"Ever since the lockdown started, my father has mastered video calling"
What drives innovation? What will we look back on in 2032? Eight questions for Ralf Klüber, Chief Technology Officer, telecommunications.
Just over ten years ago, the world was talking about streaming, 3D printing, smart homes, and quantum computing. What should we be talking about today?
The world hasn't just changed since February 24, i.e. the launch of Russian war of aggression in Ukraine. Ensuring data flows and is secure, that plays an increasingly important role. And the requirements of our clients' customers are changing at a rapid pace - and with them technologies, infrastructure, and the necessary personnel behind it. After all, crises tend to make society stronger. A simple example: since the lockdown started, my father has mastered video telephony; before that, he would have said "come over if you want to talk to me."
You are Chief Technology Officer (CTO) telecommunications at umlaut. What future topics are you working on right now?
The big topics of the moment are Open Radio Access Networks (OpenRan) and Green Networks. OpenRan - in other words, open radio access networks - enable interfaces for many partners. Especially for hardware, only standard systems, i.e. commercial off the shelf (COTS HW) as well as open interfaces are used, which not only reduces hardware costs, but also allows a multitude of new players. They can enter the market with their own software developments and business models and enrich it with innovation. On the subject of sustainability, just this: we will see faster and greener networks, especially if it is commercially viable! In the future, banks will also tie their lending to sustainability criteria. That's why umlaut's connectivity service providers will also be recognized for their sustainability in the future. In the "Next Generation Mobile Networks" (NGMN Alliance) interest group, we primarily push the topic of data collection and measurement of sustainability aspects.
A 5G campus is currently being built at your location in Aachen - another new field. What can you learn there?
That it's important to allow yourself to fail. We try to replicate our customers' problems in our real lab - and identify every single source of error, no matter how small, before the network is used in an industrial plant or in the digital rescue chain, for example.
Who or what drives innovation - especially in the telco industry?
I believe that innovation - the renewal of things or processes - should follow less of a moon-shot strategy, i.e. the goal of inventing the next iPhone or the next Tesla. Innovation starts much earlier. Quite often, it's about copy and paste: recognizing the similarity in different problems and applying established solutions to them. My favourite thing to do is to place the words "Responsible for Innovation" on the mirrors in our restrooms. Everyone who looks in the mirror is responsible for innovation. For me, innovation is not a fashion, but a culture and therefore a question of attitude. In addition, you have to allow disruptive ideas and not only study a "faster horse", but also look at these "crazy car things".
... And when it comes to "copy & paste," does networking industries help?
Especially there. It's also about diversity in your own team. We once addressed the topic of pattern recognition in crowdsourcing. A physicist on the team knew a technique from astrophysics which automatically recognized whether images of galaxies taken at different times in different places around the world were actually the same galaxy. The process quickly brought us to the solution to our actual problem. So many industries today are covering buzz topics like interoperability, automation, artificial intelligence, or the Internet of Things. It's in umlaut's DNA to tap into this knowledge - and be able to contact anyone in the network organization, regardless of industry, area of expertise, or hierarchy in the company. Innovation is based on existing knowledge.
Doesn't more infrastructure in telecommunications lead to more data streams? How do we keep track and what role does software play?
Connectivity and broadband networks make digital twins possible and much more automation. Much is driven by the desire to become more independent of people and human error. Evaluation is difficult. Was the invention of the wheel good or bad? You can use it to build a tank or an ambulance. It's the same with data. Generating, managing, and analysing data so that machines can learn on their own - and independently trigger processes in the real world - that is the course of study I would recommend to anyone today. In the future, it will be less about how many foreign languages I speak. In the future, it will be more about how many programming languages I know.
What role does trust play? Can blockchain technology help?
Blockchain helps integrate trust into software. There are a lot of use cases where that could be exciting. In telco, that might be the roaming area, i.e., the cross-border use of services. Beyond that, I see it particularly in the energy sector. It will play an important role in charging vehicles, which will become mobile electricity storage units by means of bidirectional charging.
What will we definitely look back on in 2032?
The biggest investors of our time are showing us the way: instead of looking left and right, they are looking up. Completely detached from my telco expertise, I believe we will see companies with promising concepts for expansion towards space in the coming decades.