“Challenges for Emerging Markets’ MNOs” featured on Developing Telecoms: Connected Citizens, Managing Crisis, August 2015 issue. Written by Christopher Fabian. To download the complete issue, click here. Chris Fabian’s interview is featured on page 54. 

In this discussion with Alec Barton, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Developing Telecoms, Chris Fabian of UNICEF talks about some of the key challenges facing MNOs in emerging markets. Chris is a strong advocate of open source and the Q & A starts with an exploration of this before moving on to virtualisation, IoT and Cloud.

Companies will argue that offering a service that isn’t unique will mean that they can’t stand out – therefore they might struggle to accept this argument.

They can easily not accept it – but they will become irrelevant over the next few years. If MNOs aren’t faced with existential fear on every front right now, they’re doing something wrong. It’s a time of rapid change in the software space. Most of the QoS backhaul systems that they run are on hyper-proprietary complex software that requires a huge amount of money and specific people to change. If I was running a business that had such a huge dependency on an external vendor for the base system control elements, I would take a deep look at that. Modern tech companies are building themselves on open source stacks, which means they can be flexible and agile. It doesn’t make them more or less competitive – it gives them more options on who you can get to work with you and how quickly you can develop new solutions and bring them to market. There should be a deep fear of being stuck in a ten-year-old set of technology protocols in an industry where there is a constant need to change.

With the advent of NFV/SDN, operators are looking at maintaining their uniqueness through proprietary software rather than physical hardware – does this trend hold any water with you?

MNOs are making business decisions at that level about where to be proprietary or not. Virtualisation can fragment markets from the inside – look at what Skype did globally – and if I were the CEO of an MNO, my worry regarding investment in a proprietary stack would be that if I put your chips on the wrong roulette colour, I’d be in big trouble. We’ve seen how easy it is to lose a market – particularly in places such as East Africa, where the VAS layer is so important. If users get a hint of something that’s better than their current service, they’ll flee without a second thought, so being agile is incredibly important for MNOs.

My contention about open source is more on the service layer than on the back-end control technology layer. Developing new user-facing services provides the most compelling reasons for being open source – you can tap into that rich local environment of software developers and VAS providers. From this angle, it’s easy to make an argument for open source solutions that can tie into proprietary back- ends, but the lean development time means that you can try something in multiple different markets at the same time and see what works. Then, you can pick the best of those open solutions and develop a community around it that sustains it.

To what extent does UNICEF play an active role in the development of software or hardware systems including open source for MNOs?

We have an innovation fund which acts like an early stage angel fund – we make investments in research and emerging technologies in three major portfolios: products for under 18’s, real-time products for governments, and infrastructure. Within infrastructure, we’ve identified the need to look at closed-loop systems for communities and open source hardware protocols for engaging; this could allow redundancy after an emergency or connect networks that might not otherwise be connected, as well as the ability to look at pop-up networks in places where people might have a SIM card, but it’s not the correct type for the hardware on the back-end.

Does strategic technology investment run counter to UNICEF’s emerging market focus?

Since its inception 68 years ago, UNICEF has changed every decade, and our team is trying to help with the current evolution. We’re trying to link this work into potential future markets for UNICEF, and one good example of this is around data. Traditional data-gathering methods are becoming obsolete, and we feel that it’s better to develop this market and shape it from its inception – if we wait for a solution or protocol to emerge ‘when it’s ready’, this could be detrimental for the people we’re trying to help, i.e. the most marginalised communities in the world. Making small, strategic investments allows us to shape a market that allows us to make the connections that we need to serve the bottom quintile of people in the world, but it also helps us to shape the market with private sector partners who are also interested in developing this bottom 20% because it’s their future market. We’re doing a lot of work with the chip designer ARM to look at collaborative research for bottom quintile users – we want to bring them out of poverty, and they’re also the people that ARM can develop as a strong user base over the next five years.

Is there a role for cloud and IoT in the Connected Citizens crisis management situation?

We’ve been working to create accessible content that can be served on the whole gamut of platforms such as Internet. org, and this has pushed us to make our content available in small ‘pieces’, in multiple languages, to various types of users. It’s been interesting for us – the most important thing isn’t just getting the conversation out there, it’s creating conversational loops. You can give people in Eastern Uganda access to Wikipedia, but access doesn’t matter unless it provides opportunity.

In terms of cloud, discussions with national governments have been interesting over the last few years. It really hindered our work 4 years ago when we were trying to set up cloud-based instances of services like U-Report (which now has 1.5 million users across 14 countries). Initially, governments were extremely reluctant to store national data in the cloud – however, this attitude has changed dramatically in the past 2 years, which has moved things along. It’s essentially an inevitability, regardless of the rational security concerns that a government would have.

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