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The advanced telco tech research quandary, Part 2: Do you want to be Steve Jobs… or just a tyre kicker?

In Part 1 of this discussion, we reviewed—deliberately sceptically—some of the congratulatory tone of the Trials & Projects review of the final “achievements” of the 5G PPP initiative to get industry and academia together to really push the envelope of what we can do with 5G, across multiple economic sectors and horizontal tech spaces.

The advanced telco tech research quandary, Part 2: Do you want to be Steve Jobs… or just a tyre kicker?
Written by
Guy Redmill
Published on
28 May 2024

Our contention was that despite some amazing ideas and nice videos, so far—and at least 700 million euros later, of which a goodly amount wasn’t from the taxpayer, but companies like Orange and many others—there is almost no evidence of any of these ideas translating from impressive demos, field trails and conference presentations into actual breakthrough solutions.

This is, we contend, a major problem for the telecom world—as you can run endless trials and the conditions of grants may well be met, but what if nothing moves commercially? It seems as if the expectation is that if you throw enough money at the wall, something will stick and become a commercially viable idea.

Well maybe--but in the meantime, what a waste. Are we on a treadmill here of never-ending experimentation and never-beginning commercialisation?

This is a tendency we are very uncomfortable with, and have pointed out before in the context of the UK and in what already seems to be a worrying repeat pattern in the first wave of positioning 6G.

5G PPP wasn’t supposed to be just looking at 5G. It was supposed to be building the basis for a Europe-wide 5G infrastructure layer

In that earlier piece—which we even entitled, Are some start-ups extracting the free funding?—we specifically called out our suspicion that there is “more than a touch of” start-ups being more than content to bid for public R&D money, getting a few hundred thousand pounds or euros, doing some activity… and then going around the Merry-Go-Round again, starting another bid round (and so, getting easy money) instead of getting off and actually putting shoulders behind wheels to make and grow scalable businesses from what they have learned?

That could be true of some of the smaller players in things like 5G PPP. The clue is in the name: this wasn’t supposed to be just looking at 5G, it was to build the basis for 5G infrastructure. And this wasn’t just Brussels doing all this, this was a PPP, a Public Private Partnership.

When you do PPP properly, the idea is to bring businesses together across an ecosystem to break up silos so that products and services are never developed in a vacuum but do so informed by how they need to operate with other elements and players within that vertical.

Here, we’re quoting analysis of great niche project that was actually a 5G PPP project--5G!Drones, which was set up to trial several UAV use-cases covering eMBB, URLLC, and mMTC 5G services, plus validate 5G KPIs for supporting such challenging use cases.

In an impressive write-up for Commercial UAV News, reporter Danielle Gagne detailed just why PPP could be the ideal way forward for not just 5G in the drone market, but across the board.

For her use case, by taking a proactive role to work directly with telecoms the drone market can a) help define actual user needs and b) the appropriate cost for services (who is going to pay for what and how) and infrastructure, enabling both sides to work toward a win-win scenario.

Even better, large collaborative projects help to develop a common language and understanding; to talk with one another coherently, after all, terms must be defined and codified and so meaningful standards, metrics, and expectations based off a common language become developed. And a huge potential benefit is that inefficiencies and bottlenecks within the system are identified; as she writes, “You never know what is going to work or fail until you run it from start to finish”.

Done right, PPP can really help lay the right infrastructure foundations

We cannot find a way to argue against that. Nor can we disagree with the consultants at BCG who argue that when it comes to using the PPP model to build infrastructure, as 5G PPP was supposed to, governments should devise “a well-thought-out infrastructure master plan” that will produce a transparent pipeline of projects.

Such a plan, the company wrote long before 5G PPP kicked off in 2015, should be based on a long-term agenda for economic development and must factor in the strategic infrastructure investments that should be funded to make the economic vision achievable—and have clear targets for improvement that have been crafted with input from all crucial constituencies, including citizens and business leaders.

Back in 2013 the firm also warned that technical specifications can also derail infrastructure build or renewal, as a common problem is to “focus primarily on how the project will be constructed (input-based specifications)” rather than on the performance and capacity of the completed asset (output-based specifications).

Even more pertinently, BCG also cautioned that one of the most valuable steps in the PPP process is determining whether a partnership is delivering the expected value for money and what has worked, or not worked, so far. “Governments should allocate resources for these analyses, which can start as early as one or two years after a PPP begins operating,” asking the tough questions about whether the project was “designed correctly”, “whether demand fell into expected ranges”, and whether renegotiation was required with an eye toward improving the future structure of PPPs.

Were this kind of broader vision to be applied to 5G PPP, would we now be seeing more tangible results from all that money and effort in, say, the form of a new wave of European Private 5G Network start- and scale-ups?

With deep regret and impatience, we’re going to have to say no. For all those great 5G PPP focus areas, the likelihood commercial operations will be zero.

We want to be wrong here.

The absolute best result from this discussion would be a wave of angry emails from company press offices ticking us off for our ignorance and detailing exactly how Amazing New Product X came specifically out of a 5G PPP Phase 3 trial like 5GCity, 5G-Media or a Slicenet (‘End-to-End Cognitive Network Slicing and Slice Management Framework In Virtualised Multi-Domain, Multi-Tenant 5G Networks’).

But we’ll go to sleep tonight pretty confident no such fact-checking messages will come in… because there just aren’t any.

‘For whatever reason can’t or won’t ever come to a buying decision’

Can the cycle be broken? Will we just tinker and experiment and prove a concept, and never then move to make the garage into an office and actually build product in things like 5 and 6G and then 7 and 8G?

So far, the evidence suggests not.

In the world of car sales, the most irritating prospective customers are the ones who come to the forecourt, ask 1 million questions, check every possible detail—then just disappear, never to be seen again.

They call such time wasters ‘tyre kickers’—people who have no intention of ever buying, but who enjoy checking out your product or service, may even have a strong interest in making a purchase—but for whatever reason can’t or won’t ever come to a buying decision.

When it comes to advanced tech, is the telecom sector a tyre kicker or an entrepreneur?

The answer we leave as an exercise for the reader.

But we wish there was a better answer than the one in our mind—and, we suspect, yours.

This is the second and concluding part of a discussion of the right way of assessing if big R&D public-private sector research schemes ever really lead to innovation. The first part can be found here.

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