Podcast 9: Pandemic pushes network upgrades for mobile data, rising IoT and cutting fraud

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Growing mobile data traffic as we work from home, and rising business demand to connect devices in the Internet of Things are two upsides for an industry hit hard by the pandemic. But… well, you knew there had to be a ‘but’. One downside is rising fraud. It cost communication service providers US$28.3 billion according to the last CFCA global survey in 2019. BICS’ Mikael Schachne and Damion Rose, our guests on the latest Tech Trends Podcast tell us fraud is rising and they’re well placed to know. Can Machine Learning cut the risk? Jeremy Cowan and George Malim find out. 

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Podcast transcript:

Jeremy Cowan  0:04

Hi, and welcome to the latest Tech Trends Podcast brought to you by VanillaPlus.comThe Evolving Enterprise and IoT Now. I’m Jeremy Cowan, and I want to thank you for joining us for today’s sometimes serious, sometimes light-hearted look at digital transformation for enterprises. 
Now our first two guests are both from BICS, the telecom provider offering wholesale carrier services to operators and service providers globally. The company is headquartered in Brussels, with sales offices and service operation centres worldwide. So, a warm welcome first to Mikael Schachne, BICS CMO and vice president of Mobility and IoT. Good to have you here, Mikael.

Mikael Schachne  0:55  

Yes. Hi, Jeremy. Good to be here as well.

Jeremy Cowan  0:58  

And also from BICS, I’d like to introduce Damion Rose, the senior product manager for Mobile Signalling and Analytics. Welcome, Damion. 

Damion Rose  1:07  

Hey, thanks a million, Jeremy, and thanks a lot for having us.

Jeremy Cowan  1:10  

It’s great. And we’re honoured to say that BICS are also the sponsors of today’s Tech Trends Podcast. So, not only Welcome, gentlemen, but thanks for being our sponsors today. And our final guest is well known to many of you. He is George Malim, managing editor of our titles, VanillaPlus, and IoT Now. He’s joining us from the beautiful city of Bath which, like Brussels, is somewhere else we can’t go right now, even if we plan to. So thank God for telcos bringing all three of you to fit neatly in our ears wherever we are. George, welcome.

George Malim  1:45  

Thanks, Jeremy. Hi, everyone. Definitely pleased to be doing this, if only for the entertainment value during some of our European lockdowns. Looking forward to today’s podcast. 

Jeremy Cowan  1:56  

Thanks. Okay, first, we’re going to share some important stories we’ve seen in the world’s technology news lately. Then George and I will be quizzing our BICS guests on how to embrace a data-first approach, driving operator excellence, and unlocking the full potential of your international roaming business. And finally, in What The Tech!, we’ll look at some of the weirder stuff, the stories you couldn’t possibly makeup, and to be fair with these stories in the news, who would need to? Okay, first the headlines. George, I’m going to come to you first. What have you seen in the news?

George Malim  2:35  

Jeremy, there’s a series of anti-competitive tariff-based stories coming out really. A lot of it’s the traditional tit for tat, in terms of China and the US, and China and other Western countries. This week, the New York Stock Exchange has gone back and forth regarding delisting of the Chinese carriers from that stock exchange. And I guess some of this is the end of the current US administration, in its final throes, is trying to settle old scores and things like that. But it is really looking like competitive tit for tat, with the administration also saying it’s going to try and ban various Chinese apps.


In Europe, we’ve got almost the opposite happening. Börje Ekholm, the chief executive of Ericsson, has been apparently petitioning the Swedish Minister of Foreign Trade to overturn Sweden’s ban on Huawei and ZTE 5G here from 2025. A cynic would say, obviously, the Chinese market is bigger to Ericsson than the Swedish market. (Laughter) So perhaps that’s Mr. Ekholm’s motivation. An interesting part of that is apparently he’s been petitioning the minister via SMS, which seems a novel way of doing your lobbying. But there is a serious point underlying this, though, I think. Ericsson obviously generates, I think it’s around 10% of its sales in China, which is substantial. And you could see that if China feels it’s not allowed to access Sweden, it may well feel that Swedish vendors shouldn’t be allowed to access China. And that’s fine from Mr. Ekholm’s point of view. But I think there’s a general theme to this nationalisation. This kind of nationalised activity that the governments are actually driving this, it’s the vendors that are being dragged along. The vendors are technology companies, and they would prefer to live in a in a tariff-free world where they can sell their gear based on whether it’s the best technology for the customer. So, the politics are always difficult. But I think the challenge here is it’s actually limiting choice for telecoms carriers, and by extension their customers down to the big three. So, if you’re in the US you’re going to have a choice of Ericsson and Nokia. If you’re in China, it’s going to be a choice of Huawei and ZTE, and Europe will be probably somewhere in the middle of that. And it seems, as we’re poised for one of the biggest technology rollouts with 5G, that the industry has ever seen to say, we are going to be constrained by politics in terms of our technology choices. It seems very limited and backward thing to say. 

There is an upside to this, potentially, that in the UK, for example, there’s government initiatives to try and rebuild a UK vendor community. But I think there’s a naivety to that, that it could happen anytime soon. So, that’s a big trend I’ve been watching this week. And I hope that only good things come and everyone matures in their minds a bit and realises this is a truly global industry, and we can’t behave in a parochial way when it comes to vendors. So hopefully in 2021, we’ll see some of the heat go out of the political battles.

Jeremy Cowan  5:57  

Yeah, I’m sure you’re right. I don’t think it’s worth holding our breath for Marconi to come back. (Laughter) And I think common sense says that bans on specific vendors, obviously risk fragmenting any market, doesn’t matter whether it’s telecoms or anything else. But even more so in something like 5G, you know, that can only hamper innovation. If ultimately multiple standards or protocols begin to emerge. It just seems counterintuitive. I’m sure you’re right about what the vendor community would like. I’m no apologist for Huawei. But it seems to me that no one’s speaking for Chinese vendors in the US Congress has just set aside $1.9 billion in its new Coronavirus aid package to support small rural carriers in the US, as they, to use the term “rip and replace” all Huawei and ZTE equipment from their networks, which sounds painful and probably will be. So, if you think the effects of excluding Chinese-made networks is being overblown, you just have to have a look at these numbers and you may change your mind. Anyway, thanks for that, George. Turning to you, Mikael, which technology has caught your attention?

Mikael Schachne  7:12  

Well, it’s not really a telco technology, it’s more else technology. It’s all about the vaccination. You could see a lot of articles on that topic. I mean, it’s on everyone’s minds. And, with the current pandemic, that has been affecting all of us, both from a personal as well as a professional point of view, we all look for a fast ending going back to normal life as it used to be, at least in 2019 and before. So, for that vaccination is definitely the greatest hope. And I mean, using also the very latest technology to make it pretty effective, versus the big threat which is ongoing. Nevertheless, it represents a massive challenge. I mean, there was one article saying that it was basically the largest logistical challenge since World War Two, as we need to deliver billions of doses of vaccine all around the world as fast as possible. And sometimes, because of the underlying technology being used for those vaccines, we need to really work on super-low temperatures, so we need to preserve an ultra-cold chain from any place in the world. So there, we could also think about IoT, and advanced analytics that could help and play a role in making sure that everything is working fine. And, at the end of the day, reaching the end goal, we all look forward. So I mean, you could use those technologies to control the temperature of the vaccine, to track the shipments, even to use advanced analytics, giving advice on the best way to do the deliveries and truck where people are in the most need. So, I found it quite relevant. 

Jeremy Cowan  9:21  

It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? It’s the sheer scale of what we’re facing in the logistics of vaccine distribution. I read recently that Australia, for one, loses a high percentage of fresh fruit and veggie every year. I’ve seen figures as high as 20% in some services, trying to keep them chilled in transit. So, how much Pfizer vaccine is going to be lost if it has to be carried at a steady minus 70 degrees Celsius is nobody’s business. I mean, we’re talking about countries where you can fry an egg on the pavement and they’ll be making journeys of hundreds of miles. So, I find this really interesting, and not just because I started what I laughingly call my career as a cargo and shipping journalist. So, thank you, Mikael. Damion, I know you’ve got something for us. Which tech story have you spotted?

Damion Rose  10:13  

It’s somewhat strangely to linked to Mikael’s story thinking about it, and definitely resonates with what’s happening in the world today. It was a story carried by Mobile Europe. And it was speaking to the explosion of the Internet of Things over the last few years and the projections that are being made in terms of total connected devices by 2026. And it was somewhere in the region of, I think, a 4.5 multiplier effect since 2014. So, the number of connected IoT devices has grown by 4.5 times since 2014, which equates today to about 840 million devices already. But looking forward to 2026, this is expected to explode to 5.7 billion devices by 2026, according to the research. And if you think about this, this is staggering, not just in terms of the scale of growth, but the implications this has across all the stakeholders, not to mention the mobile operators and carriers like BICS. And I say it’s somewhat related to the story that Mikael just mentioned. Because if you think about the COVID vaccine, and the minute attention that now needs to be made, in terms of ensuring that the temperatures are correct. Logistically, you’re tracking every single step of these containers, and also the sheer number of them, because I understand that Pfizer has a specific box that they have designed for the shipment of their vaccines, which carries like 5,000. Well, 1,000 vials actually, which means you’re looking at hundreds of thousands of unique boxes, for example for Australia. Each of these has to be very minutely tracked, the temperature sensors that are going to be used to make sure the boxes are maintaining that that minus 70 degrees have to be in place. So, this actually may be somewhat a conservative estimate, not taking into account the new reality of COVID at the vaccination of the world that’s coming on the line for 2021 and beyond. It’s just interesting how a concept that, you know, we were talking about just a few years ago as something that could bring new value to telecoms is now, in reality, exploding faster than we’ve ever imagined.

Jeremy Cowan  12:29  

Yeah, it’s extraordinarily quick, and it’s happening right in front of our eyes. I find that amazing. Gentlemen, I’m really pleased that amid all the hoo-ha going on, people are still focusing on operational excellence, and achieving their full potential. So, George and I wanted to ask you a few questions. To be honest, I think it’s because of that customer focus, that we can even hold this discussion remotely in a pandemic. Mikael, my first question for BICS was this; what key trends are you seeing in international roaming on mobile networks?

Mikael Schachne  13:10  

Well, first of all, we live in a globalised world and we were discussing about also the how politics involve technology and the national sensitivities. But nevertheless, I mean, we live in a whole connected world and homing is an essential component of that. Also to deliver those vaccines, to come back on the first topic. But nevertheless, obviously roaming business has been impacted severely by all the health measures and the COVID-19 crisis, such as travel restrictions and bans. So, there is obviously less traffic for leisure, despite the essential cover, which is even more important, but on the other hand we are seeing a big increase in the mobile data usage. So data is becoming even more important, whether we are at home or abroad. I mean, this is driven by the numerous apps that are being used every day by each of us and for communication, entertainment and more and more for remote work as well as we cannot be physically present to factories to offices and meet colleagues and also customers. 

So overall, this is accelerating the need for service providers to upgrade their network, especially on 4G and 5G, to access more spectrum and deliver greater bandwidth to subscribers. Then we talk about IoT, that is seeing a sharp growth as more devices need to be connected for tracking, remote management, security, mobile payments, and even health monitoring. And then the last trend we are seeing, unfortunately, is that fraud is more than ever present and it’s costing, there was an estimation that mobile operators lose more than EUR29 billion every year because of that. In this context, basically, mobile operators are trying to figure out how they can drive sustainable growth. And this is where BICS is helping to answer those key strategic questions like, where to find new revenue streams, how to better serve enterprises, how to monetise 5G, how to participate profitably in the IoT ecosystem. And, of course, this goes at the end with the need to streamline operation and protect both the networks and the bottom line from fraud and security risks. 

George Malim  15:56  

Great. Thank you, Mikael. So how important is quality of service to mobile network users these days? I mean, obviously, it’s always been important, but do different use cases and different habits alter approaches to quality of service, and what do operators expect to see in this changed world?

Damion Rose  16:17  

I’d love to step in here and answer that one. I think it’s not so much whether it’s relevant or not, it’s how do we now define quality? Okay? I think customers have helped the industry move away from defining quality of service as something that’s native and only residing in the network itself, and the core services provided by those networks, and focus more on the end user and the experiences that mobile operators enable. And so, over the last couple years, you can say it’s a catch word, but I think it should be more of a mantra, the focus has to be on quality of experience. How are you competing with, for example, other mobile operators to deliver the best possible experience to a mobile user? This is where we are today. 

Quality of Service from a truly service perspective is still important, this is the underlying, or the foundation of a good experience. If the throughput that we’re experiencing is not there, or coverage is poor, or any other of the typical QoS measures that we have taken, are not functioning as customers need to then obviously, that experience is going to be shot. But once those fundamentals are done, we need to be looking a little bit deeper. You know, for a data hungry streaming user, maybe throughput is meaningful. But for the casual messenger that’s just using WhatsApp to send a message every now and again to mommy back home, it’s no longer throughput that we need to figure out how do we define or describe that other profile of user and measure their experience and not let that person’s quality expectations get lost in something arbitrary like just a QoS metric. So, for sure, it’s extremely important. QoS specifically, I think is critical to the proper functioning of networks and services. But if we’re really focused on the end user, as you have it in the question, it’s really talking about quality of experience.

Jeremy Cowan  18:20  

Yeah, so, Mikael, how can we use the latest big data and machine learning technologies to improve this roaming business and what, can I ask, is BICS doing in this area?

Mikael Schachne  18:34  

Usually, we say that data is the next oil. So, we believe it will be key for mobile operators to become data centric organisations to leverage information and differentiate from competitors. There are numerous paths possible and unfortunately, there is a wide gap between on one side the ability to generate just basic I would say roaming reports, and on the other side, to have a complete integration of advanced analytics within technical and business activities. So, you can derive more effective monetisation and efficient operation which are crucial for operators today. So, on BICS’ side, we recently launched a new set of solutions that are helping operators applying advanced analytics based on a data-first approach, so that they can make better-informed business decisions, especially on the roaming side. So, at the heart of the solution, we are applying the very latest machine learning and data science techniques to real-time data. So they can help operators to understand what are the stories behind every transaction which are passing on their networks. So, for example, they can understand the kind of quality being delivered to subscribers. They can identify what are the machine-based transactions versus the human-based traffic. They can also detect anomalies and abnormal activities, whether it’s a network fault, or whether it’s a malicious activities and overall from there, they can better monetise the different traffic streams, they can deliver the right quality of service, they can stop fraud, increase security, and also set up new business models and billing techniques, especially for the IoT business. 

George Malim  20:43

Great. Thank you, Mikael. Damion, what lies ahead in data science to help mobile network operators better control their international roaming business to improve customer experiences and ultimately to unlock new revenue opportunities?

Damion Rose  20:58  

That’s a pretty good question. I mean, for a lot of people in our industry, also a loaded question because it raises the flag about whether or not we today see data science as having a clear role in our strategy. This, I think, is a fundamental problem that most players in telecoms are struggling with. How does my strategy take into account the advanced utilisation of streamed data? But, that said, there’s huge potential and Michael just named a few, especially some of the cases that BICS has pursued. But I think we start by answering or making a distinction between a few important concepts. 

So here we talk about data science and machine learning. And sometimes I think the conversation gets skewed because we somehow drag artificial intelligence into this conversation as well. The problem there being that AI (or artificial intelligence) isn’t widely applicable in telecoms. If we’re talking about maybe the automation of customer support and a few other interesting use cases, AI as a concept doesn’t have a really good fit in terms of value for what we do in telecoms. Machine learning, however, has a very good fit and it’s broadly applicable and that’s where the use cases are. This can be split on the network side. And on the service side. On the network side, if you can imagine for example, taking the same view of the network as we do, for example, for IoT. So today, we know that one of the main things that make an IoT device significantly more valuable than just a connected or a smart device, is the software defined product concept, where you have a digital twin, which allows you to functionalise how this device is going to operate and optimise it for different scenarios, you know, speed, cost, etc. If you take the same concept on a network, and we going to talk about the software-defined network, which is in reality something happening, as in we talk about moving towards more generic hardware and have the network itself really existing as stacks of different software components, then we can take this approach. And so we can talk about using machine learning and data science to optimise the network for minimum latency, or optimising the network for highest possible throughput for customer segments, or optimising the network for lowest costs. There you talk about really looking at your network, not just as this big monolithic thing, but components that can be reshaped to meet strategic business goals through data science, machine learning, and this concept of a software-defined network. 

Now on the service side, and this is where we’ve been very active as well, on the delivery of new services. So, helping operators understand for example, you know, what is connected to the network. I mentioned before that there’s a difference between a simple smart device versus an IoT device, with the core assumption being IoT device needs to communicate information. And so that’s where usage might come from. Understanding if you have just connected devices versus true IoT will help you understand where this business case might move to in the future. Anomaly detection is something that Mikael referred to as well, in terms of detecting, for example, fraud scenarios. Today, a lot of fraud escapes human analysis, because it’s either complicated, unknown, or in some cases just hidden. But we don’t have this limitation. We’re talking about machine learning and data science and automating some of these capabilities can have huge and significant impacts on the bottom line as well. And there’s a lot of potential in applying machine learning and data science in telecoms, we just need to ensure we’re focusing on the right concepts, and ensure that we’re also understanding that it’s different when you look at it from a network perspective as opposed to a service and customer perspective. There’s two different sets of use cases, to different sets of propositions?

Jeremy Cowan  25:05  

Damion, thank you. It’s really reassuring, I think, to hear that machine learning can be used to have such an impact on the area of fraud, which has been a plague for telcos for so long. I’m sure we could devote an entire podcast to that. And maybe we will. But we’ll come back to that. In the meantime, where can listeners find out more?

Damion Rose  25:29  

Feel free to jump on BICS.com. Our website is available and any user, anyone who visits, I’m sure will find what they’re looking for.

Jeremy Cowan  25:38  

Great. So that’s BICS.com. Thank you. Well, we’ve reached the final section of the pod called What The Tech! where we share something tech-based that either amused or amazed us. Mikael, what struck you?

Mikael Schachne  25:55  

Yes. So I had a lot of fun watching those dancing robots. I mean, they were dancing on Do you love me?, made by Boston Dynamics. So, it’s crazy to see how automation and robotics are fast evolving. And Damion was talking about artificial intelligence, maybe not applied in telecom, but definitely, if you bring artificial intelligence to those robots, and you also connect them. Well, I mean, imagine what those could do. I mean, you could also be remotely controlling those robots anywhere in the world and through the connectivity that, for instance, BICS is providing. And also, I mean link to that, for instance, we had an announcement launching a new, the very first actually connected exoskeleton last year with a German company, which are helping field workers all around the world, performing heavy duty tasks. And you could have done at the end of the day, also, those robots being the very first, globally connected machines helping us for everything we need to do.

Jeremy Cowan  27:12  

I don’t know if it’s just me, or if it’s something that you found, but I saw the video that you pointed out and found it both compelling to watch and at the same time, slightly disturbing. And I don’t just mean because the robots do the shuffle thing so much better than me. (Laughter) Maybe that’s just me. Damion, what’s caught your eye?

Damion Rose  27:35  

For me, it’s not so much hilarious as it is just interesting how words matter. It’s an article on autonomous flight that was used for air cargo to deliver COVID-19 vaccines in the US. It was just the play on words that kind of set me smiling. They headline was ‘Autonomous air cargo company delivers COVID-19 vaccine’. And as you read through, there was a clause that says, you know, it uses a human-operated software stack that seamlessly integrates with existing aircraft. And so you’re like, Okay, someone is controlling it. So maybe this is remote flight, like a drone. And then it says, there’s actually a pilot inside the cabin of the plane. So you know, it’s autonomous flight but there’s a pilot onboard who’s also responsible for controlling it. So, yes its pilotless. It was one of those things where it’s typical in tech, where you kind of thin, scratch your head, like, Okay, what, what exactly are we doing here? But it was interesting to read. 

Jeremy Cowan  28:44  

It’s an astonishing development, isn’t it? And as Michael referred to earlier, you know, whatever else you want to say about it, the pandemic is doing a lot to focus global attention on IoT-enabled logistics like never before. I think it was Winston Churchill who said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”, and he was trying to deal with Stalin and Roosevelt in forming the United Nations. So, he knew a bit about crisis and opportunity. I suppose it’s fair to say that the Internet of Things is making the most of this crisis. And it’s good to hear that something’s doing well out of it. We’re all learning, anyway. George, I may regret this, but what have you found? 

George Malim  29:25  

(Laughter) Well, we’re going from the sublime and valuable to the ridiculous. I’m afraid it’s the Brexit agreement. Down in the guts of the hastily assembled agreement text, page 921 in fact – and I have to say, I haven’t read it, somebody else found this – is a statement that refers to modern communication services such as Mozilla Mail and Netscape Communicator. (Laughter) The last major release of Netscape Communicator was in 1997. So, I’m kind of surprised the Brexit agreement doesn’t contain mention of carrier pigeons and smoke signals. Maybe it does. I haven’t read beyond page 921. But it just goes to show that a hastily assembled deal was apparently better than no deal, our leaders tell us here in the UK. But it was nice to walk down memory lane and think of these technologies that we no longer use.

Jeremy Cowan  30:22  

Yeah, I saw the same story. And they were talking about SHA-1 hashing algorithm, which was phased out in, I think, 2015. 

George Malim  30:31  

Yeah, I mean, they’ve obviously cut and pasted it from somewhere. Christmas was coming!

Jeremy Cowan  30:37  

Yeah. Well, it’s obviously time for me to get a story out on this new-fangled fax thing that Boris has sent me for Christmas. (Laughter) If you can top that news, dear listener, let us know. We’d always love to hear from you. You can find me on Twitter @jcIoTnow. Anyway, time’s up, everyone. Let me just finish by saying a big thank you for sharing all your expertise with us. First to BICS’ Mikael Schachne. Mikael, thanks.

Mikael Schachne  31:07  

Thank you. It was a pleasure being there and chatting with all of you.

Jeremy Cowan  31:10  

And thank you too, to Damion Rose.

Damion Rose  31:13  

Thanks a lot, guys. It was really fun.

Jeremy Cowan  31:15  

Great to have you, and also for sponsoring this podcast. Thank you, gentlemen. And it’s been great to have you here and my thanks to to George Malim. Always a pleasure, George.

George Malim  31:26  

Yeah. Great. I’ve enjoyed it. And thanks to Damion and Mikael for giving us some new insights as well.

Jeremy Cowan  31:32  

Finally, ladies and gentlemen, I can’t let you go without thanking you for joining us around the world. You clearly enjoy this as much as we do. We added 60 new subscribers just yesterday, so don’t forget to subscribe to the pod wherever you found us. And if you can spare a moment, give the pod a 5-star rating and say something nice about it. It shouldn’t make a difference to our ranking, but it clearly does. Hey, I don’t make the rules. 

Anyway, till next time, keep safe. And keep checking VanillaPlus.com, IoT-Now.com and TheEE.ai for tech news and interviews. And join us again soon for another Tech Trends Podcast looking at enterprise digital transformation. Bye for now.

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