Open Connect in the Age of 5G – Interview with Chris Rice, CEO of STL, Access Solutions
Fierce Wireless editor Kevin Gray recently sat down with STL’s CEO of Access Solutions to discuss 5G: telecommunications network changes, greenfield vs. brownfield, the shift from inheritance to open connection, new opportunities, transparent ecosystem, and more!
Kevin Gray: Okay. Hello, my name is Kevin Gray, publisher of Fierce Wireless and I’m here today with Chris Rice, CEO of Access Solutions at STL. We’re going to cover a wide range of topics today, including everything from 5G and new technology to brownfield deployments and more, but first thing is first. Chris, can you introduce yourself so the audience can tell us a bit more about STL.
Chris Rice: Of course. Thanks, Kevin, for inviting me, by the way. Hey, I’m Chris Rice. I am the new CEO of STL Access Solutions. I’ve been in the job for about four months now. STL is an Indian company which is a digital integrator. They have fiber optic connectivity businesses, service businesses and now the very latest business, access solutions. And the good news is that we were able to step in and adopt fundamentally from the start, not adapt the open network principles. We are therefore building an access solutions business around 5G wireless and broadband fiber optics. And before that, I was AT&T for about 25 years, leading the transition of that network to SDN. I am really delighted to be here to speak to you today and to represent STL.
Kevin Gray: Great. Yes. I was going to ask you about all your time there with AT&T, of course. I think this is going to be a good question for you because you are going to have good prospects. How did you see the telecoms changing their networks and their strategies with the advent of 5G in particular?
Chris Rice: Well that’s interesting because with 5G that’s one of the reasons I think 5G is different, it’s really the confluence of at least three things that have happened and which affected telecommunications almost all at the same time. If you look at when 5G really started, well, what was starting to affect telecommunications? Well the cloud was. The cloud was really starting to affect telecommunications. And what had just happened before that and was happening during that was this open network and SDN. You really have this confluence of this open network, SDN, cloud, and 5G, all coming together that is affecting how carriers build their networks going forward.
Chris Rice: And I know a lot of people have said, “Well, 5G will be the first G built in the cloud. I think that’s partly true, but I think it will also be the one that is largely driven by SDN and open networks. And so I think those two big trends have affected the way telecom carriers build a network in general, but particularly with 5G, because it’s getting a lot of attention and currently generating a lot of in-delivery CapEx for them. operators.
Kevin Gray: It’s interesting everything you say about the cloud. I know this was one of the most important topics of Mobile World Congress a few weeks ago. Next question, I was hoping you could explain to us the difference between greenfield and brownfield deployments. I’ve heard a lot about it. Could you help us with that please?
Chris Rice: Yeah. It really boils down to virgin land first, contaminated land, but then why does it matter? Greenfield is, hey, I’m gonna build my network from scratch. I don’t have a network today. I want to be in the business. And so think of the disruptors who were doing this all over the world, building their network from scratch. Jio was an example in India a few years ago. And then you can say, “Well, brownfields are really a bit more of a classic — I’ve been on 2G, I’ve been on 3G, I’ve been on 4G, I want to be on 5G. And it’s always more of a transition. A little with the old one, with the new and how long do you keep the old one there? And how long do you keep clients? And then how do we transfer them? And so there is an effort associated with it, which is unique and different from the brand new.
Chris Rice: And so I think it really affects a particular operator’s ability to embrace some of these open network principles and some of these O-RAN and open RAN capabilities because the existing path they’re on, it there is always a path of transition. If you are the incumbent equipment sales operator, you always have a good idea of how you are going to upgrade to my next version of my equipment. But I think traders really need to take a step back and say, “Well, what’s the best long-term path? And you can go back to the mid-eighties, the early nineties in the computing space. If you remember there was this thing called IBM PC and this little company called Microsoft that was building this operating system for it.
Chris Rice: But before that it was DEC and Wang and all these other people building big, vertically integrated computers and it was very easy to go out and buy them because that was the mainstream. And then fast forward 20, 30 years. And then this is really the path he took. It spawned servers, it spawned the cloud, it spawned everything else. And so what I’m saying is there’s a lot of innovation that usually comes from these kinds of open initiatives. And I think it will be no different. We are only in the early stages.
Kevin Gray: Great. Going back to what you were saying about some of the challenges with legacy, what are the possible hurdles that operators may face during their transition from legacy to open connection?
Chris Rice: Yeah. I think this is what I would call incrementalism and let me explain what I mean by that. It’s almost human nature. It’s almost always easier to move something gradually than to stop and start over and do something new. I will give you an example in my career. We had these 10 gig connections in these different data centers, in these different bandwidth hotels. And it was always easier, it was always the best business case to just add 10 GB more, just add 10 GB more, because they were coming gradually. But I remember working with some of my relatives and stepping back and saying, “Let’s go take a look at some of them and see where we are. Well, you found out you had dozens of these 10gig connections there and you’re like, “Well, why don’t I just go and change them and I’m going to put in four 100gb connections, that’ll be a lot cheaper. “
Chris Rice: And sometimes you have to take a step back to look at that and say, “Well, why don’t you switch to this new technology right now? Because I know down the road, even if it happens gradually like that, I’m going to have a much wider path in the long run and I should really tackle the new technology. And I think it’s really no different. Slightly different in terms of applicability but really no different in the sense that it will always seem a little easier to stay on this path, to gradually do this next thing and the next thing and the next thing.
Chris Rice: And you can see that in telecommunications there have been a couple of times things like this have happened, where they have stuck in a certain path like a circuit switch, and then even attached to a telephone service versus to a mobile phone service. All of these things were getting easier and easier to stay on that path, stay on that path, and not take on the new thing. But it is usually a novelty that offers the most value and offers the most opportunities for growth in the future. And so I think we just have to be careful with this incrementalism. Really need to take a step back, see the big picture and what you are trying to do and capture that trend.
Kevin Gray: Incrementalism, I like that. As 5G is going to open up, gradually open up, new opportunities for everyone, how about the game of STL from the point of view of access solutions?
Chris Rice: Well, like I said in my introduction, we’re going to be the company that embraces these open networking principles from day one. We don’t adapt to them. So why is this important? Well that’s important because we can build our business plan. We can build our cost structure on these facts. And so, therefore, we are not fighting any of these things. All the things operators want to go, all the places they would like to be in broadband fiber, on open platforms or in open O-RAN and RAN, in the 5G wireless space, which is perfectly aligned with our activity plan. It’s perfectly aligned with our leadership. And so we’re happy to be taking this journey with them down that path, because again, our whole business plan is built on that. And so we’re kind of a disruptor built from the ground up, if you will, on day one, to be able to do it.
Kevin Gray: Okay, great. Chris, we’re running out of time here. We’ve covered a lot of things, from some of the 5G deployment strategies to virgin and industrial sites, from cloud to incrementalism and some of the disruptive things an STL does. Do you have any final thoughts here before we wrap up?
Chris Rice: I think maybe just one. I think as we talk about this new ecosystem and open networking and having a group of people who can oppose it, I think there is still an interest for telecom operators to buy some kind of transparent solution. They still want things to work together. And so it’s now shifting from a sort of single-vendor ability to deliver that ability to what I would call a transparent ecosystem. And I think it’s important for all of us who are in this ecosystem to make sure that we provide this transparent ecosystem, this transparent solution to the carriers, because it’s always in their best interest and it’s still the way. they would like to buy.
Kevin Gray: Yeah. There you have it, the homogeneous ecosystem is where we need to go. Chris, thank you very much for your time today and hope we can do it again soon.
Chris Rice: Yeah, that sounds good. Thanks, Kevin.