Open Connect in the Era of 5G - an Interview with STL CEO-Access Solutions Chris Rice

Fierce Wireless publisher Kevin Gray recently sat down with STL CEO of Access Solutions to discuss 5G: telecom network changes, greenfield vs. brownfield deployments, the journey from legacy to open connect, new opportunities, the seamless ecosystem, and more!



Kevin Gray: All right. Hi, my name is Kevin Gray, publisher of Fierce Wireless and I'm here today with Chris Rice, CEO of Access Solutions at STL. We're going to cover a wide range of topics today, including everything from 5G to greenfield, brownfield deployments and more, but first thing is first. Chris, can you introduce yourself for the audience to tell us a little bit more about STL.

Chris Rice: Sure thing. Thanks, Kevin, for having me on, by the way. Hey, so I'm Chris Rice. I'm the new CEO of STL Access Solutions. I've been in the job about four months now. STL is an Indian company that's a digital integrator. They have fiber connectivity business, services business and now the newest business which is access solutions. And the good news is we've been able to come in and basically adopt right from the very beginning, not adapt the open networking principles. And so we're building an access solutions company around 5G wireless as well as broadband fiber. And previous to this I was AT&T for about 25 years, led the transition of that network to SDN. I'm really excited to be here talking to you today and to be representing STL.

Kevin Gray: Great. Yes. I was going to ask you about all your time there with AT&T, of course. I think this is going to be a good question for you as you're going to have some good perspectives. How have you seen telecom change their networks and their strategies on the advent of 5G in particular?

Chris Rice: Well, it's interesting because with 5G it's one of the reasons I think 5G is different, it's really been a confluence of at least three things that have happened that have affected telecom almost all at once. If you look when 5G was really starting up, well what else was starting to affect telecom? Well cloud was. Cloud was really starting to affect telecom. And what had just happened prior to that and was happening during it was this open networking and SDN. You really have this confluence of this open networking, SDN, cloud and 5G, all coming together that are affecting the way that the operators are building their networks going forward.

Chris Rice: And I know a lot of folks have said, "Well, 5G will be the first G built on the cloud." I think that's partially true but I think it'll also be the one that is driven largely by SDN and open networking as well. And so I think both of those big trends have affected the way in general that telcos are building a network, but specifically with 5G because that has so much attention and is garnering so much of the CapEx in delivery for the operators now.

Kevin Gray: That is interesting everything you're saying there about cloud. I know that was one of the biggest themes over at Mobile World Congress a couple weeks ago. Next question though, I was hoping you could break this down for us, the difference between greenfield and brownfield deployments. I've been hearing a lot about those. Could you help us out with that please?

Chris Rice: Yeah. Really what this comes down to is just first greenfield, brownfield but then why does it matter? Greenfield is, hey, I'm going to go build my network from scratch. I don't have a network today. I want to be in the business. And so think of disruptors who were doing that around the world, building their network from scratch. Jio was an example of that in India a few years back. And then you can say, "Well, brownfield is really kind of more of the classic of I've been in 2G, I've been in 3G, I've been in 4G, I want to be in 5G." And that's always more of a transition. Kind of out with the old, in with the new and then how long do you keep the old there? And how long do you keep customers? And then how do you transition them? And so there's an effort associated with that, which is unique and different than just the greenfield.

Chris Rice: And so I think what this does is it really affects a particular operator's ability to adopt some of these open networking principles and some of these O-RAN and open RAN capabilities because the existing path that they're on, there's always a transition path. If you're the existing incumbent selling equipment, you always have a great idea of how you're going to transition to my next version of my equipment. But I think the operators really need to step back a little bit and say, "Well look, what's the best path in the long run?" And you can take this all the way back, go way back actually even to the mid eighties, early nineties in the computer space. If you remember that there was this thing called the IBM PC and this little company called Microsoft that was building this operating system for it.

Chris Rice: But before that it was DEC and Wang and all these others building big computers vertically integrated and it was very easy to go buy those because that was the mainstream. And then fast forward 20, 30 years. And then this is really the path it's gone down. It spawned servers, it spawned cloud, it spawned everything else. And so what my point is, there's a lot of innovation that typically comes from these kind of open initiatives. And I think this will be no different. We're just in the early phases of it.

Kevin Gray: Great. Going back to what you were saying about some of the challenges with legacy, what are the possible roadblocks that operators may face during their transition journey from legacy to open connect?

Chris Rice: Yeah. I think it's what I'd call incrementalism and let me explain what I mean by that. It's that it's almost human nature. It's almost always easier to move something incrementally than stop and kind of start from scratch and do something new. I'll give you an example in my career. We had these 10 gig connections into these various data centers, into these various bandwidth hotels. And it was always easier, it was always the best business case to just add another 10 gig, to just add another 10 gig, because they'd come in incrementally. But I remember working with some of my folks and taking a step back and saying, "Let's go take a look at some of these and let's see where we are." Well, you found out that you had tens of these 10 gig connections there and you say, "Hey well, why wouldn't I just go change these out and I'll put in four 100 gig, connections, it'll be a lot cheaper."

Chris Rice: And sometimes it takes a step back to look at that and say, "Well hey, why don't I transition to this new technology at this particular time?" Because I know down the road, even though it's coming in incrementally like this, I'm going to have a much broader path in the long run and I should really take on the new technology. And I think this is really no different. Slightly different in terms of its applicability but really no different in the sense that it'll always seem a little bit easier to just stay on that path, incrementally do this next thing and the next thing and the next thing.

Chris Rice: And you can see that in telecom, there's been various times where things like that have happened, where stayed on a certain path like circuit switch and then even fixed to a telephone service versus mobile telephone service. All of those things were incrementally easier to stay on that path, stay on that path and not take on the new thing. But it's typically a new thing that offers the most value and offers the most opportunity for growth going forward. And so I think that just be careful of that incrementalism. Really need to step back, see the big picture and what are you trying to do and capture that trend.

Kevin Gray: Incrementalism, I like it. As 5G is going to open up, incrementally open up, new opportunities for everybody, what would you say STL's play is from an access solutions perspective?

Chris Rice: Well, like I said in my intro, we're going to be the company that adopts on day one these open networking principles. We're not adapting to them. And so why does that matter? Well, it matters because we can build our business plan. We can build our cost structure on those facts. And so therefore, we're not fighting any of those things. All of the things that the operators want to go to, all the places they'd like to be in either broadband fiber, on open platforms or in O-RAN and open RAN, in the 5G wireless space, that's perfectly aligned with our business plan. That's perfectly aligned with our direction. And so we're glad to take that journey with them in moving that way, because again, our whole business plan is built on it. And so we're kind of a disruptor built from the ground up, if you will, on day one, to be able to do that.

Kevin Gray: Okay, great. Chris, we're running out of time here. We covered a lot of things, everything from some of the 5G deployment strategies and greenfield and brownfield, the cloud to incrementalism and some of the disruptive things that a STL is doing. Do you have any final thoughts here before we wrap things up?

Chris Rice: I think maybe just one. I think that as we talk about this new ecosystem and open networking and having a bunch of people who are able to deliver against it, I think there's still an interest in the telcos buying a kind of a seamless solution. They still want things to all work together. And so that now moves from kind of the single vendor ability to provide this capability to what I would call a seamless ecosystem. And I think it's important for all of us who are in this ecosystem to ensure that we provide that seamless ecosystem, that seamless solution back to the telcos, because that's still in their best interest and that's still the way they'd like to buy.

Kevin Gray: Yeah. There you have it, seamless ecosystem is where we need to get to. Chris, thank you so much for your time today and hopefully we can do this again soon.

Chris Rice: Yeah, sounds good. Thanks, Kevin.