Sunrise CTO: A laser-like focus on LTE amid the 5G, IoT hype

CTO Interviews

Elmar Grasser is unconcerned about the glitzy hype of 5G and the Internet of Things, at least for now. He tells Graeme Neill why it is crucial for an operator’s present and future to build the best LTE network possible today.

Sunrise CTO Elmar Grasser is a man who transcends borders. His well-travelled career to date has spanned operators in Austria, Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as stints at standards body ETSI and satellite operator Iridium, before he joined Sunrise in Switzerland four and a half years ago.

When I interview him in July, I mistakenly took his accent to be German, something he reveals to be a common mistake. In fact, Grasser is from the Dolemite region in Italy, where there is a German minority. He jokes the area used to be part of Austria until the end of the First World War, when it became part of Italy “without anybody being asked”. He adds: “We have German names, a German accent and are Italians by citizenship.”

My misunderstanding, somewhat embarrassing for a title underpinned by successful communication, is swiftly and fortunately replaced by a detour from telecoms into the benefits of the Tyrolean cuisine from where he hails – the combination of its dried meats and cheeses with Italian pasta is the best food in the world, claims Grasser. “I need to advertise it.”

First you would have to get him off the topic of telecoms. Grasser is the latest in an increasingly long line of customer-centric technology enthusiasts within operators. Frequently through our interview, he apologises for moving into areas that are more of interest to CTOs, despite that being precisely what I’m interested in. While he is happy playing around with carrier aggregation or virtualisation, what actually matters is what the customer thinks in their day-to-day experience.

So much so that he is almost dismissive of the number crunching many operators to do to ascertain in what shape their networks are. That’s not to say Grasser is not focused on achieving the best performance for Sunrise’s network; it’s more a case of concentrating on what the customer experiences.  He says its recent introduction of voice over LTE and Wi-Fi was “nothing revolutionary” because both are services the customer should not notice. To ape Steve Jobs, they just work.

He says: “We don’t have the technology discussion at all with the customer. We mostly don’t even tell them they have voice over 4G. He just has this nice experience with voice over LTE combined with voice over Wi-Fi.”

He adds: “That’s what I tell the team all the time. It’s not what we measure that is important, it’s what the customer feels our network is…It’s very important that the customer doesn’t even notice any more that he requires a network. It’s just there. He feels it in a positive way. That’s what we are aiming for.”

Seconds after he first mentions Sunrise’s 99.44 percent population coverage for LTE, Grasser says the metric is one he is less concerned about compared to others. He says: “We are concentrating on area coverage in Switzerland as an operator. We have now a little bit over 92 percent area coverage and this is what we want to extend even further.”

His approach to connectivity is macro and LTE-centric, with cellular being rolled out across 800MHz, 900MHz, 1800MHz and 2.6GHz. Grasser says: “What we are using intensively is low frequency spectrum combined with the higher throughput multi-carrier aggregation. We have built a low frequency layer across the whole country so we have real and very good indoor and area coverage. Added to that is higher frequency capacity and speed layers on top of that.”

This multi-carrier aggregation means the network can hit speeds of 900MBps, device compatibility permitting. But, again, that’s not information Grasser is placing directly in front of the consumer. Perception is what’s important and it’s paying off, with data consumption rates up 120 percent year on year. He says: “You can see our customers are enjoying the speeds and with the improvement of the network, the data consumption goes up. That’s a fact.”

Macro infrastructure is currently enough to satisfy demand, with Sunrise only implementing a handful of small cells at hotspots. He says: “Small cells are not that important for us. We are using it in areas where it is difficult to get macro sites, which in Switzerland is sometimes the case. But otherwise I strongly believe in the macro site network that is more efficient.”  

Refarming is underway to ensure enough spectrum is in place to meet this growth curve. All but 5MHz of its former 2G holding has been refarmed, with plans to turn the network off by the end of next year. Work on 3G is likely to follow although Grasser is reluctant to discuss exactly what will happen, and when.

He says: “We don’t see an upcoming capacity issue due to our spectrum but talking three or four years ahead, it’s not enough. You need to have more spectrum and new technologies in order to cope with the traffic.”

 

No Chinese walls

One thing Grasser repeatedly says is underpinning the strength of its network is the relationship Sunrise has with Huawei. The operator has a single vendor policy, with the Chinese company providing the radio, core and most of the transmission for it. Grasser says this approach has meant Sunrise has been able to increase network quality but reduce cost. He says: “On infrastructure we are working very closely together and very successfully together. We have been in a win/win situation that has reduced costs for us and proved good business for them.”

This plain sailing contrasts with when he first joined Sunrise. Unlike now, he says the relationship had scope for improvement with both parties not communicating as clearly as they do today. He says: “It’s extremely important to know what you want, know what your targets are and follow up on those. If you can combine that with a strong partner, where you can create a win/win situation, then it works as it does here.”

He adds: “If we have a problem we solve it together with the best resources on both sides. This drives things forward and forward and forward. But you have to know what you want from your partner and hopefully that fits with what the partner wants. It sounds simple, but strangely not everyone is doing it.”

Strong communication is not just something that is an important network metric; Grasser says clarity is critical both within and without the company. He says all too often companies are too quick to blame the others for issues rather than focus on how all parties can improve. He says: “I know from my experience you need two to kiss. For success [and failure], you always need two to mess it up, but also to make it a success. If you have an organisation that totally concentrates on showing that your partner did not do the right thing, then I know this is not true.

“This is something that isn’t Sunrise-specific. I have seen it in many other areas. I have worked with vendors where at some point in time I make a decision about whether we fix it together or not. I don’t stay with a vendor and complain all the time that they are a problem. Either I fix it, or I leave it.”

One area where there is less action than others are doing is the Internet of Things. Grasser says the operator is exploring it but is not as reluctant to discuss the specifics of its technology strategy compared to, say, LTE. He says: “I feel it is interesting technology but I have to say that our focus is, at the moment, not so much on the IoT. Earlier it was called M2M but I think the new name has not improved the revenue stream out of it. We see this only starting now. It’s not a big issue or a revenue stream at the moment but we expect it to come. It takes a while to have an environment where this takes off.”

Technology-wise, he says Sunrise doesn’t have any problems. He’s wary on LoRa – it’s “not interesting enough” to warrant the new infrastructure – but is reluctant to discuss the specifics on how, where or even if Sunrise is throwing its weight behind LTE-M or NB-IoT. He says: “If the market starts, our network, our IT provisioning and systems are ready to be able to do it.”

It seems the problem is more of a market-led one than technology. Grasser says the right conditions need to be created in order to have the IoT ecosystem that many are predicting or dreaming of. He says: “It’s strange but with data it was the same. When UMTS was coming around in 2000, nothing happened and some people started to almost give up and question whether it would ever happen. But now in 2017, we have every week a growth rate that is higher than what we had in the seven years from 2000.

“I always look at the long-term curve starting from 2005 and you see that nothing happened for many many years and then suddenly it took off. As we speak we have the highest growth rates. I assume that once the ecosystem for the IoT is around then suddenly it will take off in a [similar way]. The ecosystem is not ready yet.”

 

Passion play

Another area rich in activity but one where Grasser is comfortable to wait is 5G. His reasons circle back to his focus on the strength of the network today. He says: “Sometimes I see many operators talking about 5G a lot but having a very lousy network now. If you don’t create a brilliant network on 4G, it will be very difficult to step into 5G.

“When I go outside of Switzerland, I am very disappointed about the performance of networks. The voice quality is sometimes extremely lousy and I think it’s extremely important to create an environment where people are interested in 5G.”

He adds: “I am not pointing to any countries, but I have to say you can see the difference when you leave Switzerland.”

He laughs as he warms to the theme, incredulous as he laments some other operators failing to deal with something conventional as voice quality. He says he is baffled when he experiences voice quality while driving that is “like out of the 1960s when Neil Armstrong told the world that he made the first step on the moon”.

“In that context when you talk about 5G, I get nervous. I think it’s extremely important to have good 4G coverage everywhere, not just in the cities. When you drive a car on the autobahn, you should not have a single drop. I want to get rid of all of the dropped calls.

“This is so important for the customer – to get hungry for more, to get interested in more. If you are on a 2G connection somewhere in the countryside you are not thinking about 5G. If you have a brilliant experience wherever you are, you want to get more.”

While 5G is seen as a dramatic step forward for the telecoms industry, he says its success is inextricably linked to the quality of the network today because it provides the foundations that people will built new products and services upon. He says: “You create an environment of developers that start developing something because they see they have a network that works everywhere and in every context. You create more hungry young people that create more applications that make use of this brilliant network. You have to create such an ecosystem before you start driving out a 5G network.”

Grasser’s customer-centric enthusiasm for technology reminds me of his CEO Olaf Swantee, who played an integral role in dragging the United Kingdom into the 4G era when he was in charge of EE. He says: “[Olaf] has the passion for technology; not for the technology itself but for the sake of serving the customer in the right way.”

He said the key thing that Swantee has introduced to Sunrise since taking the helm almost 18 months ago is making the case for network investment to the company’s shareholders. “It was easy to convince Olaf that investing in infrastructure is good for the company and we continue to do so. The network is the basis for what we sell. I believe we are doing it very efficiently.”

Food for thought and clearly communicated.