5G and beyond: relevant services, relevant skills

LIVE AT MOBILE WORLD CONGRESS 2024: The 5G and Beyond keynote session on day one was less 5G and more cloud and artifical intelligence (AI), which was perhaps predictable, though equally predictable was that operators Ethio Telecom and Veon would have slightly different perspectives on the topic from those representing more developed markets like Telstra, Liberty Global and Deutsche Telekom.

Certainly Tim Hoettges, CEO of Deutsche Telekom, wasn’t going to waste an opportunity to wax lyrical about his company’s achievements and plans – nor to recommend embracing AI. Admittedly he threw in a warning that we can’t entirely trust AI, citing hallucinations in the system as one issue. But he also made clear, via a head-spinning selection of statistics relating to energy saving, cost saving, productivity, network stability, network autonomy and predictive maintenance and, of course, interacting with customers, that there is a lot to welcome.

Do you need to identify how deep the roots of the trees are in a street or where ducts need to be built? AI can, thus making planning for FTTH better and more cost-effective. Can we switch off sites or some elements of antennas during the day or in the evening when there's no capacity needed? How about transferring old legacy programming languages into modern ones? What about an app-free phone where a spoken request automatically triggers the relevant functionality? AI can, or will, enable all of this.

Julie Sweet, Chair and CEO of Accenture, highlighted related, largely cloud-enabled, health benefits like real-time, effective health interventions and realising the (so far) underrealised potential of 5G private networks and the digitisation of manufacturing.

There are still issues, of course, like regulation, data management, ethics, compliance and technical debt (legacy infrastructure, for example). Hence, presumably, the comment by Vicki Brady, CEO Testra Group,  about being on “a pretty radical path to simplify and modernise our infrastructure”.

An equally serious issue is talent empowering and investment in HR, which is needed to reskill talent away from, say, administration and good operational management (which AI can do) towards – for example – building better customer relationships. And how will the need for more partnerships and collaboration be managed? As Mike Fries (pictured, second), CEO of Liberty Global noted, it’s a question of “how you’re incentivising the change and how you’re building a new culture around it”.

But much of this discussion was positive – and even visionary. Luckily, Frehiwot Tamru (pictured, first), CEO, Ethio Telecom, and Kaan Terzioglu (pictured, fourth), Group CEO, Veon, brought us down to earth somewhat. Here are operators still working with 2G or 4G in many cases; their concerns are slightly different.

For example Tamru seemed to feel that training in her market wasn’t just important but the main issue. As she said: “Talent strategy should be at the centre. Technology alone is not going to transform companies or sectors. We need to put our talents right at the centre – equal to the technology strategy. This can happen through upskilling, reskilling and also collaborating with educational and training institutions to incorporate in their education curriculum advanced technology. The foundation needs to be right if we really want to leverage the full potential of technology skills.”

The potential of new technology to change things is still there, of course, such as using 5G and AI to enhance sectors like manufacturing, mining or education “to create a new wealth… to tap natural resources which are not yet leveraged", but to make that happen, she reiterated, “skill and also leadership are very important”.

Veon had yet another perspective. It operates in so-called frontier markets such as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Terzioglu explained: “What makes success? There are two important ingredients: purpose and clarity. In our markets customers are underserved; only one out of two people have a smartphone. There are going to be 25 million more of them over the next three years. The fundamental question is: How do you become relevant to your customers?”

He continued: “Our customers need more than just connectivity. We should not be selling raw data. We should go to the next level of applications – providing digital services, from entertainment to financial services to education to healthcare – to be relevant to the customer. Our motto is very simple: let's not be a telecom company which has a 32-minute relationship with the customer; let's have a relationship in every single minute.”

He admitted that hearing about AI improving productivity made him very happy, “but what makes me excited is again about the customer: how in frontier markets we can actually shoulder the responsibility of creating specific language models so that we can make a doctor in Dhaka a better doctor, a teacher in Islamabad the best teacher in the world, maybe [make] an auto mechanic do a better job because we provide him the right tools in terms of what I call augmented intelligence. I cannot see a better value proposition than making you better."

In the end, AI still asks as many questions as it answers, and undoubtedly implies different opportunities to different mobile operators. Perhaps two areas of focus that everyone in the session might agree on, however, would be to do with relevance: relevant services for customers and relevant skills from the people delivering those services.


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