Orange Talks Partnerships, Private Networks and Pikeo

Executive Michael Trabbia shares his vision with CCS Insight

Last month, on the sidelines of a telecom conference in London, I had the opportunity to sit down with Michael Trabbia, chief technology and innovation officer at Orange.

We began by talking about how the operator balances the need for partnerships to boost innovation with going solo. Mr Trabbia explained that working with content and cloud providers is a necessity for telecom operators like Orange, but stressed the importance of retaining control over data, security and customer relationships.

For example, Orange doesn’t share customer data with Microsoft as part of an initiative called Bleu, set up between the two companies and Capgemini earlier in 2021. Bleu will use Azure technology to support the sensitive-data needs and workloads of the French state and other public or private organizations. Orange has a similar arrangement on keeping control over customer data with Chinese smart home provider Tuya.

The executive also emphasized the value brought by operators in their collaborations with big technology companies, seeking to dispel suggestions that they’re merely a connectivity provider. He mentioned two leading strengths: the many millions of customer relationships that operators have and their familiarity and compliance with local regulation, particularly in Europe. Mr Trabbia added that companies like Google, Amazon and Microsoft are equally reliant on making partnerships as each tries to stand out from rivals.

Mr Trabbia acknowledged the challenge for telecom operators to become more agile despite having older equipment and systems that put them at a disadvantage compared with digitally native organizations. A week after Vodafone said it will add a further 7,000 software engineers to its workforce over the next four years, he emphasized that Orange employs more than 9,000 IT experts in its operations, including software engineers, architects and integration and data science professionals.

This led us to talk about Orange’s experimental “network of the future”, dubbed Pikeo, unveiled at MWC 2021 (see Insight Report: MWC 2021: Network Operators). Pikeo is designed to manage and run itself as much as possible by using data and artificial intelligence. It aims to create a blueprint for future deployments and offer insight into what “zero touch” networking could mean. Mr Trabbia explained the need for networks to adjust instantly and automatically to changing patterns of demand and said that human reaction time wasn’t fast enough to meet requirements.

Pikeo also represents a test bed for a standalone 5G core and Open RAN technology. Orange expects to deploy standalone 5G networks in most of its European markets in 2023 and has already selected its suppliers. However, these plans trail those of some regional operators including Vodafone and Telia, which have already deployed commercial services.

Turning to Open RAN, Orange has become one of Europe’s more vocal supporters (see Insight Report: European Operators Set Out Approaches to Open RAN). In April 2021, it made a major commitment, declaring that from 2025 onward it would only deploy equipment compliant with the technology’s specifications. It expects that Open RAN will achieve parity with equipment from traditional suppliers by this date, a move that hints at a solution to government bans on Huawei, a leading supplier to Orange in its markets outside France.

Mr Trabbia brushed aside concerns about the suitability of Open RAN, highlighting that the technology can already be deployed in certain environments, such as rural locations or some types of indoor coverage. Earlier this week, Mr Trabbia helped launch a dedicated Open RAN laboratory in France, which will enable companies to test out their services with the aim to accelerate development of the technology.

Orange is also an active player in private mobile networks. It recently announced a 4G and 5G deployment at Schneider Electric’s plant in Le Vaudreuil in northern France and has been showcasing 5G applications at the Port of Antwerp for more than a year (see Quarterly Market Analysis: 5G Networks, 4Q20).

But its ambition extends beyond large organizations. Mr Trabbia confirmed that Orange is preparing a pared-down private network offer for small and medium sized locations. He added that he sees a hybrid future for private networks, with some deployments accessing the Orange macro core network and others remaining fully on-premises to maintain control over data security.

As part of his vision for the telecom operator of the future, Mr Trabbia is optimistic about the notion of “ambient connectivity” in which people and things can be connected anywhere, all the time. He said Orange is open to using a range of technologies to achieve this goal, including satellite communications.

In 2018, Orange signed a partnership with satellite provider Eutelsat to boost broadband coverage in its European markets, notably rural locations that are hard to reach with traditional fixed-line and mobile networks. Orange is also working with Intelsat to offer mobile backhaul services in French Guiana (see Insight Report: Satellite Broadband’s Long Journey to Bridge the Digital Divide).

As telecom operators step up their transformation strategies, the role of chief technology innovation officer has become an increasingly influential position. It was great to hear Mr Trabbia’s wide-reaching perspectives, and I thank him for taking the time to chat.