In this episode, Jamie gets a chance to pick the brain of Deutsche Telekom’s head of RDK-B, Alex Ball. 👏🏻
Alex talks about his move from Liberty Global and RDK-V, to Deutsche Telekom and RDK-B, why DT is favouring RDK-B right now and what their future deployments might look like…
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Hello, and welcome to the advocate podcast. I’m your host, Jamie Walker. And today I’m joined by Alex ball, the head of RDK be at Deutsche Telekom. Alex is great to have you join us and how you doing today?
Alex Ball 0:52
Really good. Thank you. Great to be here.
Looking forward to having you on on the show for some time. Now. Let’s, let’s jump right in, shall we? So to start off with, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? What you do and what you do in Deutsche Telekom?
Alex Ball 1:10
Yeah, sure. So I think as he said, I’m currently leading those telecoms RDK-B development in stiff. Before that, really, I was predominantly in the cable industry, actually. So I had a number of roles within the cable industry. I was looking at C2C, B2B video and broadband. In areas like architecture through pretty much free to strategy. I think as part of that, career within that space, been fairly passionate about the whole open source and the ability to get to collaborate. And so really, I’ve been participating in the ODK community since its start. If I go right, the way back to the very first point in the career path, heavenly left university, I was working for CompuServe. So they were just transferring from bulletin board systems on dial up modems in the throes of the World Wide Web. So pretty much my entire career I’ve spent around the internet and connectivity.
Wow, wow. So obviously, an extensive career that you’ve had, you’ve worked with some some really impressive companies, one of those companies being Liberty global, but on the video side. Tell us a little bit about your experiences there and how you got into RDK?
Alex Ball 2:31
Correct? Yeah, so I started my career, or at least my journey in the UK and liberty. I think, at that point, we were really trying to solve for some of the challenges we were, we were seeing around the silicon and hardware lock in for the video platforms. And that was really providing a super high barrier to entry for new partners. And we were also seeing an explosion of new functionality which needed to be catered for. And so at that time, pretty much every middleware vendor, and there were quite a few middleware vendors had their own path to working with the individual silicon platforms. And silicon vendors themselves for having support an increasing number of porting layers, and liberty, around the same time have made a decision to become more of a software driven company. And it was really looking to create a common platform that could be deployed across multiple hardwares.
Alex Ball 3:24
And at that point, I really got involved in first of all, helping to, to really shore up liberties role within that RDK community. And then more specifically, in things like the porting of applications like Netflix and the architecture of that onto the RDK platforms, and really trying to help open up that application ecosystem Liberty Global’s pretty early on in this idea that it was effectively an aggregator for content, so they really wants to open up the platform to allow other content providers on. And, you know, I think, you know, today, if I look at the it can the video side, it’s really moved on, there’s a lot more capability in there to create more commonality around porting those applications, but really where it all started, was this inability, this ability to be able to then port across different hardware platforms and different OEMs hardware as well. And I think what really came out of that was an into working closely with other operators, partners and creating more commonality, the ability to share the burden of some of these developments and learning from others experiences and driving that industries change. And then, as part of that experience, Liberty, we also soon realised that the challenges were explaining we were experiencing on the video side, we’re also existing on the broadband side as well. And unlike the video servers already had its own common middleware on the broadband side. Each of these different vendors was bringing their own software solution which was being driven by a set of high level specifications, which led to a good degree of interpretation as part of that. So things really one, bug two bug compatible, which you would like them to be.
Alex Ball 5:11
And so we wanted to accelerate that development cycle as we did on the video side, create more commonality, enable new hardware platforms. And we lower that barrier to bring in new services. And then at the same time, I think customers expectations are changing. So if we look back 10 years, you know, this, this idea of plugging an Ethernet cable into the back of a router, and everything is fine, was kind of acceptable. But now we much more up towards customer’s expectations towards ubiquitous Wi Fi coverage across the entire home, high speed and essentially always on connectivity, definitely in these kind of COVID times where it’s becoming so important from working from home, parental controls, and security, increasingly IoT kind of capabilities also coming in, and the ability for us to be able to create a constant stream of innovations on those platforms. So even once you’ve deployed something, the customer is no longer happy with the fact that you’ve sold them last year’s model. And that’s all they’re going to get. Now they really want to see some interesting new services coming out. And to be part of that journey. I think we’re the operator. So at that point, I started up the Liberty Global’s RDK development activity, we took on partners, and we started to really ramp in that space.
Let’s say and it’s interesting as well, that we always revert back to the consumer, right, and on a previous episode, we were talking about giving control of the platform’s over to the consumer as well to take away the the elements around upgradable upgrades and replatform themselves. I guess from from from your side, a Deutsche Telekom. Now, there’s obviously a big RDK, the element there. But the main focus for you is now rolling out more rd KP deployments, which I know there are some big plans for you this year. Could you give us a little insight into into why that is?
Alex Ball 7:14
Sure. So I think from from my perspective, one of the things that really attracted me to working for DT was, I think, when we look back and probably referring some of the earlier points I made, one of the reasons why we’re doing the RDK is because you want this flexibility to be able to go across different hardware platforms and take away some of the silicon lock in. I think actually, the challenge has changed slightly in the RDK space to a new challenge. And that challenge is how do I create those common experiences not only across different hardware types, but also across different access types. And I think that’s really coming in because for for numerous reasons, mergers, acquisitions, technology, evolution, all of these things are really driving a different mix of operators within that space.
Alex Ball 8:01
And so telcos now have cable assets, and next generation fibre side of it, cable companies increasingly look to deploying fibres and next generation technology as well. And the mobile operators are looking at 5g for fixed wireless access, and dt. And this really is kind of a core reason for wanting to become part of this journey. We have all of these technologies, but we also have this real ambition to own the whole network home network experience. And with RDK rabl, to bring that all together. And I think there’s that broad acceptance within the DT community that actually this is the platform that enables us to be able to target multiple markets, multiple hardware types, multiple access technologies, and harmonise all of that across a common stack.
Alex Ball 8:53
And I think you know, at that stage, DT was on this journey to really establish itself as a very big player in the RDK space, it has this telco background, which is, you know, I guess the next frontier ready for for the RDK. And we have a bunch of the, I guess, Europe’s leading lights of the embedded software development world. So it just seemed like it was a great place to grow my career. And also, there are all these different challenges and exciting challenges to go. And also get to work with a great bunch of people I’ve known for some time in the ODK community. So that always really helped to make it a little bit of a smoother transition.
Good, good. How long have you been at Deutsche Telekom now?
Alex Ball 9:43
Six months. So over six months, I joined in the summer of last year. And since then, I’ve really been working with the team and getting to know everybody and making sure that we are really building scale throughout the whole development pipeline.
Say, Well, before we go on, I’m excited to see sort of the advancements within your team over the next six to 12 months, I think, as you said, right, really group, great group of people and, and the things are going to move very quickly for you. But you’re obviously, with RDK. We talk about the community aspect and the community aspect of the platform. What difference do you think this makes when it comes to innovation of new products for Deutsche Telekom?
Alex Ball 10:30
Okay, yeah. So I think for me, one of the key attractions of working with the community is sometimes it’s the ability to be able to leverage the work of those who trodden the path before, that doesn’t always speak to innovation. But sometimes it speaks to innovation from one organisation to the next organisation. And why I don’t think that means we’re limited to a specific path, it often means that operators are trying to solve the same sorts of challenges. And it’s possible to solve those in a common way frequently with a bunch of enablers. And a lot of the time in places like the Architectural Review Board for the RDK. We’re looking at the next generation of services and how we enable those. And I think being able to use that wider community of architectural resources and explore, sometimes a more diverse set of use cases is always beneficial.
Alex Ball 11:22
So you might have a concept in your mind of exactly what it is that you want to be able to deliver. But it sometimes also benefit from exploring some of the other cases that other people have, and then trying to build that into what will be a common architecture, but also allows a bit more flexibility to go forward. And then I think probably, in my mind, it’s really the implementation of final implementation intelligence, that becomes a differentiator. So whilst I think there are many benefits to being part of a community, including testing and validation, and requirements, and all that other great stuff, I think when you’re looking to innovate, I think doing in a calm manner, being able to effectively speak with one voice really helps the speed and also some of the thinking that goes on behind trying to make some of those key decisions that you’re making as you’re deploying technologies.
Yeah, I think we saw that as well with the hackathon initiative that happened towards the tail end of last year, right, having teams get together and collaborate on the platform, and essentially giving new new methods to solving issues, right. And I think some of the outcomes of that happened, that hackathon really made a positive impact to the community.
Alex Ball 12:40
But yeah, I think it’s a great example where people are bringing stuff in, and then you can look at it and you can assess it. And sometimes, you know, you put a different spin on it or use telogen different way. But I think it’s that constant innovation at constant Rob of different organisations working together, you’ve all got slightly different requirement requirements, or slightly different views on the world just helps to make better ideas generally, and things like hackathons I think are really interesting in trying to also, you know, innovate, allow platforms where people can come and challenge orthodoxies, or really good stuff and better use of the community.
Absolutely. Talking about collaboration. Could you tell us a little bit about what your team have been working on? Or what you’ve worked on in the past?
Alex Ball 13:33
Okay, sure. So I think, to some extent, when we are looking at the moment, or what my team are doing, it’s really trying to focus down on a fairly ambitious set of product launches across multiple countries, different access technologies and different hardware. So really, at the moment, this phase 2022, we’ve got multiple countries, multiple externalities, multiple hard ways to get out there. So we’re really focused on the support of voice Wi Fi security, access technologies, parental control, platform stability, all of the things that you need to get this great enabling platform out there in the hands of customers, and start to really take that journey of being able to then expand and grow. But it’s also the the other sides of it.
Alex Ball 14:27
So my team, we’re also setting up the test automation environments that are needed to be able to really drive more in terms of our ability to be able to test and validate quickly, which allows us to make sure there’s no regressions in code and get new software out to our customers in a much more timely manner. I shouldn’t forget the the telemetry in the back office side because that’s also pretty key. We have this great ability to be more data driven and to be able to really do decisions based on how customers potentially perceiving the service, but also a deeper understanding of how those devices are performing in field. And that’s also part of my team’s remit to to look at, you know, making sure that what we do and how we triage is very data driven proactively. So that’s also another another big element. And then, you know, there’s all of the other interesting things that are happening in the periphery, but I guess, focus to look at really the key focuses, it will be in those areas.
Okay, okay. And is the customer? Are they engaging? Are they providing the feedback, the data to come back and view to have a look and pinpoint those areas as well?
Alex Ball 15:43
Yes, I think at the moment, we’ve got some friendly user trials out there, those sorts of users are really engaged in this whole process, and they want to give you information and feedback, I think we also have been quite focused on proactively getting that information back from the date gateway devices. I think you start this, this process, and there are a few issues out there with the software stack, and you know, they’re fairly obvious to the customer. I think then there are other issues that are perhaps less obvious to the customer, because the technology masks them. So it might be that there’s a blip in the IPV6. And actually, it’s masked because the customers device drops back to IPV4, but getting the telemetry and information that you can start to look at those potential issues in the stack.
Alex Ball 16:30
So even though they’re not visible to the customer, you’re always trying to make sure that you’re you’re giving the customer the best experience. And sometimes, you know, things like roaming between 2.4 gigabits gigahertz and five gigahertz might be perceived by customer, they probably wouldn’t call you over it. But actually, it’s something that you can really focus on on optimising. So you’re trying to give them always a better experience than perhaps they’re expecting. And I think that’s really the interesting side where you can start to use this information to make decisions that are not always obvious if you were to look at what drove a call into a call centre. But now we’re a little bit deeper in the stack, and we can pull data out and we can start to really think about what’s potentially driving bad customer experiences from good customer experiences.
So Alex, how do operators prepare themselves for adopting RDK?
Alex Ball 17:29
Okay, so I think when you’re looking at something like taking the initiative stack, a bit like I guess the green cost code, you want to look left, and then you want to look right, as part of that. And I think when we look left, we’re looking towards the roles and responsibilities that were taken up by the OEM. And in that space, detailing out technical requirements, to such an extent that you can then start to develop software for it’s key, that software development and making sure you’ve got the right organisation to be able to support that also needs to be there. And really importantly, the development and testing. And quality assurance that’s required is, you know, today done by the OEMs, is really important to pick up. And in that space, obviously, leveraging the community and the test frameworks are there is probably something that you should look into, certainly something that we’re doing at the moment.
Alex Ball 18:23
And then you always have the looking right side of it, which is, you know, what’s the benefit of owning this whole delivery train. And in which case, you know, you’re trying to look at making more extensive use of telemetry, and getting those customer insights and driving more understanding of how the platform’s performing your field. And that can include things like collecting information from customer forums, or being more engaged with, you know, small groups of users who are power users within the space and trying to understand how they’re perceiving this new service, or bringing that back in. And one of the big benefits, I think, here taking control of the software, is the fact that you are the software developer, and you’re also the person who has that relationship with the customer. And you can bring those two together in order to create quite a strong drive for continuous improvement of the software quality. And that’s something that we’re really interested in Deutsche Telekom in terms of trying to get the best information that we can out of these gateway stacks, in order to make sure that we are continuously improving the relate the relationship and also the experience to those customers.
Thats it, and I guess, one of the things we hear a lot, and we always discussing it. RDK is the advancement. Right, and this is it’s anything from IoT integrations to fibre. Are these something that Deutsche Telekom will be getting on board with in the future?
Alex Ball 19:53
Sure, so. So DT today is kind of leading that or one of the leading operators in that five The development space, you know, that’s a, it’s a big change architecturally, for the RDK. You know, we’ve been really instrumental in the adoption of the WAM manager and the development of the WAM manager with a supporting of the data models that are required for g pawn and the DSL technologies. We collaborate with other operators in that space. And we also upstream the development that we’re doing back to the community. So a lot of option contributions are sitting in that space.
Alex Ball 20:30
We also have a significant or dt has a significant presence in the IoT space in market today. And we’re working on effectively bringing that stack back into our RDK platforms. And we’re really interested in some of the community developments that are going on that space, be it from the matter integration, which has gone into other other sides of it, like the camera profiles, for instance, also, things that are kind of on the periphery, and are interesting to us. And then of course, you know, we also look beyond that. And we’re actively participating in areas like the fixed wireless access space and 5G, because DT have a huge footprint of 5G capability across multiple countries. So that’s also an area that we’re kind of interested in exploring, and also making sure that we have one stack which is capable of being deployed across multiple different access technologies and multiple different markets. So that drives us to be interested in pretty much most of the innovations that are going on occasionally come across something which we kind of sit at the periphery of and say, Actually, it goes a little bit further down the road, the road map line for us.
Alex Ball 21:46
So an example of that might be the whole space of downloadable applications and creating app stores for these gateway devices. It’s of interest to us, but it’s it’s not, you know, it’s not kind of front and centre of the activity we’re doing at the moment to get these devices out.
Well, I mean, it’s really interesting to to understand how RDK can bring in other sectors outside of its original remit, right. And obviously, Deutsche Telekom a platform to be able to go out there and explore it. But, Alex, it’s genuinely genuinely been a pleasure at discovering more about you and what Deutsche Telekom are up to? Just for our listeners, where can they find you online, Alex?
Alex Ball 22:37
Probably LinkedIn will be the best place to find me. But if you want to contact me, you can either reach me at my best telecom email address, which is email@example.com with a K. Or alternatively, if you really want to grab hold of me, you can also probably approach the RDK community who’s more than capable of getting hold of me. And slack obviously, the RDK Slack channel.
Perfect. Well, Alex, I look forward to seeing the advancements in your team over the next 12 months and I look forward to the follow up episodes in the future.