5G Open Innovation Lab: Relationships, resources and the road to innovation

For Jim Brisimitzis, the revelation came in the fall of 2018 when he read early iterations of the Third Generation Partnership Project’s Release 15—the official documentation of the 5G New Radio standard.

Brisimitzis, who has more than two decades of experience in enterprise software and leadership roles in Microsoft’s cloud developer relations and its venture organization, had heard the 5G hype and started asking questions about the nascent technology. He had a tech and software background, but was less familiar with cellular and couldn’t get straight answers on what 5G was going to be all about. So he went straight to the source material.

“I ended up reading Release 15 from 3GPP, and I started to realize through that release, that this was a turning point for this industry,” Brisimitzis recalled. At the time, the great frustration and fear of mobile network operators was being the so-called dumb pipe that enabled new, over-the-top applications to reap lucrative returns but couldn’t capitalize on network monetization beyond broadband subscriptions. The developers that Brisimitzis worked with, the telecom industry was suspicious of.

What Brisimitzis had seen at Microsoft, in the early days of Azure and the conceptualization of edge computing, shaped his view of 5G as a turning point: Turning the telecom industry away from monolithic, closed systems toward cloud-native and open systems; a standard that gave carriers a path to serving enterprise; and that coupled with telecom’s assets of data pipes, network access, spectrum and so on, presented an opportunity for network operators to become a platform rather than a pipe. “In the world I grew up in, in the platform world, if you don’t want to be a dumb anything—dumb cloud, dumb pipe, dumb whatever-it-is—you really have to create a platform of value for developers who in turn then create value on top of that,” Brisimitzis said.

What he saw as missing from that vision, though, was that aside from some showcasing, carriers had not yet gone deeply into developer relationships and working with start-ups. In late 2019, then, he founded the 5G Open Innovation Lab, with the goal of building, as he describes it, “an open ecosystem that surrounds carriers with innovation” and a cross-section of partners from start-ups to global tech platforms, global system integrators and enterprises, to work out and advance the potential of 5G and whatever comes after. Intel was the 5G OI Lab’s first signed partner, followed by T-Mobile; the list now includes 17 partners from AT&T, Comcast (who replaced T-Mobile US as founding partners), Accenture, Nokia, Microsoft, Dell Technologies, Palo Alto Networks, Spirent Communications and more. “People like to refer to us as a startup accelerator, because on the surface it looks like that. But we’re really not,” Brisimitzis says. What he prefers is “innovation broker.” The lab team scouts for intriguing new technologies in enterprise, networking, applications, big data, AI, security and so on that present intriguing technology with market potential, and participating classes are selected by the lab’s partners (including CSPs), based on their priorities.

5G OI Lab boasts more than 118 multi-stage enterprise startups who have collectively raised more than $2 billion in venture capital. A few of the successes: Private network software specialist Expeto, which worked with Dell, Rogers and Ericsson on a private 5G network that operates in a Canadian gold mine. Network observability start-up MantisNet partnered with Palo Alto Networks on a joint effort to work around quirks of how mobile networks are architected in order to identify mobile devices and implement security policies. Most recently, Apple acquired Canadian start-up DarwinAI, a 5G OI Lab participant, ahead of an anticipated push into generative AI this year.

“The goal was not just to help in those collaborations,” Brisimitzis says. “The goal was also to demonstrate to the carriers that what they’ve invested in building over the last many years is truly a platform for them to be different, and for them to look at this opportunity differently as well.”

So 5G OI Lab doesn’t just stick to lab benches. It has field labs with live networks: private 5G networks that it has built and are used as testbeds for use cases that could serve particular industries well. The most recently announced is at the Tacoma Tideflats port area, and it supports five enterprise with use cases ranging from worker safety and worker communications such as push-to-talk capabilities to streaming surveillance video, to better supply chain visibility through faster data offloading via ship-to-shore connectivity; companies involved include Comcast, Dell Technologies, VMware by Broadcom, Intel, Expeto, Ericsson and others.

The fact that so many companies come together at 5G OI Lab is another part of its success, Brisimitzis reflects. It gets beyond what carriers are likely to see within their own 5G innovation-focused labs. Brisimitzis doesn’t want to step on any toes, but he sees limited utility and ROI in that approach. “What we have seen is that these internally run accelerators or labs—no offense to anyone—they end up being internal navel-gazing, because they are just about that company, and therefore the conversation is just about that company,” he explains. “Well, as large as Microsoft is, or Amazon, or AT&T, they’re part of a bigger ecosystem. And enterprises don’t buy from just one company, they buy from ecosystems.” Brisimitzis says that the big lesson he took from his time at Microsoft was that when you work within an ecosystem, your reach is far bigger than if you make the ecosystem come to you—because not only do enterprises want to buy from ecosystems, but start-ups want to be able to sell their solutions to ecosystems.

So what does this mean technically? First, according to 5G OI Lab CTO Scott Waller, it means having the lab having the technical savvy to suss out which start-ups are smoke and mirrors and which have legit tech with potential—and, crucially, how that technology might apply to the market at a scale that is of interest to 5G OI Lab partners. It also means being able to do the language translation between the worlds of carrier telecommunications and enterprise networking, to figure out what enterprise problem needs to be solved. Waller, who has decades of enterprise networking experience, says that he does a lot of both language translation and technical translation: understanding the hows and whys of each of those worlds, and how to smooth out the rough edges where they go against each other’s grain.

While Brisimitzis talks about the lab as wanting to get beyond tire-kicking and validation and present partners with exciting possibilities for solving pervasive problems, Waller deals with the devil in the details. Private networks writ large sound great—until an enterprise learns that the new rugged laptops it bought don’t have the right certification, or the right spectrum support; or no one knows where they can get a video camera that actually works on the core from X company and the radios from Y, and oh, once you’ve got the devices, the network should probably be tweaked for streaming video in the uplink. “Unless someone actually gets down and validates it—not certifies it—it’s all b.s.,” Waller says. So when it comes to testing, he explains, functional testing comes first, in the form of sandboxing or an early pilot. A start-up may come to 5G OI Lab with, say, an orchestration platform for a RAN, but it hasn’t had access to multiple radio types because of the cost. 5G OI Lab can provide that in its living labs. “I don’t want to sit around and do POCs all day, but it’s really that early functional, sandbox testing that is what we’re trying to do,” Waller says. “It’s like an SI behind an SI, or innovation behind the innovation engine at a big company. It’s being able to work really fast, have a giant knowledge base along with a lot of contacts in the industry to just go, ‘Here, here, I need to solve this functionality.’ Then we figure out what’s next.” What’s next means delicate matchmaking between a start-up’s specialty and where it could fit among the various priorities and projects that the 5G OI Lab’s partners are working on. A good start-up, he points out, is extremely focused on its solution and may not see all of the solution’s potential applications in the market; established telecom partners often see some processes or approaches as untouchable. Sometimes conversations alone can illuminate a new way forward—but sometimes innovation in that context can mean needing someone to push for doing it a new way anyhow, and as Waller puts it, “the willingness to kind of break glass,” in such a way that sheds new light and recalibrates everyone’s sense of what is possible.

That sense of possibility is really what Brisimitzis wants the telecom ecosystem to have, a sense that 5G could be the turning point that he saw in Release 15. “I don’t think 5G presents a technology problem for the carriers,” Brisimitzis says. “I think it presents a business modeling problem.” Carriers, he goes on, can get stuck in the ARPU-centric mindset of subscriptions and SIMs. Brisimitzis wants them to see 5G private network deployments not as massively lucrative contracts in themselves, but as a gateway to the enterprise and a strategic opportunity to enable an ecosystem of applications and solutions as a partner, not a mere pipe. “5G is really an enterprise opportunity,” Brisimitzis says. “I’m trying to help this industry step into where the big dollars are being spent … but it does require them to think differently. This is not about, where do I put my SIM card? This is about taking the long view of what do I, Mr. or Mrs. CSP, want to be in terms of a value player to the enterprise, longer term.” From the 5G OI Lab’s perspective, that means being part of an ecosystem that works together to bring new solutions from the lab to the field to the market.

Interested in more test-related insights on the 5G landscape? Check out the editorial webinar featuring the 5G OI Lab, Spirent Communications and Viavi Solutions and keep an eye out for the upcoming special report!

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