behind,” said Microsoft UK CEO Cindy Rose.

The risk here is the pace of change. While previous generations might have had time to adapt to the impact of next-generation technologies, today’s environment is allowing AI to disrupt the status quo at a much more aggressive pace than ever before. Rose pointed towards the explosive growth of data, pervasiveness of the cloud and much more powerful algorithms, as factors which are accelerating the development and deployment of AI.

One question which should be asked is whether the workforce can be re-educated and reskilled fast enough to ensure society is not being left behind? Yes it can, but Rose stated the UK is not doing enough to keep pace with the disruption.

Looking at statistics which support this statement, Microsoft has released research which found 41% of employees and 37% of business leaders believe older generations will get left behind. Now usually when we talk about older generations and a skills gap, retirees comes to mind. However, those in the late 40s or early 50s could be the more negatively affected. The ability or desire to reskill might not be there due to the individuals entering the final stages of their career before retirement, though the risk of redundancy will be present. How are the people who might be made redundant 3-4 years short of retirement going to be supported? This is a question which has not been answered or even considered by anyone.

To help with imbalance, Microsoft UK has announced the launch of its AI Academy, which is targeted on training 500,000 people on AI skills. This is not just a scheme which is aimed at developers, but also IT professionals, those at risk of job loss and executives in both the business and public sector world.

As the technology industry has pointed out several times, there will be jobs created as part of the AI enthusiasm. But here is the risk, are those who are victims of job displacement suitably qualified to take these jobs? No, they are not. Uber drivers who fall victims to the firms efforts in autonomous driving, or how about the bookmaker who will be made redundant by SAPs powerful accounting software. These are not data scientists or developers, and will not be able to claim a slice of the AI bonanza which is being touted today.

But perhaps the risk has been hyped because there is too much focus on the negative? KPMG’s Head of Digital Disruption Shamus Rae suggested too much attention has been given to the dystopian view of AI, instead of its potential to unlock value and capture new revenues. Comfused.com CEO Louise O’Shea said one way her team implemented AI was to pair technical and non-technical staff to, firstly, allow front line employees to contribute to development and make an application which is actually useful, and secondly remove the fear of the unknown. The technical staff educate the non-technical staff on what the technology means and why it can help.

These are interesting thoughts, and do perhaps blunt the edge of the AI threat somewhat, but there will be those who use AI for purely productivity gains, not the way the industry is selling it. These are not businesses which will survive in the long-term, but they will have a negative impact on employees and society in the short-term. When you are lining up in the dole queue, the promise of an intelligent, cloud-orientated future is little comfort.

Microsoft UK CEO Cindy Rose is right. AI will power the next-generation and create immense value for the economy. But, no-where near enough is being done to help those at risk of job loss to adapt to the new world. The aim here is not to hide the negative with an overwhelming tsunami of benefits, but to minimise the consequences as much as possible. Not enough is being done.