CTO of the Year roundtable: LTE, 5G, skills and virtualisation dominate discussions

Features

Mobile Europe was left in an enjoyably difficult situation at the roundtable during its fourth CTO of the Year awards this week: how to set the telecoms industry to rights between 12 CTOs and with only 90 minutes to do so?

You can read the full report and gauge how successful we are in the next issue of Mobile Europe, which will also include exclusive interviews with our Regional CTO of the Year winner Geert Standaert and Group CTO of the Year winner Yogesh Malik.

As Editor of Mobile Europe and the chair of the roundtable, I believe the CTOs present, comprising executives from Deutsche Telekom, Orange, O2, DNA, and Tele2 among many others, performed admirably and we could have quite easily continued discussions well into the following day.

But what were the headlines? Our discussion began with LTE, increasingly under-discussed and unloved amid the flurry of 5G firsts. There was consensus, and perhaps hope, that it would underpin 5G networks in the way that operators continue to rely on trusty old 2G.

But the CTOs present also agreed that more needed to be done to ensure they could refarm existing spectrum holdings in order to give extra oomph to their LTE networks or free up supply for 5G.

Time and again, regulation came under attack by operators. Governments and pan-European organisations, for all their purported technology enthusiasm, are refusing to follow through with more flexibility allowing for operators to satisfy their demand, refarm spectrum, share it or ensure fully harmonised systems.

5G's residence in much higher frequency bands than the telecoms industry has been using to date would require a rethink in how spectrum is packaged together and sold. More thought needs to be given to how operators can use spectrum and play nicely with others, participants said.

Beyond the issues of spectrum, there were suggestions that literal bricks and mortar issues affect operators. Liga Krumina, CTO of Tele2 Latvia, bemoaned a lack of understanding about how other factors influence telecoms coverage, such as construction of new buildings.

Brendan O'Reilly, CTO of UK operator O2, agreed, noting how mobile coverage needs to be as "built in" to new buildings and construction projects as water and electricity is.

A particularly tricksy issue for operators looking to the future is that of staffing. The debate became particularly animated when discussion turned to transforming one's business.

Again, consensus ruled with operators agreeing that new kinds of skills and new kinds of staff were needed to ensure a safe path into the future. The challenge, as Telekom Austria Group CTO Sasha Zabransky noted among others, was how to cherrypick the graduates and innovators fluttering their eyelashes at digital giants or opt for their own start-ups.

Here there were no easy answers. As Orange's Alain Maloberti pointed out, it is just one operator encouraging start-up activity through its own Fab! accelerator. But that is more of a collegiate relationship, rather than a hard-nosed attempt to hoover up staff. The benefits there are encouraging ecosystem growth and learning from their processes.

Attendees accepted these new kinds of skills were essential, particularly in the shift towards virtualisation. In arguably the most exciting part of the discussion, CTOs were split about how and when to virtualise.

While VEON's Yogesh Malik talked up the cost saving aspects of the technology, as well as its abilities to speed up time to market, others, like DNA's Tommy Olenius were more circumspect, arguing it needs more time to test and learn.

While overall CTOs were in agreement about the need to change, there was also concern about the conditions they have to work under. As Proximus's Geert Standaert noted, customers are demanding more for less. The world of 5G and ever improving IoT networks has the potential to offer more to consumers than ever before. Working out how, or even if, they can pay for these networks will be central to the challenges all parts of an operator will face over the coming years.