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Charles Yang, President of Huawei Middle East Region, discusses the future of the ICT sector in rebuilding post-pandemic economies and bringing digital to every person home and organization for a fully connected, intelligent world

We are currently living through what is potentially the most transformative event of the decade. The COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the Middle East, and indeed the world, in a way that few of us have experienced in our lifetime, literally shutting down societies as governments enforced lockdowns to try and curb the spread of the virus.

Now, as we begin to emerge from the pandemic and life settles into a new normal, it has become increasingly clear that the region’s information and communication technology (ICT) sector, which played an essential role in keeping people, businesses, and students connected during lockdown, will have an even more critical role to play in establishing sustainable future societies throughout the region.

We spoke to Charles Yang, President of Huawei Middle East Region, to find out more about the role of ICT in the post-pandemic reality.

“The pandemic has had a devastating worldwide effect, causing many deaths and dealing a massive blow to the global economy,” said Mr. Yang, who has led Huawei in the Middle East for more than five years.

“It has reshaped how we live and work, and at an exceptionally fast pace. The ICT sector has been at the heart of the response to this pandemic in numerous ways, from assisting in the search to find a vaccine to monitoring patients, identifying and predicting transmissions, and of course in keeping people connected during turbulent times.” 

Solutions leveraging the capabilities of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, cloud, and 5G have been used throughout the region – and of course, around the world – in the fight against the novel coronavirus. From Abu Dhabi’s AI-augmented, laser-based COVID-19 testing solution to Bahrain’s smart bracelets that monitor the movements of people in quarantine, the implementations have been broad and varied.

Artificial intelligence has also been used to increase the speed of diagnosis in hospitals, as well as in the search for a vaccine. Elsewhere around the world, robots have been deployed in hospitals to help protect frontline medical workers by limiting their exposure to patients infected with the virus; crowd monitoring has been used to identify individuals who may show symptoms, such as a higher than normal temperature, and track and trace systems have proved successful in numerous countries. 

Of course, ICT has also enabled us to stay connected while maintaining social distancing requirements. “During lockdown periods, businesses and educational establishments had to find a way to stay connected almost overnight,” said Mr. Yang. “Those who were most successful in achieving continuity in this unusual time were the ones who already had robust ICT infrastructures to build upon, making the transition to remote working, less downtime, and increased productivity simpler.

Countries in the GCC have some of the most advanced ICT infrastructure, which enabled companies, schools, universities, and so on to accelerate their digitization initiatives and adapt more rapidly to pandemic circumstances.” 

Technology has certainly proven its worth to society in recent months. Hospitals, healthcare centers, laboratories, and research facilities across the globe have sought the expertise of ICT specialists, perhaps working closer together than ever before. The logistics sector has relied increasingly upon technology, such as the world’s busiest cargo port, the Port of Ningbo-Zhoushan in China, using 5G to remotely control bridge cranes to maximize safety while minimizing business disruption.

A combination of drones and AI has been used by the electricity industry to conduct powerline inspections without the need for people on-site, thereby increasing efficiency and maintaining social distancing. 

Mr. Yang points out that digital technology is becoming more widely applied across all industries, and as a result, governments are now increasing their investments in building ICT infrastructure and capacity in recognition of it being a vital engine for driving post-pandemic economic recovery.

In particular, countries are racing to invest in 5G, which will provide an immense boost to pan-industrial digitization. The ICT sector, according to Mr. Yang, will form the foundation for the development of the digital economy, which is what will propel economic growth and societal development in a post-pandemic world – and 5G will be at the heart of this.

Still a somewhat new advancement in network technology, 5G is currently entering a new development stage. There are 87 commercial 5G networks worldwide. The 5G business to business (B2B) market, in particular, is something that carriers should consider as a new source of growth opportunities. According to Mr. Yang, there are 49 5G industrial models in commercial uses, which can support large-scale application of 5G across industries.

“5G is evolving from a technology that is merely useable, to one that is enjoyable – and we will soon see it take off in B2B as development in this field continues to pick up speed,” said Mr. Yang. 

He went on to explain that choosing the right industry to focus on is essential in order to succeed in 5G B2B and that there are three factors to take into consideration when doing so: 

  • First amongst these is industry attractiveness – in other words, an industry’s demand for ICT and deciding whether the market for 5G applications is big enough; 
  • Second is commercial viability; does the industry have a strong digital foundation? And are people willing to pay for 5G? 
  • Third is technical viability; and whether or not 5G solutions can meet different industry needs. 

“By considering these three factors, we can make private lines a quick-win use case in B2B,” explained Mr. Yang. The recommended sectors mentioned by Yang for carriers to focus on when developing 5G in B2B include oil and gas, mining, steel, and port industries. 

In order to be adopted across industries, 5G must provide guaranteed service level agreements (SLAs), while also meeting network and applications across different scenarios through the use of edge computing, network slicing, cloud, and AI capabilities.

Carriers, therefore, need to consider how best to build the capabilities in planning, construction, maintenance, optimization, and operations targeting B2B, such as improving their dedicated network planning capabilities to target various production environments.

They must take into consideration the need to provide products and solutions that meet industry requirements, including dust-proofing, high-temperature resistance, and being explosion-proof. Beyond this, there is also the need for carriers to develop service and ecosystem enablement platforms, provide standardized products and services, and build viable business models.

“Establishing these capabilities will see tangible results with 5G being deployed at scale in B2B, rather than remaining marketing hype,” said Mr. Yang. 

Large-scale 5G development in B2B is dependent upon unified industry standards –  and Mr. Yang is happy to report that cross-industry collaboration is well underway, with “many industry ecosystem alliances established that are collaborating on standards.” 

Release 16 was announced as finalized during a meeting of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) in July this year. In addition to highlighting 5G’s continued enhancement in terms of high bandwidth and low latency, Release 16 includes standards for basic 5G capabilities and new 5G capabilities for vertical industries. 

As a leading global provider of ICT infrastructure and renowned innovator, Huawei has developed the tools needed to build robust networks – including 5G – and systems that are needed to enhance industries and leverage digital potential for economic gains.

However, as stated by Mr. Yang, Huawei believes in more than just the race to the next best technology and impressive sales figures; the company considers it a responsibility to use its capabilities for technology and innovation to have a positive impact on communities. This is reflected in Huawei’s vision and mission, to ‘bring digital to every person, home and organization for a fully connected, intelligent world’.

“As an ICT company, it is our responsibility to use technology, together with our partners and customers including carriers and enterprises, to achieve a positive impact on our communities,” explained Mr. Yang.

“Our vision is for a more connected, intelligent, and innovative future, which we also believe will be more inclusive, sustainable, and better by all, for all. Achieving this will require a joint effort, and will need top-down designs, as well as bottom-up creativity and vitality.” 

He added that “with the threat of COVID-19 decreasing, and countries slowly opening their economies back up, now is the ideal time to focus on the potential of the ICT sector and digitization to drive economic recovery, especially through the digitization of industry. Every industry must work hard to transform digitally because digital technology can bring huge benefits in efficiency and renewed growth.” 

Mr. Yang explained how regulators in countries around the world have released supporting policies for industries, which will drive the digital economy and the rollout of digital infrastructure, particularly the rollout of 5G. In Germany, for example, new guidelines have been developed that will open up urban facilities to 5G sites, while in Austria’s capital, Vienna, the government plans to offer  €27,000 in subsidies for every 5G site, encouraging 5G rollout and services. Fiber broadband is being promoted in the UK to ensure there is fiber access in all new buildings. 

“Policies such as these are extremely helpful for infrastructure development, and therefore will promote economic recovery and growth,” said Mr. Yang. “We must promote joint efforts to realize a stronger ICT ecosystem will benefit all.” 

A collaborative approach to widespread digitization is something that Huawei truly believes in. The company is a firm advocate for open ecosystems. Huawei also believes in the importance of all stakeholders from the public and private sectors working together to solidify the ICT ecosystem, from infrastructure through to talent development. 

This is especially true when it comes to 5G. When asked about unlocking the full potential of this transformative network technology, Mr. Yang is very clear: “The whole industry needs to work together to achieve synergy, for 5G to succeed commercially.”

The business case for 5G extends beyond connectivity, encompassing technologies such as cloud computing and AI, amongst others, all of which reinforce one another to create greater value throughout the ecosystem. Achieving this level of synergy enables Huawei to develop scenario-based solutions that address the unique needs of its customers, developed specifically to help them achieve business success. 

With more than 1,500 networks deployed in more than 170 countries and regions over the last three decades, Huawei has considerable experience in not only network development, but in building collaborative approaches with customers and partners that ensure a robust and sustainable ecosystem, in which industry applications can generate genuine value. 

Value is an important consideration, especially when seeking to reboot an economy that has been affected by events such as COVID-19. To aid in this, Mr. Yang states that, moving forward, Huawei will “double down on efforts to equip our partners with the capabilities they need, promote joint innovation, and drive growth for everyone in the value chain.”

He added that in the current economic environment carriers need to focus on both short-term and long-term goals and the way to do this is through precise deployment that will maximize the value of their networks. 

According to Mr. Yang, there are three ways to achieve this: 

  • First, carriers should prioritize user experience and spend money where it's needed most to maximize the value of existing networks.
  • Second, carriers should make the most of existing 4G and FTTx networks, and integrate them with new 5G networks through holistic coordination and precise planning.
  • Third, 5G deployment plans should prioritize hotspots and key industry applications. This is the primary method for carriers to unlock the full potential of 5G.

“Carriers also need to determine the best way to evolve their networks, in a way that will address scenario-specific requirements,” said Mr. Yang.

“Their future network plans must take into account four key factors – business growth, uncertainties, social responsibility, and cost optimization. An ideal network is one that provides reliable ultra-broadband connectivity, while also being simplified, intelligent, and sustainable. The most fundamental goal in network development, however, should be to maximize its value to unlock the full potential, and drive business success across the board.”

While sustainable network development and value creation is a necessity, Mr. Yang explains that carriers across the region, and indeed around the world, must first overcome a series of issues and challenges that stand in the way of achieving commercial success.

This requires preparation in the core areas of network construction and business development, which will enable them to realize full network potential while also inspiring business growth. This links back to the emphasis on maximizing value while optimizing the total cost of ownership (TCO) and rapidly responding to growing data traffic requirements. 

“Italy is a solid example of this,” said Mr. Yang. “The lockdown in Italy as a result of the pandemic saw an increase of 25 percent in data traffic in just a few days. Carriers expanded network capacity in hotspots by adding boards, which replaced existing Remote Radio Units. Beyond this, carriers responded to the growing traffic by reframing the 2.1 GHz band, and upgrading 3G networks to 4G.”

He also gives an example from Indonesia, where a carrier upgraded its LTE network with software and completed capacity expansion in only four days, leading to an increase in network traffic by 11.8 percent in just one week.

Another example of how to optimize is to consider power requirements. “Blade power cuts power losses of cables and cooling systems by 85 percent, and can be deployed at 5G sites on the same poles as Remote Radio Units,” explains Mr. Yang.

“Huawei may be renowned for our commitment to innovation and the evolution of communications, but we are also dedicated to working with our partners and customers to come up with new ways that help their businesses. The ICT sector is evolving alongside every other industry, and carriers must find new ways of realizing value from existing and new assets alike. We work with our carrier partners to optimize their site total cost of ownership, by offering simplified site solutions – such as all-in-one antennas and wireless microwaves. This is how we create a stronger ecosystem, by collaborating to determine solutions in which everyone wins.” 

Given the rate of evolution the ICT sector is experiencing, Mr. Yang stresses the need for the telecom industry to be forward-thinking. He said that “a carrier’s role is constantly changing as the demands of consumers change,” and that “telecom networks must, therefore, be flexible and adaptable to the ever-changing needs of individuals, families, and businesses, while also being conscious of the need to support a growing digital economy.”

There is no room for carriers to be complacent in this dynamic time, because those that fail to operate with a future-forward mindset, and who fall behind in terms of innovation and the creation of new value, will struggle to meet tomorrow’s network demands.

This is where Huawei is an expert, Mr. Yang points out. The company is doing its best to help carriers build future-oriented target networks that will support their continued success. 

A sustainable future for the ICT sector requires more than technology, however. A recent World Bank report highlights the huge gap between the fast-growing global digital economy and a lack of digital skills. “We can build the most advanced networks that will establish today’s digital economy, but for this to be sustainable and for the ICT sector to continue to flourish, we must foster talented individuals who have the skills, knowledge, and passion to perpetuate technology development,” said Mr. Yang. 

To this end, Huawei – through its TECH4ALL digital inclusion platform – has invested considerably in supporting the development of talent in markets throughout the region, via several initiatives. This includes its flagship Seeds for the Future program, which, since 2008, has helped to develop local ICT talent, enhanced knowledge sharing, and promoted a greater understanding of an interest in the ICT industry, while encouraging countries to build their digital communities.

Huawei also hosts an annual Middle East ICT Competition, which sees talented youth from across the Middle East compete nationally, regionally, and internationally by demonstrating their capacity for technological innovation, and the chance to win exciting prizes. 

On a national level, Huawei has also launched several Huawei ICT academies throughout the region. These academies offer ICT professionals the opportunity to learn valuable new digital skills through quality courses and support systems, in partnership with leading universities. 

All in all, Huawei has provided support and training to more than 12,000 students and professionals across the Middle East since March 2020. This, in combination with numerous partnerships in the public and private sector, with network carriers and enterprises alike, has seen Huawei play a significant role in the development of the region’s ICT ecosystem – which will, in turn, contribute towards the stronger digital economy that will elevate the region in a post-pandemic era. 

“As our CEO, Mr. Ren Zhengfei eloquently puts it; we are keeping focus and doing what we do best,” says Mr. Yang when asked about the future of Huawei and its role in continuing to develop the region’s ICT sector.

“No matter what challenges come our way, we will fulfill our obligations to our customers and suppliers. We will get through this and keep forging ahead, helping to grow the digital economy and pushing technology forward.” 

With a track record as impressive as Huawei’s is, it is very easy to believe that this company will remain a key enabler of a sustainable, digitally-empowered, and smart future for all.  

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