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Telcos, cloud companies, and large enterprises need to deliver enhanced experiences to their customers. In an exclusive interview with Telecom Review, Rahul Puri, business head of Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) at STL, shared his insights on how the company’s 5G-ready end-to-end solutions will benefit the future where wired and wireless come together, design and deployment of new network architecture are required, and computing and connectivity get closer to the edge.

Harnessing digital technologies has been on the fast track as the world requires a higher demand for connected experiences. Being 25 years in the industry, how did STL adapt to the COVID-19 situation?

When it struck us, we took a two-fold approach. One was taking care of our employees and community by making sure they stay safe. The other was maintaining the continuity of the business and delivering on the promises we had made to our customers.

The first and foremost priority was to ensure the safety of our employees. We have more than 6,000 employees and contract workers in more than 100 countries across three different continents. The goal was not just preventing them or assisting them if they, unfortunately, contract the virus, but also taking care of their mental wellbeing and families.

On the community side, we have taken responsibility for the people around us. We started manufacturing PPE gears and other low-cost ventilators. We also set up command relief centres for COVID patients in various localities and our CSR team worked with multiple governments in Italy, India, China, and Brazil, among others to help them with fund contributions or social costs.

Talking about our continuity of business and commitment to providing our services, the credit goes to the wonderful teams we have. Most of them are pretty young and their spirit was overwhelming. They took it as a challenge to make sure that the promises we had made to the customers were fulfilled. One example is rolling out a BSS solution for a leading telco in Africa.

As you may know, there was a pent-up demand for fiber broadband across the world. Obviously, there was an urgent need for higher fiber penetration by all telcos. STL, being a leader in this space, had to rise to the challenges.

There were challenges around logistics that we had to overcome. I would also like to mention that during this challenging time, we engaged more deeply with our customers and co-created innovative solutions that would help address their most important needs.

Can you elaborate on how optical connectivity, fibre deployment, FTTx access network, and network modernization can have a huge impact on today’s digital transformation?

The era we live in today is transforming the telcos. We are seeing a decade of extensive network creation where telcos, governments, cloud companies, enterprises, and utility companies will massively invest in 5G Open RAN.

Fiber backhaul, FTTx, and access network densification are all super critical for digital transformation. On the FTTx side, any CTO I talked to globally tells me there is not enough fiber. If they can go back into the past and create one thing, it will probably be more fiber. Fiber is critical to delivering high speed, low latency use cases. Networks are getting denser, more virtualised. Telcos are moving towards Open RAN solutions, everything is happening on the edge, and that will probably continue to happen.

As an industry-leading integrator of digital networks, what do you think are the most significant factors to consider for revenue growth and network infrastructure development?

If you look at STL, it's very strategically placed to partner with telcos, cloud companies and enterprises and solve the network needs of today and the future. STL is bringing together four key technology confluences, which are shaping the new-age network architecture: i) wired and wireless, ii) hardware and software, iii) compute and connectivity, iv) at the edge.

We have end-to-end capabilities to build future-ready digital networks. On one hand, we have our 25 years of optical expertise and around a decade of system integration expertise. On the other, we have telecom software and virtualized access portfolio.

We believe that optical networks and open-source technologies will be big drivers for the future. We would continue to invest in our capabilities to build industry-leading optical solutions and open, disaggregated, virtualized network solutions. If I were to take an estimate, the Open RAN market will be anywhere between $30 to $40 billion. However, the way the industry grows, these numbers look smaller if we probably talk five years down the line. We are already working with leading telcos in America, Japan, and Europe to provide the solutions and we are also now collaborating with telcos in the Middle East and this would continue to be a focus area for us. Rural connectivity or broadband is another area that is very close to our core. World over, we are supporting rural broadband plans and reducing the digital divide.

How does STL plan to expand its presence and services in the MEA region? What are the focus areas you are working on for the next five to ten years?

The Middle East and African region have been our priority for decades. We love to call it our ‘home away from home.’ We've been in this market for the last 20 years and our focus is clearly to create a difference with all solutions in our portfolio. We've also been working on setting up data centers in Saudi and some other markets.

In terms of the network deployment services, we want to bring to the market a solution for the challenges that telcos face regarding faster, more efficient, and first-time-right deployment. We want to power the next generation of network buildouts in the region through our world-class technology solutions which not only enable design but also deployment and management of the networks. It's about bringing together the right skill sets and technology. For example, we are creating a pool of skilled networking professionals via STL Academy, to drive large scale digital infrastructure projects across the world.

With more than five years of experience in rolling out massive networks, we have thousands of kilometers of existing networks in India. We are also taking giant strides in Europe and the Middle East.

With STL’s contribution, how will the fixed and wireless networks of the future respond to the needs of telcos, CSPs, enterprises, and consumers?

A new architecture is emerging. The wired and wireless are coming together. The hardware and software are now disintegrated and based on open source, while computing and connectivity are also merging. Looking at these key trends, we need to focus on capabilities across all layers of networks. This covers both software and system integration while establishing next-generation networks for our customers.

On the fibre optic side, which has been our core business philosophy for 25 years now, we are developing future-ready solutions. Citing an example, we have Stellar, a macro-bend insensitive fibre that is compatible with legacy networks. In this way, we are helping telcos to make the right deployment for the first time in a much faster manner.

Today, the challenge with telcos, even in the Middle East, is that they've deployed networks earlier. Now, with increased demand, they want to do more fibre. The choice is whether to put a new duct or use a modern cable to global fiber from the same dock because putting a new dock costs a lot more. So we've come up with Intelligently Bonded Ribbon cables where one can blow 4 times fibre in the existing ducts.

We are expanding capacities as we are reaching closer to customers. We have plants in India, China, Brazil, and Italy. All these will engage closely with local customers, reduce the delivery time and maintain the continuity of the business even if there are challenges in some markets, especially in today's time and age.

We are on track for our OFC capacity increase to 33 million km and all set to cater to the burgeoning optical demand for building 5G networks and delivering on FTTx plans. That's been the focus for STL and that's the path we are taking going forward.

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