Q&A: Openet CEO on MWC, 5G and his birthday

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Niall Norton, CEO of Openet open source digital BOSS
Niall Norton, CEO of Openet

With Mobile World Congress (MWC) just around the corner – again – DisruptiveAsia caught up with Openet CEO Niall Norton for a regular catch up about MWC, 5G and the meaning of life.

DisruptiveAsia: Here we are again – about to face the phenomenon that is MWC. Time for a catch up.

Niall Norton: Indeed, I think that MWC is more burned into my memory than my birthday or wedding anniversary.

I guess the obvious question is what’s new and interesting – is 5G interesting yet?

5G is definitely interesting, though not yet in the way some would have you believe. In fact, 2019 might well be the year of ‘vendor desperation’. We see a lot of real estate decisions. There is still a lot of uncertainty. There is movement around infrastructure, some business being written, and vendor qualification, for sure, and operators understand that the new radio layer is a ‘must have’. But the story around devices and where and how you make money is far less clear. Even big operators are grappling with the uncertainty around the business models.

Where the transformation is really happening is in the convergence of automation and cloud as a hosting technology and an efficient infrastructure. That is where operators seem to be focusing at the moment.

Some operators, driven by vendors, are trying to be relevant to consumers and SMEs, while being friends of the enterprise at the same time. Fundamentally, though, executives are understanding that their existing network is slow and expensive and that is a great driver for change. That, and decisions driven by being more digital, more agile.

The other thing, of course, is that people are realising that big transformations are not going to work – the big bang approach is not going to work. And there is still that nagging question about the ‘internet guys’ who are doing stuff for a few cents which costs them $1.50. So there is a lot of taking a step back and reassessing their position.

So, what approach are operators taking right now?

I believe they are investing in parallel platforms so they can address a particular segment. They are building a 5G ready capability which is not necessarily a 5G network, with really light billing. They realise that they can still sweat the old stuff – and build something that is cloud based, lighter touch technology for the new stuff.

There is a momentum towards addressing a particular segment then taking a step by step approach. They can test the platform at the same time. That is where the quiet revolution is happening. Not so much the Arab Spring but a sort of Irish Winter (which goes on from January to December).

Operators are taking a pretty pragmatic approach. They will sweat their existing BSS, implement a parallel system, put a 5G policy system on the front of that and they are ready for ‘5G’ and digital services. Then they can migrate customers and let 20 year old systems die off humanely.

There seems to a thread going around at the moment, about 5G for enterprises, where enterprises are working out how to leverage private 5G services. Is that a thing?

Well, the earliest 5G deployments will be about fixed mobile replacement, without doubt. Operators will just want to fill up the pipe. And yes, Telcos are not the only guys in the funnel. Enterprises will have the devices will become partners and will come first in roll out and innovation.

The law of unintended consequences will play a big role in the next year or so, too, as 5G and all the IoT and autonomous car like solutions will suffer from the pools of 5G, mainly in urban areas, that will emerge. Companies like Jasper could find it tough as the arbitrage moment disappears.

Even in urban areas, consumer facing 5G is still a year away. We might, probably will, get MiFi this year, personal hotspots etc in some markets anyway. This will be unexciting but will allow huge bandwidth.

Will consumers see the benefit of ‘5G’?

Candidly, no. They won’t give a damn. They will see it as somewhere between 4G and WiFi. Sure, the range of things they can do will be better – in areas like VR, AR – but they won’t care what network it is on. Not even slightly. In fact, they will get annoyed with – even more – network pitches.

If you were the CEO of an operator right now, where would you focus?

OK, interesting. What size of operator am I?

Let’s say, as a random example, a Telstra sized organisation.

Actually what I would be doing is bulking up on my corporate deal makers. I would be focused on transforming my business into a marketing business. I would be getting wholesale deals with the likes of GE and Caterpillar and whoever is cool and big in gaming. I would be looking at doing deals with Netflix and the like. As Jack Ma says, ‘opportunity lies where the complaints are’. Customers don’t care how it gets to me, as long as it does. Make these kind of companies your partners and you begin to help solve their problems – and don’t do badly yourself.

There are some good examples of localised branding ideas here, for instance Globe. They are using 5G as a non-fixed cable modem. They launched G-Cash, a mobile payments platform, have a distribution deal with Netflix who distributes content worldwide and Globe deals with local Philippine content.

Progress will be driven by huge enterprises collaborating with networks to improve the customer experience, to beat the other guys.

It is actually quite like a BT strategy from 20 years ago. They had a library of artefacts to help developers to develop their services, for example flexible rating capabilities etc. If you do this right now, the next Uber or AirBnB will use your tools and that will put you in a great position. You also get to many, many more developers. It won’t happen for two to three years – but it will come.

The debate about data privacy, security and Facebook seem to be getting a lot of attention at the moment – is the backlash going to affect progress and how we use data?

Actually I am pretty positive. While we hate AI, for instance, when it serves us adverts we don’t want, it will definitely become mainstream. It will probably find a niche in healthcare or somewhere and it will catch on and from there end up in all sorts of places, such as lifestyle products and services, as long as it is not invasive.

Governments will react strongly against data misuse though and Google and Facebook will be branded publishing companies which will change the game. Fake news will influence the direction too and, as I say, the myth that AI and Facebook can find me the perfect bride and the perfect career are just that – myths.

Apparently Facebook is going to merge Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram as, so obviously they have no-one on board who has ever been involved with telecoms integrations.

My guess is that they will all disappear as separate things without us really noticing, and presumably the data will get shared again, in different ways. We will have to wait and see.

What will probably happen is that all of these factors will drive people into closed chat rooms. Also, chat environments are a convenient way of sending messages without the formality of emails.

So what do you think we will see at MWC?

Well, CES is a good predictor. There will be loads of talk about 5G of course and vendors will say that services are nearer than they are. A lot of talk about AI. We will probably see Ericsson looking big in radio now that it is out, or almost out, of BSS. For the rest, and especially some who have been in the news a lot, it will interesting to see what they are selling. Samsung will be about radio and a lot of IoT, and, of course, for IBM AI is a wonderful thing, how cloud is a wonderful thing.

One other myth which will be out there is that 5G billing platforms are ready to go. BSS vendors will be leaning in so far with how ready they are, they will be falling over.

It will be interesting that is for sure.

Niall, thank you for talking to us and have a great show – and birthday, whenever that is!

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