With the technology world constantly focusing on bigger, faster and better, it is easy to forget there are challenges outside aside from satisfying the demanding appetite of the digital natives.
This is one of the biggest headaches for Emmanuel Lugagne Delpon, Senior Vice President Orange Labs. The African market doesn’t need bigger, better or faster connectivity, it just needs basic internet. In light of the challenges faced by the telco world, it might seem like a simple one, but right now Delpon isn’t receiving the assistance he needs.
“So far we do not have a solution,” said Delpon. “We have standardized equipment, which allows for economies of scale, but we use the same solutions for rich countries as we do Africa. These countries have ARPU of $30 a month, compared to $1 in Africa. We simply cannot afford that.”
Standardization has been wonderful for the developed nations in Europe or North America, were densely populated communities benefit from mobile equipment which is designed for high download speeds and high bandwidth. But to achieve these aims, broad coverage has had to be sacrificed. Delpon highlighted that today many of the radio antenna solutions cover 5-10km, which is fantastic for central London, but wholly unsuitable for rural Africa.
Considering the vast expanse of the African continent, the number of underserved areas of connectivity and the low ROI through ARPU, the economics of equipment which cover 5-10km do not make sense. Antennas need to be able support 100km or more to be suitable to meet the demands of the African continent, as Delpon commented the demands are not for exciting content or ridiculous download speeds, just basic connectivity. Unfortunately, no-one is providing a suitable local solution as it stands.
While rural coverage in Africa is an on-going challenge, only specific to a small proportion of operators around the world, the next one is one which should be universal; virtualisation.
It’s another topic which not be new to the telco world, but the standardisation of Network Function Virtualisation Infrastructure (NFVI) is one of the most important hurdles being faced by Delpon right now. Standardization might not be the most exciting topic in the industry, but it is critical. Delpon has 20% of R&D workforce focusing explicitly on standards, trying to avoid the dreaded divergence trend which is starting to appear.
“For 3G the industry failed,” said Delpon. “Operators made progress for 4G and the adoption of 4G was very quick. For 5G there is a chance of divergence, but we are working hard to maintain the one standard.”
This is the threat which the industry is facing. NFVI is not standardized, potentially meaning every operator will be reinventing network architecture on their own terms. This is not a new topic, but seems to have been brushed aside recently. A telco driving forward with its own imagination is great for the short-term, but ultimately it will destroy the concept of economy of scale, which is imperative for the development of cost-effective and high-performance networks.
Unfortunately, some of the major contributors to standardization, the vendors, can act more like a devil on the shoulder than the angel. Ultimately, the idea of decoupling hardware and software is not the most sensible business decision, you are after all then losing a guaranteed customer, and lower the barrier for entry to a horde of new software competitors. The vendors aren’t wholly ‘enthusiastic’ about this idea according to Delpon, which has been causing problems. Operator pushing their own version of 5G network architecture are not being discouraged by the vendors because why would they?
Economy of scale is critical for Delpon and his army of R&D engineers in creating the networks of tomorrow. Unfortunately, the industry is not exactly supporting his ambitions for the moment. Change is coming, but change is always difficult.