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Titans of Telecoms: “Fiber is built to last”

Our Titans have been working for 25+ years. Now they look ahead to the next 25. Where might the telecoms industry be in 2047 and what might it take to get there? We speak to Envision Associates founder and Lithuania’s candidate for Deputy Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Tomas Lamanauskas.

In England, the Fosse Way is a 230-mile stretch of road running diagonally from Exeter in the south east to Lincoln in the north west. It almost slices the country in two, is perfectly straight, and is genuinely loved by some motorists. It’s also 1800 years old – built by the Romans.

There are clear parallels between this and the fiber backbone that underpins the telecoms industry. “These fiber networks are built to last for 25 plus years,” says Tomas Lamanauskas, founder and managing partner at Envision Associates. “Yes, the equipment gets upgraded, the capacity is increased, but the underlying technologies are the same.”

Developed to last for over 25 years is a big deal – and an epic timescale – in an industry, which at least as far as the internet is concerned was still in its relative infancy 25 years ago – that very same length of time. Back then Clinton was still US president, Monica Lewinsky was yet to become a household name, and the iPhone was a full decade from market launch.

Lamanauskas knows his stuff and has the chops to prove it. His quarter century of experience provides a panorama of the industry as a whole, plus a bird’s eye view of its global breadth. He began as a computer science teacher back in the 1990s covering hands-on tech. He then moved to the regulatory side – first in his native Lithuania, then Bahrain, the Middle East, and finally the Caribbean – before going to help Vanuatu in the Pacific, to develop and implement its national ICT policy, then leading corporate strategy for the ITU.

After this lengthy stint in the public sector, he switched to the private sector, and now heads his own consultancy, which helped support Covid-19-related digital initiatives in countries like Rwanda and Haiti. So, in approximately 25 years of work, he has seen the growth of the industry from the inside – from manual coding pre-Windows right through to guiding governments and businesses around the world in their telecommunications and digital strategies.

Decades of innovation is superfast and glacially slow

“We talk about things as if they're imminent for many years,” says Lamanauskas “and then we don't notice when they actually become part of our life.” And, despite the speed of growth we’ve seen in the last two decades, timeframes can feel glacial.

Way back at the birth of 3G, pundits suggested video calling would be the killer app, but it wasn’t until 4G and WhatsApp that it really started to happen. “Then we suddenly embraced video calling without realizing,” says Lamanauskas “but not the way operators intended.”

Predicting a quarter century ahead is indeed tough. However, as Lamanauskas puts it, “Different layers move at different speeds”. The deeper you go into the infrastructure the slower the pace of change, but this deep infrastructure layer is truly the foundation for everything that’s built on top.

Fiber really is an important foundation for the future,” he stresses. “And I think it’s a lasting foundation.

Fiber really is an important foundation for the future... and I think it’s a lasting foundation.
Tomas Lamanauskas
Envision Associates

 
The next foundational layer may well be in the satellite industry. In fact, Bank of America predicts the full value of the commercial space market will hit $1.4 trillion by 2030 – and Lamanauskas believes this will continue in the longer term with satellites starting to play a more and more important role and increasing their share of global connectivity.

It is also impossible to ignore mobile and other wireless technologies, as terrestrial networks will likely continue to play a key role in how connectivity reaches the masses. Yet the underlying infrastructure pattern that Lamanauskas sees is “more of a mesh of different technologies working together to deliver connectivity to everyone.”

To achieve this, he envisages an increasing number of partnerships. These will be wide and diverse – forged among proponents of different technologies, varied market players, the public and private sector, along with a variety of stakeholders – who, in their entirety, will make the whole ecosystem fit together. This, he believes, will be critical to a brave new world 25 years ahead.

Be prepared for an industry split

When people look ahead to the future they tend to focus on the big, exciting innovations like the Metaverse or remote surgery or amazing futuristic driverless vehicles. “We like to have these big visions without realizing how much we need to build for them,” says Lamanauskas. This means you cannot underestimate the value of focusing on the basics.

The best way to describe Lamanauskas is as a cautious and pragmatic optimist. And he is especially interested to finally see the fusion of telecoms and tech, which is beginning to take place at last after many years of predictions. Yet today – and looking ahead – this will also probably be accompanied by potential for a big split between the more financially safe and predictable, basic infrastructure-based companies, and more nimble tech operations, which iterate, take risks, and fail fast.

There is clearly a challenge for operators who need to make decisions now that will affect their longer-term future. “Different parts of the industry have very different financing requirements, very different operating requirements, very different culture requirements, and operators need to decide where they want to be,” says Lamanauskas.

The industry is very cyclical, which makes it hard to determine a focus, but those that do are “the smart players”, he suggests. Once a focus has been set, they will then need to decide who to partner with “and maybe split themselves off if necessary,” he says. The companies at “…the infrastructure level will be much more stable business – much more boring business – but probably much more guaranteed business.”

It is hard not to look back to the roads here. They are a solid, dependable, backbone, which may not be the most exciting things at first glance, but when they last long enough can, like the “magical” Fosse Way, inspire a hard-earned devotion.

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