The visionary innovator
How Patrick Delcoigne is driving sustainable broadband at Proximus to create a positive impact and enrich peoples’ lives.
There is no doubt that Patrick Delcoigne is passionate about telecoms. But more importantly, he is passionate about the impact that new technologies can have on peoples’ lives and the world around us. As demand for connectivity has grown over the years, it has become clear to Delcoigne that sustainability and creating a positive legacy should also be incorporated into everything that he does. And, it seems, he’s doing it very well.
Connecting Belgium to the world
Back in the 1990s when the world wide web burst onto the scene and the internet exploded, Belgacom (now Proximus) was laying the foundations for wide-scale internet access for Belgian citizens. As part of the network engineering team, Delcoigne witnessed Belgacom’s launch of asymmetric digital subscriber line (ADSL) – one of the first operators worldwide to introduce it – and the largest web portal in the country. And so, began a journey of innovative world firsts in validating and deploying every DSL generation, continuing to the present day with the world first, live introduction of 25G PON fiber technology.
Technology has the answer
Delcoigne certainly has a way of using technology to meet new challenges and to the advantage of the customers he serves. In the early 2000s, when broadband saw significant growth, the voice market in Belgium was dwindling fast. This would reshape the revenue model for many organizations and Proximus were no exception. “From 1994 up to 2000, we realized that voice was eroding. We needed to find new revenue streams,” he recalls.
Back then, Delcoigne was thinking about sustainability and network efficiencies even before it became a thing. He and his team realized that they could reuse and leverage their existing copper telephone lines to enable faster data transmission. “We did realize a change in the technology. We saw that there would be a greater capability with DSL to convey more megabits on our passive copper assets.” Capitalizing on the transport capabilities, Delcoigne wasted no time answering the growing demand for broadband data and breaking new boundaries with Proximus. “We decided at that moment to jump from a voice only business, to being a TV business and spread the ‘new voice’.”
Give them more
With the new triple play (voice, internet and TV services) capability coming into homes on their copper lines, Delcoigne knew that Proximus would need to attract a whole new type of customer.
“To play in TV, you not only need the technology you need to convince the customer. And to convince the customer, what did we do? We bid and won the Belgian Football League rights.”
However, the traditional cable operators that dominated the market with their analog coax were highly skeptical about transmitting football over a copper line.
“They said that our first match shown would result in the football pitch being blue and the ball would appear square,” Delcoigne recalls. This put a lot of pressure on Delcoigne and his team to get it right first time. “But guess what”, he explains, “the ball was round, and the football pitch was green.”
This is Belgium’s future
According to Forrester, just over half of Belgian households had a PC in 2004, with the need for additional bandwidth growing exponentially. Delcoigne knew that Proximus had to be ready with the next iteration of their network, reaching the homes of more Belgian citizens and enriching their lives through broadband. However, cutting-edge fiber technology wasn’t commercially available yet. But Delcoigne was extremely confident in his world-class engineers and those of his partners. “We did a massive fiber roll-out and were deploying street cabinets by the thousands, all empty, while betting on a technology that was not existing on the globe, but just in Nokia’s labs,” explains Delcoigne. And so, began the rollout of the newly combined copper and fiber project, ‘Broadway’– Proximus’s Fiber-to-the-Street-Cabinet (FTTSC) program.
Dedicated to demand
With Belgian broadband traffic rapidly increasing in the second half of the decade, it wasn’t long before Delcoigne was once again working hard to deliver even faster speeds – finding efficiencies by utilizing existing assets and incorporating sustainable design across the network. “By then we had requisitioned all the Nokia production lines, successfully launching VDSL2 massively in 2008. This gave Belgian citizens access to unparalleled internet speeds.”
Fast forward to 2013 and with Belgian broadband subscribers at 3.8 million Delcoigne was already realizing the limitations of VDSL2 and instead looked to maximize the VDSL2 throughput by using new state-of-the-art Vectoring technology. “Proximus co-developed Vectoring with Nokia and were the first in the world to activate it country-wide. We replaced VDSL2 with the powerful Vectoring technology, re-using 28,000 already existing optical cabinets. The result allowed triple the speed from previously.”
Enormous demand requires a Titan solution
By 2016, even the powerful Vectoring technology was feeling the strain of 4.2 million Belgian broadband subscribers. And Proximus was about to start a massive fiber to the home (FTTH) project. Enter the Terabit IP Transport and Aggregation Network (TITAN) project and yet another world first. “With our existing backbone network, we were at about one terabit per second as aggregated peak traffic nationwide. And so, decided to replace it, totally, on both the optical layer (DWDM) and the IP-layer. Our ambition was to multiply the capacity by 40, having equipment and an architecture that can transport 40 Terabits per second.” The upgraded backbone would support new services such as augmented and virtual reality, over the top (OTT) services, 4K and HDTV, IoT, FTTH, the rollout of 5G, as well as being able to accommodate traffic from other operators.
To conduct this massive transformation, Delcoigne and his team selected the very first multi-terabit routers available anywhere in the world, co-developed with Nokia.
“The TITAN project was very well orchestrated, with very solid project management and very strict migration processes. If you can imagine, it was like performing open heart surgery in a live network,” explains Delcoigne. Even the old technology was being carefully extracted with different components being recycled and reused where possible.
Incorporating sustainability into everyday operations of projects like TITAN is something that Delcoigne is extremely passionate about. “As a nature lover, it’s a gift to me to be appointed Sustainability Ambassador in our network business unit. It provides an opportunity to share my drive for the circular economy and bring people with me.”
The team learned a lot from the project with Delcoigne declaring that “TITAN was one of the best projects we ever did. The secret to success is about taking controlled risks,” he adds. “Cooperating actively and co-developing to deliver an operationally mature and sustainable solution, then light it up.”
Delcoigne’s 5 rules to business transformation
Act as a servant leader
Be there to encourage and help your teams and ultimately optimize their performance.
Nurture a growth mindset
See every change in the market, or in your organization, as an opportunity to do things better.
Empower your teams
Give them what they need to do their job to the best of their ability, whether that be more personnel, or better technology.
Create a vision
Ensure there’s a destination that your team can aim for. You may co-create this with partners, but ensure you act consistently.
Open up and leverage partnerships. Learn from others with similar goals and aspirations.
The foundations for a hyperscale network
The TITAN project brought together Proximus’s mobile, high-speed DSL and FTTH networks, boosted by the ongoing ‘Fibre for Belgium’ investment.
It’s the next milestone in Proximus’s goal to provide multigigabit services to 100 percent of the population – and the initiative is certainly gathering pace. “We are deploying now at 10 percent of the country per year, meaning about 600,000 Homes Passed (HP). It’s the equivalent of one medium town every week.”
Looking to the future, Delcoigne sees business process management and automation as key components for network efficiencies. “With three programs – Orion, Prometheus and Neda – we’re automating about 50 domains. It allows us to stay efficient, to focus our personnel on creative and motivating tasks. This means faster operations and faster deployment and guarantees excellent data quality across systems – so a better customer experience.”
Demonstrating what’s possible
With physical optical fiber providing virtually infinite bandwidth, Delcoigne and his team are now at the helm of the 25G PON showcase. Proximus ran 25G PON on a live network demonstrating that fiber – the long-term future – is already possible today at that capacity, delivering symmetrical speeds with very low latency. While Delcoigne is aware that consumer demand for these data rates is not here just yet - “I see the first application for such bitrates will be professional service and backhauling, for Proximus as well as for other operators” - thanks to his vision and thirst for innovation, Proximus are once again keeping ahead of the curve and winning awards for it. Broadband World Forum chose Proximus as the Fiber Operator of the Year worldwide in 2021.
Delcoigne continues to push telecom innovation and is looking outside of the business for new ways to combine forces to meet sustainability goals. He explains, “Sustainability is not something you can tackle alone. We’re working closely with Belgian universities to adopt climate-friendly techniques and recently joined ‘GreenWin’, an association that gathers the expertise of over 200 Belgian companies to become more circular.” Combining assets with competitors is another initiative that’s delivered positive results. “Take our mobile radio access network, for example, where Proximus combined forces with Orange Belgium to consolidate a shared antennae infrastructure. This is a very clear example of how sustainability is often profitable.”
A thirst for firsts
With so many world firsts for Proximus, Delcoigne and his team, what can we expect to see in the future? “Today, we offer HDTV and High Broadband to 97.1 percent of Belgian citizens. We will do a quantum leap in experience with fiber to deliver a multi-gigabit experience in every home – passing from the current experience of 100 Mbps towards 10 Gbps, so 100 times more and progressively targeting 100 percent of the population.”
Delcoigne has been instrumental in most of Proximus’s first-to-market technologies, recognising the opportunity in new telecom innovations and working with partners like Nokia to connect more communities across Belgium, with a particular focus on innovation to reach rural areas. “The key is to absorb gigantic capacity now and in the future. The fiber network we are building today must last for decades,” Delcoigne explains. And it’s one of the reasons why Proximus is opening their network up to other telcos – fully aware that limits will be pushed from 25 Gbps today to 50 Gbps and 100 Gbps.
Delcoigne recognizes the importance of Proximus and other telecom operators as enablers of more sustainable practices in other areas of society. He concludes, “Having an open network is first about sharing. Sharing common assets instead of duplication. It’s good for investment and good for nature.” It’s clear that Delcoigne wants to use his knowledge for the benefit of society. And that is a very worthwhile goal.
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