Regional CTO of the Year: Proximus’ Standaert on the need for wizardry

CTO Interviews

Geert Standaert won Mobile Europe’s Regional CTO of the Year award for 2017 with an impressive mix of cherrypicking the right technologies for its customers and building for the future. He talks to Graeme Neill.

here are several buzzwords and phrases you expect when talking to a CTO – customer centric approaches, 5G and the need for transformation to name but three – but Harry Potter and comparing telecoms to a football match are not ones that immediately spring to mind. Proximus’s Geert Standaert, who picked up Mobile Europe’s Regional CTO of the Year award in May, uses both to talk about the challenges facing operators and how it’s up to all parties, governments, operators and vendors, to solve them.

Before discussing wizardry, both on the pitch and off, some context. Standaert was unanimously voted as winner of the award thanks to his diverse approach to telecoms. With just over six million customers Proximus may lack scale, but this hasn’t stopped Standaert from experimenting with all kinds of technology, from jumping in at the ground floor for LoRa, pushing heavily on network coverage and quality, using small cells, looking to 5G and underpinning it all with fibre.

Quite the challenge. So what skills does a CTO need to best prepare its network for the future? “A CTO now has to make sure he handles the right balance between technology innovation and customer value,” he says. “There are many things where you could say “I want to invest in that”, but there is too much out there.

“So it’s about connecting the dots and saying ‘I will pick my battles’ that will be between technology innovation and customer value.” An additional evolution of the role is bearing return of investment in mind like never before.

Picking battles means it is as important to be “a close follower” as it is to be a leader in certain types of technology, as smaller operators do not have the scale of an Orange or Liberty Global, adds Standaert.

“The third thing is probably what I have learned the most in [the] 20 plus years of my career and five as a CTO. That is to surround yourself with the best people. The CTO who can built a team of not only the best individuals but the best team and makes sure that they can keep motivated and work together will remain competitive...The people component is as crucial as all of the rest.”

He compares telecoms to Champions League football, saying the ever changing landscape means operators have to constantly adapt their own approach to stay relevant. “Getting there is one thing, but remaining there is another.”

To do so, Proximus has reinvented how it tracks customer experience. The operator now tracks 111 parameters – an easy number to remember, Standaert jokes – spanning call quality, sharing files, or watching videos in different contexts, whether it’s indoors, in the countryside or on a train. 

He says the focus is on overall network quality, rather than broadcasting eye-catching data speeds. He says:  “All operators are further building their networks so it’s a question for us of ‘where do we have to differentiate?’.

“Differentiating on all elements is something we cannot do because the cost would be way too high. But you have to capture the things that really matter, and that’s where we try and differentiate.” 

Here, Standaert cites the work Proximus has done around events, including a focus on small cell densification and pop-up networks. With roughly 200 taking place per year – “in Belgium we like to party”, Standaert quips – he says it wants to enable as many of these “moments” as possible. Better network quality encourages customers to move onto higher data packets. He says: “When you light up your small cells, bang, you see overall traffic going up. If you bring new capabilities, they are used. If you bring better experiences, they are used.”

 

Growth strategy

Data consumption at Proximus has grown year on year by an “amazing” 70 percent, and a sign that operators need to start preparing in earnest for 5G to meet expected demand. Regardless of the smart cities, connected cars and remote healthcare that lie within the more starry eyed predictions of 5G, Standaert says meeting the exponential growth of mobile data will be its first use case.

He says: “With the spectrum you have in place and the 4G technologies, in the coming years you can still do a lot. We will not hit a wall in the coming three to four years but if you do not start [preparing] now, you will hit that wall. Because at a certain moment in time, you will need that new technology which is coming in.”

Debates abound at Proximus about 5G; what it will comprise, what it will power, and what an operator can offer. The argues that operators need to concentrate on spectrum bands below 10GHz, adding: “I’m a firm believer that a lot can be done with millimetre wave but millimetre comes with a lot of challenges. Millimetre wave doesn’t go through my body. The way I hold my phone becomes important.

“Today everybody is looking at 3-5GHz, but I think we should be looking at what lies below the 10GHz spectrum. We are only a small operator but for people to say we don’t need it, forget it.”

While the likes of refarming and 4.5G offer an operator a degree of breathing space, Proximus has been deploying fibre with 5G in mind. He says: “When I look at fibre I want to know where I can put in small cells, where I will do offloads, edge computing. We don’t know everything but at least some things are pretty clear.”

He disagrees with the opinion espoused in Mobile Europe’s last issue, by Telefónica Group CTO Enrique Blanco, that in racing to be the company that claims that seemingly all-important 5G “first”, operators’ impatience could miss out on potential use cases and technologies.

Standaert argues he needs something different to what exists, despite the wriggle room that remains within LTE.

In order to reach 5G effectively, he says regulators and governments need to step up and support network investment, both across fixed and mobile. He says: “A wrong decision at the regulator side could certainly slow down the evolution [to 5G] and maybe jeopardise it.

“All of the stakeholders have to understand it will be needed, there is a lot to do on many fronts, but all stakeholders should be supported. We are all players in the same football game. There are no players stood in the crowd. Every stakeholder on the playing field has to take up his role.”

He adds: “The pain point is that [5G] requires investment so it will be very important for the national regulators to realise it will be needed to further the digitalisation of Europe and its countries, but that does not come for free.”

Standaert says a massive amount of spectrum will be required for 5G, but says operators are not “Harry Potters” and shouldn’t be expected to magic up the solutions on their own. But are operators’ concerns being listened to? Standaert is far from the first to raise this issue. He says: “I am just a technical guy that sees what happens in the trenches but what I see in the trenches is we need more support.”

He adds: “I think for Belgium, there is a high willingness to listen and we can advocate for what we see. Those interactions are ongoing but a regulator should understand that the decision it will take can make the difference between doing things and not doing things. We will take the necessary steps on our side to make it clear.”

This dovetails into what he considers the biggest challenge facing the industry; that of consumer behaviour. The concept of “more for less” may have driven explosive growth in data usage and great deals for the customer, but the CTO argues it cannot go on. He says educating customers and regulators about this is a problem facing the whole industry.

He says: “Customers will not accept to pay three times what they are paying now but they will have to pay more.”

 

Domino effect

Another area of concern is also one of telecoms’ greatest opportunities; that of the increasingly networked society. The “exponential complexity of the landscape”, as Standaert puts it, presents operators with the question of how they manage it. He says: “On the one hand, it will be driven by the multitude of products, technologies and use cases that are out there but on the other, and I see this day to day, is how everything is starting to get linked with each other.”

He gives the example of its fibre rollout, which will not only bolster fixed line speeds but also wade into areas such as backhaul and densification of networks. Proximus’s virtualisation of its packet core has its benefits, but it also crosses into other areas. Standaert adds: “What it also means is when you have slippage or delays in one of the tracks, it’s like a domino effect. We are releasing each weekend something new, but we know if we have a delay in any of the releases, it will have a domino effect on many other things. It is really raising the bar for CTOs.”

Proximus is no stranger to the benefits of an increasingly networked society, having been one of the founder members of the LoRa Alliance, an operator collaboration to get their role in the Internet of Things established ahead of cellular connectivity’s late entry. Standaert says operators’ roles lie beyond the cliché of the dumb pipe. He says operators need to choose verticals where they can solve an existing problem.

Additionally, he says: “You cannot only come with connectivity. The other industries need time to fully understand and make decisions about what they can do with IoT. They want to pilot it, test it and develop it and it can be one or two years before an interested party has a concept that it can bring to the market.”

Operators should act as digital service providers to solve IoT problems but also open enterprises’ eyes to the potential of the technology, he argues. This is why Proximus created EnCo, a platform giving customers the building blocks needed to build their own IoT solutions through a range of APIs. These APIs include anything from Sensor as a Service, allowing companies the ability to integrate IoT into web or mobile apps, to SMS APIs, where messages, such as appointment reminders, can be automatically sent.

Since launching last year, more than 200 companies have signed up. Standaert says the relationship works well. He gives the example of a fridge and locker company. While it might be an expert in storage solutions, they are not necessarily as knowledgeable about how IT or digital communications could transform its business. By experimenting with the services on the EnCo platform, enterprises can get greater insight into what they can do with mobility.

Standaert says: “We want to be a digital service provider that brings a solution to your problem, but we also want to be digital service enablers. We built the EnCo platform to have way more capabilities in there that allow any other player to use them, not have to build them itself and go much faster to market.”

A telecoms industry on the cusp of serious change, and one fraught with risk, can make for sometimes gloomy reading with talk of the need for regulatory change, financial rigour, shoring up defences against OTT players and so on. In spite of the seriousness of some of the areas covered, Standaert’s genuine enthusiasm for technology and all it can bring is infectious during our interview. 

He is quick to laugh throughout our conversation and does so again when I ask him as an award-winning CTO what his advice would be to anyone seeking to work in technology. “The advice I would give...is to be like a sponge and absorb any moment and any interaction. For example, I saw it when I was with you last year [at the 2016 CTO of the Year award] and we had interactions with the different CTOs.

“I have always in my life tried to grasp any moment and any interaction that I’ve had. I have worked for great people and they were all great at different things. If I can get out of an interaction that I’m having, for example with some CTOs discussing a certain topic, if I can bring one thing home, then I’m a happy man.”

 

Why he won: Mobile Europe’s judging panel on how Geert Standaert demonstrated the x-factor

 

Caroline Gabriel, Rethink Technology Research

The judges were impressed by Geert’s all-round performance and he scored highly against all the criteria for the award. He is particularly strong at addressing every aspect of the network, from the cell sites to the services and the user experience, and driving a broad ecosystem of partners and suppliers to enrich the network itself.

Within the latter, he has led an aggressive deployment of LTE-Advanced and the first 5G trials in Belgium, as well as the first commercial VoLTE services. These network improvements are not measured just by technical KPIs, but real world customer experience, as reflected in rising satisfaction levels.

Geert is also looking to diversify the revenues from the networks, including taking an innovative approach to machine-to-machine services, by deploying the LoRa technology in unlicensed spectrum alongside cellular IoT.

This flexibility is important for an operator in a smaller market, which may not have the same weight to influence vendors and standards as those in the largest markets. Geert is very strong at counteracting that potential disadvantage, by working closely with a range of suppliers and partners, and by opening up the Proximus platform with new APIs, to encourage as much innovation as possible from third parties.

Overall, Geert is showing strong internal and external leadership in driving innovation through the network at all layers, and looking ahead to 5G.

 

Marc Smith, European Communications and Mobile Europe

Geert is an infectious character who clearly loves his job and cares about the wider team around him. When I judged his entry against the award’s four benchmarks, it was the delivery of some innovative projects that really stood out. At the micro level, for example, Geert and his team identified Facebook as a key use case on Proximus’ 4G network and set about improving the customer experience by optimising TCP protocol mechanisms to boost speeds.

At a more macro level, the launch of a 4G+ network – a combination of the 800MHz and 1800MHz bands – was a first in Belgium, while investment was made in the operator’s 2G and 3G networks to put Proximus near the top of global leaderboards for dropped call rates.

Geert has also embraced small cells, testing the technology in Antwerp during 2016 to boost download speeds in the densest areas of the city. He is convinced of the need for small cells in a future 5G network and has been building much needed expertise ahead of time.

Other forward-looking projects included the launch of brand new technology, developed in partnership with start-up Tessares, that combined the bandwidth of Proximus’ DSL and LTE networks on an existing line to provide improved connectivity to remote premises.

Geert has worked extremely hard to deliver real value to both Proximus and its customers – graft that has been deservedly rewarded with him becoming Regional CTO of the Year 2017.