Article | September 28, 2023
Asia stands out as home to a handful of telcos busy building an international business out of selling their internally developed IT platforms. Leading the way are Jio in India, Japan’s Rakuten and Singapore operator Singtel.
Having built their own businesses, they are now selling their platforms to support new 5G business models for enterprises and other operators. In the case of Singtel, this means its 5G multi-access edge computing (MEC) services, based on Paragon, its orchestration platform for enterprise services.
Manoj Prasanna Kumar, Head of Enterprise Platforms at Singtel, who is responsible for the Paragon platform, discusses in this article the company’s enterprise service ambitions, how it’s partnering with global enterprise software vendors and the obstacles it still sees to 5G B2B service uptake.
Paragon, which falls under the telco’s DigitalInfraCo arm, aims to give enterprises “a single pane of glass that provides an end-to-end view and control of the network, the edge and the application ecosystem,” says Manoj. “It opens up the edge to the enterprise world, allowing them to deploy either their own applications or applications from Singtel's ecosystem.”
Launched last year, Paragon also lets telcos orchestrate end-to-end 5G enterprise networking services in combination with applications from software and cloud computing partners. Paragon’s application partners include Amazon Web Services, Intel, Microsoft and SAP, and the platform is available to every 5G enterprise user within the Singtel Group.
Singtel’s bet is that a growing number of enterprises will need a tightly intertwined combination of 5G connectivity and cloud computing on the edge to run specific vertical applications.
“Our strategy is to become a super aggregator of MEC,” says Manoj. “We focus on high throughput, low latency use cases, such as video analytics or streaming, mixed reality and virtual reality which pump data into the back-end applications and where the decision-making cannot afford even a few milliseconds of extra latency.”
In addition to Paragon, Singtel Group’s investments in 5G infrastructure and service delivery include a national 5G standalone (SA) network, covering more than 95% of Singapore, and international investment in data centers to support cloud computing on the network edge. Today, there are signs that its investments in 5G enterprise services are starting to bear fruit. In the second half of the 2022/23 financial year, which ended on 31 March, Singtel reported that higher demand for technology solutions and 5G services contributed to ICT revenue growth of 11%, with ICT revenues contributing 23% of Singtel Group’s overall enterprise revenue.
Singtel scored a notable win for the Enterprise 5G offering powered by Paragon platform last year when Silicon manufacturer Micron said it would deploy it and Singtel’s 5G campus network infrastructure to support its smart manufacturing operations. Micron is using Singtel’s solution to help manage and analyze its manufacturing processes for enhanced efficiency. Likewise, Singtel recently announced Hyundai as another customer for their Enterprise 5G offering powered by the Paragon platform to deliver digital twin for their electric vehicle manufacturing plant in Singapore for advanced manufacturing operations.
Nonetheless, Manoj recognizes that challenges remain when it comes to growing the 5G enterprise business. “5G and edge in Singapore have had quite a good start. But I would say we've got a long way to go,” he says.
One of the biggest obstacles is generating customer demand. After all, just because enterprises are able to set 5G connectivity parameters on demand or use MEC for 5G applications at the click of a button doesn’t mean they see a reason to do so.
“Many customers don't have a lot of awareness of how edge computing can really transform their business and how a few milliseconds of latency can actually save money for them, make them more efficient, and reduce errors and so on,” says Manoj.
This reality has shaped Singtel’s sales process. “We spend quite a lot of time in raising awareness amongst customers,” he explains. “We never start with what 5G can do. Instead, we focus on understanding their challenges, their current processes, what gaps there are, and…start with applications that can help solve their problems.”
Another challenge is a lack of 5G-native devices. “This puts us in a very tough spot because when we go and connect devices to wi-fi hotspots, and then use 5G as backhaul, customers often ask ‘isn't this similar to wi fi? Why do I need 5G?’” He adds: “It will be a bit of a roadblock…for all telcos until the 5G-native device ecosystem matures.”
There is also a need for software applications that can perform optimally on 5G and the edge, and switch between network slices with different payloads. “There is a little bit of hand holding required when we bring in an ISV to qualify their application so that it can benefit from all the capabilities of 5G and the edge,” says Manoj.
And then there are the engineering challenges associated with orchestration. Paragon sets out to automate much of the orchestration and management capabilities that make it possible to request quality of service on demand for specific applications and use cases. But here again, success is dependent on close partnerships with third parties.
“Strategic partnerships with Ericsson on the network side and with Intel, Microsoft and AWS help us boost the infrastructure and the application side to stitch together the network and the infrastructure capabilities,” explains Manoj.
Choosing your vertical
Singtel is currently targeting three strategic verticals: manufacturing, public safety and urban planning. Its choice reflects the opportunities in both Singapore and the domestic markets of members of the Singtel Group.
“In Singapore, we are lucky because both enterprises and the government are very, very future-looking and invest quite a lot in adopting new technology,” says Manoj. In particular, “public sector customers are more motivated to explore something new because they carry the digital footprint of the country,” he says.
And because governments operate public safety and urban planning systems at a national level, the promises are on enough scale to spur third parties to invest in developing devices and software applications. Typical public safety use cases include video analytics, surveillance systems and robotics applications; urban planning covers systems such as traffic management.
Some of the enterprise applications Singtel sees gaining traction include immersive B2B2C content, such as delivering real-time analytics to gamers via a 360-degree video feed or mixed reality applications to train factory workers on how to troubleshoot to use complex equipment. “If they need an augmented overlay of information through the camera feeds then they need 5G and edge because a lag will make users nauseous,” explains Manoj. Other promising use cases include autonomous drones and robots.
Singtel has drawn on standard APIs, including TM Forum’s Open APIs, CAMARA APIs to build Paragon. Manoj encourages both technology standardization and collaboration with hyperscalers and software vendors to grow the enterprise market.
“Telcos should be embracing tech players as partners, seeing them as catalysts of more pull through on their services,” says Manoj. “When you partner with them, you expose your services on the hyperscale infrastructure, you naturally work with developers, which allows telcos to expand the services market.”
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