Ericsson CTO looks to escape market woes with California dreaming of tech's potential

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Dark clouds may be swirling around some of the industry's major vendors as explosive growth in China slows and 5G remains tantilisingly on the horizon, but Ericsson's new CTO is maintaining a Silicon Valley optimism about the years ahead.

Erik Ekudden took over from Ulf Ewaldsson in July and sat down with Mobile Europe at the SDN NFV World Congress earlier this month to discuss the state of the industry.

The theme of the conference was very much one of change – something that can't come soon enough for Ericsson and rivals such as Nokia. They have been struggling for several quarters, stung by overreaching, costlier than expected contracts and the lull between LTE and 5G. Even their operator customers are privately arguing vendors haven't been moving fast enough to meet a changing market.

Ekudden chooses his words carefully when discussing how the company will turn around. He says: "I think we have a very strong strategy. As we execute we are building a very strong Ericsson from the bottom up...Leadership in 5G, working very closely with networks across the world.

"By a margin we have shown we have led the industry in standardisation, open source, trials, making sure a technology is maturing as fast as it possibly can and accelerating timelines to deploy 5G."

Ekudden has returned to Stockholm after seven years in Silicon Valley, which included a stint as CTO of Ericsson’s US arm, in an optimistic mood about the years ahead.

What he learned in the Valley was how the cloud can play a role in transforming mobility, something operators are tussling with across numerous virtualisation projects. He says: "I don't think [learning] that would have been as easy with a European only mindset.”

Noting the importance of bringing the innovation culture together with the business and technology, he adds: "That culture is something we need more of around the world; working together, sharing a platform and getting applications on top.

"I think that's very much the future of all of these network platforms, whether it's for consumer applications, enterprise, industrial cases. It's a new business model and a new way of looking at the network; not as only connectivity but as a platform."

He affords himself a smile when I joke this widespread transformation sounds easy. He says: "You can joke about it but you are right because it's not a small challenge. What it is is a fantastic opportunity - it all coincides. The industry is digitalising [and] it's more open-minded about business models. 5G comes at a time where all of these things happen at once."

For Ericsson and others, 5G can't come soon enough. Ekudden describes it, the Internet of Things and existing work filling in the last corners of LTE as the "big buckets" that Ericsson will need to fill to bounce back.

He says: "NB-IoT and LTE-M...are pretty fundamental because what they allow you to do is reach anywhere, whether outdoor and indoor, with a globally scalable access technology, including hardware security, including the way to managing identities and so forth.

"Europe has a lot of industries that are going through a digital transformation. That's a core technology in digitalising European industries, whether it's cities, whether it's transport systems, logistics, asset tracking, all of these things absolutely benefit from this."

[Read more: MTS lays groundwork for NB-IoT, LTE-M with large scale network upgrade]

Of the bridge between LTE and 5G, he is enthusiastic about the potential of New Radio, with the vendor most recently demonstrating the technology with Magyar Telekom in Hungary.

Ekudden thinks this technology is vital to meet the demands from operators and industries alike, whether it's millisecond latencies, critical performance, failover and/or fail back redundancies.

He says: "Gigabit LTE goes together with 5G NR; so much together than you are controlling the channel with an LTE system and using NR as the data carrier. But that is a very good way of combining high frequencies, everything from 24 to 40GHz and all the way down to the sub 6GHz bands. By combining those bands, Europe will get the best from a combined 5G and LTE system.

"It's really well matched to the needs of Europe in general. It had a really good grid of base stations that can be upgraded, it's not as sparse as in other parts of the world, not as dense as the most dense cities in Asia for example but still a good grid to build on. Having strong focus on building nationwide coverage of these technologies, is the best vehicle for mobilising these industries. It's a fantastic opportunity."

The usual suspects aside, Ekudden is quick to stress the importance of security in this shift, insisting the old way of doing things could cripple networks. He says: "As we are moving into more security conscious management and as we are moving into networks and enterprises going together, [security] needs to be answered."

He says a locked down end to end architecture is key, whether security management is handled in-house by an operator, farmed out to a third party or run by a business themselves, in the case of enterprise security. What is vital is ensuring the entire network is secure, he says.

Does he feel there is complacency about the issue, as Vodafone's head of IoT recently suggested? He replies: "I wouldn't say there is complacency in the industry. I think there is an awareness and a realisation that what was done before on IP-based IoT systems for enterprises is not going to cut it. It's not good enough." It’s far from an emphatic denial.

[Read more: Complacent companies need to wake up to IoT security, Vodafone urges]

The struggles of Ericsson mirror that of wider Europe, which has struggled to keep the pace with other markets with more lax regulatory regimes and fewer borders.

Ekudden sticks to the same old song as his rivals. While upbeat that the continent hasn't completely lost the race but notes if Europe is to take advantage of its "very strong heritage", things need to change at the highest level.

He says: "What I think we should be mindful about is that Europe as a whole needs to move along. That's where I would have some concerns: there needs to be proper support of service providers building infrastructure, there needs to be proper support of those enterprises innovating and taking the steps to digitalisation. There needs to be proper regulation and spectrum made available in a  timely fashion. All of these things call for a pan-European effort. That I would want to see more of."

Ericsson and its rivals are banking on this happening.