Kathy Gibson is at Mobile World Congress 2019 in Barcelona – In the era of intelligent connectivity, networks are key to bringing everything together – and this puts the chief technology officers (CTOs) of the world’s telecommunications companies on the spot.

5G has the potential to be a real game-changer for telcos, but the realisation is dawning that the underlying telecoms platforms need to have a new and flexible architecture that allows them to take advantage of not only 5G, but all new technologies and innovations coming down the line.

A panel discussion at Mobile World Congress assembled chief technology officers from some of the world’s leading telecommunications operators to talk about what keeps them up at night – and what excites them about each new day.

Boingo Wireless’s Dr Derek Peterson believes the biggest challenge is probably breaking down the existing network walls. “There are a lot of silos in a neutral hosting environment, so you have to figure out the right balance between business and technology. We need to try to solve everyone’s problems, while finding the right balance between the silos that prevent us from accomplishing what we want to do.”

To do this, Dr Patterson says it’s important to be able to move from the cloud to the edge and back again seamlessly.

“And we need to balance technology, business, money, cost and all the parties involved.”

Tareq Amin from Rakuten Mobile Network says his company believed the best way to provide this foundation was to build a new network that is completely different from any other network in the market.

“The challenge was to build a network that lives in the cloud, and to do it in a very short time,” he says.

In doing this, the biggest problem was not managing the technology, he adds, but getting vendors and commercially-available technologies that could rally behind the idea of a cloud network.

“To do this was not easy,” Amin adds. “And it requires a massive push from an industry that has been lagging for many years.”

Amin stresses that the transition from 4G to 5G may be critical, but it’s not the end game: the technology will continue to evolve, but if the telcos don’t change the way they do business, it won’t make a lot of difference.

Telecommunications should take a leaf from IT’s book, he adds, and Rakuten has done just this in building its new virtualised and cloud-first network.

“The company understands IT very well; we understand about virtualisation and how it works.”

So when the telco was faced with having to decide on a traditional network architecture or a radically different virtual network, it realised there was an opportunity to completely change the industry.

The new approach would require risk, investment and a willingness to incubate startups, but Rakuten believed the new route was the way to go.

The first step was to create the foundation in the form of private cloud architecture running out of various data centres.

The company also standardised its hardware SKU, and today has just four server types in its racks.

In terms of radio access – or, as Amin calls it, the elephant in the room – Rakuten believed there was an opportunity to do this completely differently.

“The focus on the core systems was the easy part,” he explains. “But when it came to radio access, the biggest challenge is that the large OEMs would think we were crazy. So we said we would think differently, and took a very big position with startup to build a world-first virtual base station.”

In this virtual environment, there is just about nothing on the site, Amin says. “There is no massive equipment to upgrade; it is very simply a radio antenna network that connects to the edge.”

The end result, Amin says, is that all network workloads are 100% virtualised. “In my opinion, this will shock the industry for the better, in terms of elasticity and network agility. I have never before seen these levels of agility in a telecommunications network.”

A major impact for the company has been in the area of operational efficiency. “There is nothing to maintain on the edge,” Amin explains. “Everything is centralised and automated, so the way we employ the technology has a major impact on operations.”

Sigma Systems’ Catherine Michel believes there needs to be more focus on resilience and security.

“What we do is to help ensure that operations and infrastructure let business embrace broader ecosystems using an amazing network and system innovation – but that they do it in a very resilient and secure manner.

“I want to be able to open everything up in an attractive and inviting way – but have to ensure that it is absolutely secure.”

Telstra’s Nikos Katinakis points out that telcos can introduce any amount of new technology, but it takes culture change to ensure it works as planned.

“You have the challenge of the old stuff, and having to introduce new stuff so you can compete effectively,” he explains. “As you combine networks and IT you bring together very different cultures. There are issues with culture change.”

One of the areas where this plays out is in security, Katinakis says. “Interestingly enough, in the old days when software was on a specific piece of hardware, it was a bit more secure. The cloud opens things up more, so you take a lot more risks and have to trust other people and processes.”

5G is a big game-changer, he adds, and the industry needs to ensure that its introduction doesn’t drive massive divergence. For instance, Katinakis believes we should limit the number of frequency bands, and ensure that industry standards are set before implementation takes place.

Johan Wibergh from Vodafone agrees that culture change is imperative as telcos shift their value proposition and the technology they employ.

Vodafone has made some radical transformations as it moves from being purely a wireless network to a full-service operator.

One of the biggest changes was its decision some years ago to standardise on the cloud.

“As an industry, operators hadn’t really created value in the last 10 years,” Wibergh points out. “We need to learn to move faster because the pace of change and our ability to create new things hasn’t been good enough.”

As the industry moves to 4G and now 5G, network operators have to find ways to monetise their offerings.

Katinakis is of the opinion that the solution lies in offering services at the edge, bringing the applications and processes as close to the user as possible.

Michel believes this is where the true challenge lies for operators. “The challenge is not about bringing the network to the consumers, but what they have to do with the systems and operations.”

Amin points out that the total cost of running a virtualised cloud-first network is far less than a traditional network. “When you completely disaggregate the hardware and software you get amazing savings.

“And 5G has been baked into the architecture, so the investment to roll out 5G is just to add new radio.

“My opinion is that if you build the fundamentals of the architecture right, you will be surprised at how much you can save. My headcount is 100 people: I challenge you to find another network operator with just 100 people.”