How 5G and fibre are transforming the digital ecosystem

The latest in connectivity technology offers more than just a bigger pipe, it’s the power partner to digital transformation

Azfar Aslam, CTO, Europe, Nokia
Belinda Finch, CIO, Three UK
Chris Holmes, Director of telecommunications, ServiceNow
David Tomalin, Group CTO, CityFibre
Mirko Voltolini,
VP innovation, Colt

The future of connectivity is complex. Essential to powering the next stage of digital transformation, it will nevertheless require extensive collaboration and a fundamental rethink of the role connectivity providers play in the digital ecosystem. A recent roundtable assembled five experts in the connectivity space to share their thoughts on the challenge ahead.

David Tomalin, group CTO, CityFibre, explains that the only thing certain about the future is uncertainty. “Networks need to be based on quality, provide far higher reliability and have a level of intelligence that gives service providers and mobile operators insights to empower the customer experience. The experience that results from this can then be used to shape how we further develop our fibre networks and systems, enabling us to continue to evolve and improve end customer experience over the next 15 to 20 years.”
Belinda Finch, CIO, Three UK doesn’t mince her words. “I don’t think people know exactly what 5G really means. With the right use cases, 5G could absolutely revolutionise where we are as a society. As long as we partner with the right people.”

The telecommunications industry has not been noted for its spirit of collaboration and sharing to date. However, as Chris Holmes, director of telecommunications, ServiceNow, notes, the times they are a-changing: “The common theme at Mobile World Congress this year was ecosystems and how you bring relevant solutions. That’s through partnerships and ecosystems but also through open standards. It used to be a very closed industry but the shift to openness and partnerships is the key to unlocking the value across 5G and fibre.”

This is also the opportunity for network businesses to act as trusted advisors. “If we’re not able to anticipate our customers’ requirements, we are going to be left out. The reason we have to work proactively with these customers is because sometimes they don’t know what they need,” suggests Azfar Aslam, CTO, Europe, Nokia. “We can be most useful towards customers to help them be more productive.”

I don’t think people know exactly what 5G really means. With the right use cases, 5G could absolutely revolutionise where we are as a society

It is acknowledged that the largest opportunity is in the B2B space, but Aslam does note that the hybrid workforce, brought mainstream by the pandemic, will be the next emerging segment that networks and mobile operators “need to solve for pretty quickly”.
Of course, the more complex the digital technologies that customers – again, primarily enterprises – wish to engage with, the more critical 5G and fibre will become. Mirko Voltolini, VP innovation, Colt, refers to mobile 5G and the fixed network as “the glue”. “Some enterprises are looking at leveraging technologies like artificial intelligence, cloud, internet of things, augmented and virtual reality. A bigger pipe has to be an on-demand, real-time pipe that you can control, that not just humans but machines can initiate and control that connectivity,” he adds.

The challenge is, of course, that organisations cannot simply wake up tomorrow and forge a unified, brave new world together with a click of their fingers. “Once we decided that we were going to make a commitment that would make a really big impact with some partners, it changed people’s mentality – this is not a short term thing,” Aslam warns. “Let’s go and learn what their objectives are, what we have to offer today – and what we don’t. The gaps lead to new product development.”

The process of changing the approach of a whole sector, or indeed multiple sectors as partners join the new, intelligent connectivity ecosystem, may be a longer play. However, deploying those ecosystems on the ground has to become a much faster, more agile process, warns Finch. “We need to make sure we have all reached the stage in our digital transformation where we can work with these partners quickly. We can’t be in a position where it takes months to onboard and where the ways of working are completely different.”

“How we make this pervasive across organisations is going to take time. Organisations [may] have thousands of employees, and this type of partnership approach needs to be tried across the whole business. We find it easier to work with partners that have shared values, are the same size and have complementary capabilities,” Voltolini warns.
So, while we may be looking at the technology as the way to accelerate business transformation, in reality, it is a much more human challenge – being able to work together effectively – that will be the litmus test for success.

“Particularly in our engagements with the industrial sector, trust comes into the discussion very quickly,” Aslam adds. “In some industrial automation cases, there are over 100 solutions that need to come together and no one party is likely to be an expert in all 100.”

Tomalin reveals that the wide ecosystem CityFibre has already established relies on transparency from the top. “To build trust with our partners, we share data about network-related events via our ecosystem of APIs – empowering them while demonstrating best in class principles.”

Voltolini points out that not every ecosystem will involve 100 entities, some may only have two. “Working with cloud providers has been a relatively easy way to bring together mostly just two parties together, driven by customer requirements.” Providers need to be ready for almost anything.

Holmes claims service integrators (SIs) could come to play a vital role in building these ecosystems. An SI could be the one to make sure that no partner loses their essential engagement with the process. Holmes notes that mobile operators, in particular, could be at risk, currently leading in only around a fifth of the current engagements where an ecosystem is in play.

Critically, Finch notes that the SI has a vital role to play in facilitating a collaborative mindset. “You may not trust your competitor but having a trusted SI partner can bring that whole idea of collaboration together. They’re a really important partner.”

With an ecosystem tailored to the end customer’s needs, and all partners working together, it creates the best conditions for success for both provider and end user. Ultimately, this is where the battle will be won and lost. Tomalin insists: “We are so reliant on each other, we have to realise that service quality is a shared differentiator. To deliver exceptional service, we need to understand the different expectations of our partners and their customers.”

Holmes adds: “The best customer experience [comes from] providing the best employee experience – giving them the best tools to do their job.” But, he warns: “With inaccurate data, incomplete inventory or a lack of transparency, we’re just tying their hands behind their backs.”

Finch concludes: “We all need to trust each other that we’ve got the customer at the heart of what we’re doing. It’s about all of us working together to grow the value chain, as opposed to just looking after number one.”

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