Sharing vital infrastructure assets in the telecom sector?

18 September 2023 4 min. read
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As GCC economies advance, demand for telecom capacity through broadband and 5G is rising fast. For operators, keeping up with the trend requires a massive investment in vital infrastructure. Thomas Kuruvilla, managing partner of Arthur D. Little in the Middle East, explores the case for more shared infrastructure in the industry.

A report from Ericsson forecasts that 5G will account for 73% of all mobile subscriptions in the GCC by 2026. Yet no matter how high the demand soars, if every operator creates its own fiber, supply will eventually exceed it, resulting in overcapacity and unnecessary spending, with costs passed down to disgruntled consumers.

Such is the scale of the problem, investors will in fact become unable to provide affordable services at all unless the issues are addressed.

Sharing vital infrastructure assets in the telecom sector?

By contrast, for operators who share, the scenario could be win-win. Instead of working in silos to develop new, proprietary infrastructure, companies can optimize existing infrastructure through sharing arrangements that reduce capex, lead to higher returns, and result in greater investments overall.

The operator behind the fiber benefits from additional income, the outlay for the operator utilizing the extra capacity would be lower than the cost of starting from scratch, and the infrastructure would be optimized, with cost savings for end users too.

Further reading: Benefits of 5G significantly outweigh the costs.

The topic is complex, if a little controversial, but the solution is effective and can be comparatively simple.

Malaysia shows the way

Already, some countries are shifting towards this shared infrastructure model; in Malaysia all operators have agreed to share a common 5G infrastructure to ensure affordable and quality services to the entire population.

But Malaysia is among the exceptions. For a corporate world that thrives on competition, the prospect of joining forces is hard to swallow, raising an equally unpalatable question: If companies are unwilling to collaborate, should infrastructure sharing be enforced by government mandate?

Share the data too?

Taking the theme further, there is a compelling argument for organizations to share not just infrastructure, but customer data too. Any government authority tasked with approving infrastructure investments needs to first understand the utilization of the infrastructure that already exists, and that requires insight that only data can provide.

There is no escaping the fact that data sharing involves a serious privacy trade-off for users, but in sectors such as healthcare, benefits such as cheaper services and superior quality of care would likely lead many to conclude that relinquishing a little control was worth the while.

However, using customer data to improve a service is one thing but sharing that data with an entirely different beneficiary in an entirely different sector is another – yet that could be exactly what is needed.

Imagine a world where telecoms operators share data with the fire service about the active devices within a burning building. Or a transport authority and a mobile operator engage in lifesaving communication with a hospital about a road traffic victim.

In the simplest of terms, it is data sharing in pursuit of public good, but it requires almost unbridled access to citizen data. For individuals and organizations alike, it is a big ask – while government access to data will undoubtedly benefit society in some respects, exactly how citizen information is analyzed and acted upon is at the state’s discretion.

At the local level within the digital ecosystem, many companies and authorities are already used to sharing key data with government. The real problem is the global players such as Facebook and Google that retain their iron grip on data at all costs.

For countries to truly optimize their infrastructure, it is these giants that need to be brought on board, or else dealt with robustly.

Whether it is divulging data or sharing fiber, building the infrastructure of the future requires fundamental changes that will inevitably affect the status quo. Right now, there are more questions than answers, but in a world of inefficiencies and finite resources, a little sharing could go a long way.