Our digital legacy

February 27, 2024

A discussion facilitated by Maria González Gordon, Managing Partner and Head of IP, Industrial Property and Digital Business at CMS Albiñana & Suárez de Lezo.

María González Gordon heads up the Industrial/ Intellectual Property & Digital Business department at CMS. She specialises in advising domestic and international companies on intellectual property, industrial property, copyright and technology, particularly in dispute resolution. She is expert in the drafting, negotiation and termination of a wide range of IP/IT agreements (licences, trademarks, designs, software, outsourcing, distribution agreements, transfers, assignments, etc.). She has particular expertise in technology, digital transformation and data analytics in sectors such as insurtech, fintech, energy, health and wellbeing and real estate, among others.

Lucy Lombardi currently heads the Technical Partnership, Governance, Safety and Certification department in Telecom Italia, which is involved in the ongoing layering of the fixed access network within Telecom Italia. Lucy was nominated by Mobile Communication International and Telecoms among the most influential women in telecoms in 2015.

Nicola (Nicki) Palmer is a distinguished technology executive with over 30 years’ experience in various leadership positions at Verizon. Nicki began her career at Bell Atlantic, a Verizon predecessor company, in 1990 and has held a number of leadership positions in engineering, operations, and technology, supporting advanced data and wireless products across customer segments. She has served as Verizon’s Chief Engineering Officer as well as the Chief Technology Officer of Verizon Wireless where she led the 4G and 5G network deployments.

Maria: This is one of a series of webinars organised by CMS in collaboration with GTWN around the theme of the digital generation1. We will be discussing how future generations will be impacted by the actions of the founders of digital technologies and those in the industry today. We are honoured to be joined by two top industry veterans Lucy Lombardi and Nicola Palmer.

I would like to start by setting the scene. It’s important from time to time to review where we have come from and where we are going. I am sure you both remember, like me, having to wait at least 5 minutes for my modem to work and then another two or three minutes for a website to open. But now our expectations have changed and I will probably call my IT guys if it takes more than 10 seconds. What has happened to bring about this lack of patience, increased frustration and lack of tolerance? Is technology playing a role in this change in user behaviour?

Lucy: The world is very different from the world that we grew up in. Technology has played a significant role in the last 20 years in changing our behaviour. When I was a teen, I had a fixed phone line and no privacy when we wanted to talk to our friends. And I remember writing my thesis on a shared computer in the lab. Today my children, in their 20s, are writing their uni work on their mobile phones and collaborating with others on digital platforms. This is mostly due to mobile technology and the Internet and our kids are benefiting from tools that we didn’t have when we were growing up.

Nicki: The digital generation looks at the world and uses technology differently than we did at their age. I feel so fortunate that our industry has been at the heart of many of these amazing changes. When you talk to kids about taking a road trip, for example, they don’t even think about where they’re going before hopping in the car. I remember preparing for road trips at the kitchen table with my father, pouring over a series of maps.

Kids today are digital natives – they grew up with phones in their hands and are reliant upon the utility they provide. What does that mean in terms of impatience? There’s been a lot that’s written about how connected we are to our devices and how this can be very problematic for mental health.

Our brains are evolving and we probably won’t know for many years what always on, immersive, digital technology is really doing to our neural pathways. Customer impatience is a pressure on our industry, for sure, but it’s not something we should shy away from. The Verizon credo states that we have work because our customers value high quality products and services. User requirements are always getting more stringent and that means we have to continually up our game. Impatience from the user is a sign of the times. We have to rise to meet that pressure and it’s only going to get more intense going forward.

Maria: Let’s talk about leadership styles and what works best for the digital generation. Humans, especially of our generation, tend to react to the proverbial ‘stick’ by improving our performance. But the stick approach no longer seems to work very well with the digital generation, especially our kids, who for example may just copy and paste from ChatGPT to do their homework as a quick solution, without fully understanding the consequences. There are experts who still think that young people are stick driven and advise us to use this to provide motivation. Do you think that the availability of digital technology may have played a role in the attitude of kids today, and if so, how will technology companies approach that in future?

Nicki: I am not sure that I totally agree with you. I think positive reinforcement and excitement around goal attainment are much better ways to achieve what you want as a leader, or as a parent. I agree that there’s a place for the stick, such as in a crisis where a command-and-control type of leadership style often works better. Younger people don’t only respond to positive reinforcement, but nevertheless it is a much better leadership style over the long run.

Having many more women in the workplace and in leadership roles has had a profound effect on how we collectively manage the workforce, which has been a great and much needed advance.

Lucy: It’s also a matter of education about how to use digital technology and what to expect from it. Educators today, such as parents and teachers, are mostly not digital natives and don’t necessarily have the skills to educate others on how this technology works and aren’t able to explain to children how to use technology in a healthy way and avoid the pitfalls.

Some of my friends have asked me to explain to their children about online privacy because they were unable to understand it and to explain it. Not all young people get a healthy digital education.

All they see is people making a lot of money on TikTok or on Instagram by sharing sexy pictures and getting money out of promotions. This may seem to them to be an easy way to make money and to feel successful.

Maria: Let’s now consider what the future will look like for the younger generations. They demand fast, immediate and very intense experiences otherwise they get easily bored. Knowledge has to be available at their fingertips and trends are always changing fast. How does a company stay at the cutting edge and remain competitive?

Lucy: I previously headed up the innovation team in Telecom Italia and that really was an eye opener. As an industry we really tried for a long time to be at the forefront of innovation developing in house or in partnership, digital or IOT based solutions: smart homes, mobile apps, media, financial services, agrifood, automotive, etc. And most of these plays were not very successful for telecom players who were unable to compensate through innovation the decreasing revenues from traditional telecom services.

The lesson learned from telecoms is that big companies should not chase innovation per se, but should focus on innovation that can scale and that responds to customers’ demands and can simplify the life of customers.

The pandemic provided examples of practical innovation, such as telehealth and booking vaccinations online. This is just a new way of doing old things, but it’s applying innovation to simplify our lives and that’s the innovation that big companies should focus on and that will stick and that will provide revenue, leaving the more disruptive innovation to smaller more risk-taking startups.

Nicki: If you’re not innovating, you’re stagnating or losing ground. A culture that supports new ways of thinking is paramount. When people think of innovation they often just think of startups. That is only one very small part of innovation. In our industry not much of note happens by the amazing work of just one person. And it’s not just teams of people within a company, but an ecosystem of different companies, even in different industries, that must come together to do anything of significance or anything at scale.

You can innovate by changing an existing process to make things a little bit more streamlined for customers, saving millions of dollars and increasing customer satisfaction. Those are the types of innovations I get excited about because the other types – moments of genius, for example – are just too few and far between.

In my career I always tried to stay on the cutting edge of technology, even when the cutting edge was copper wires, DSL and ISDN. If you don’t have that learning mindset to fuel innovation, you’re in for a rough ride because things are changing so, so quickly. For example, generative AI was only really known to a few experts until recently. Now even my mother knows what ChatGPT is. But there are leaders and CEOs in the industry who didn’t know what it was. So don’t just sit back and lament that the tech is passing you by. Leaning into what is new and exciting is part of the fun of our industry.

Maria: Social media and new apps have provided access to a lot of information about important issues like mental health, caring for the environment, diversity and inclusion and women’s empowerment. What other topics do you think will be given attention in the years to come?

Lucy: We are already talking about AI, generative AI and deep fakes. Quantum computing is another topic gaining attention.

An important topic will be the amount of energy used by all this digital technology. For instance, data centres.

They are big warehouses full of servers that support all our digital social networks, online gaming, media and everything. They consume a lot of energy to power the servers but also to keep them cool. In 2018, the energy consumption of data centres in the EU was 76.8 TWh. This is expected to rise to 98.5 TWh by 2030 – a 28% increase.1

The recent European climate commitment estimates that digital technologies account for 8 to 10% of energy consumption. And this is only data centres. AI also consumes massive amounts of energy, about as much as the whole energy of a small country like Ireland according to the New York Times. The application of AI will be restricted until you solve these underlying problems. Similarly for quantum computing which uses massive amounts of energy. In order to ensure the innovative trends around AI, quantum etc can scale up, we need to address the underlying energy consumption problem.

Nicki: That makes me think about the role that technologists need to play to connect these dots because unless we get like- minded, diverse groups of people together that can actually figure out the energy requirements and come up with solutions, we won’t get there.

I’m convinced you can’t name a single problem: energy, climate, hunger/food insecurity, international conflicts that technology won’t have or shouldn’t have a place in helping to solve. But we need to connect the dots so that we can actually realise that potential.

Maria: Let’s turn to the question of ethics. To what extent do you consider AI ethics should be a matter for companies rather than the regulator?

Nicki: It’s always been both and it always needs to be both. Ultimately, it is up to regulatory bodies, companies, teams, and individuals. You need to think about what integrity means to you personally, what your ethics are, and how you bring that to work. I’m not just talking about “doing the right thing”. I’m talking about people who really understand the tech and where it’s going, and what ethical challenges are emerging due to this evolution. While companies might be on the front lines of technology, regulators may see what individual companies can’t see, like geopolitical issues or the impact on the whole population, not just a particular customer base.

Lucy: It is also a matter of speed as technology evolves very quickly and it’s sometimes challenging to understand what kind of ethical dilemmas new technology poses and what positioning to adopt at any point.

Lucy: It is also a matter of speed as technology evolves very quickly and it’s sometimes challenging to understand what kind of ethical dilemmas new technology poses and what positioning to adopt at any point.

Sometimes you will have regulators moving forward quicker than companies and so companies will have to adopt what regulators impose on them. And sometimes you will have companies that have a better understanding of what is going on and they will adopt their own principles. For example, the European regulator struggled to define ethical guidelines on AI and most European telco companies adopted AI ethical guidelines within their own company while waiting for the European guidelines. When dealing with ethics, it doesn’t matter who moves first. It’s a partnership between all the players.

Maria: When companies are based in different jurisdictions, it might be difficult to address those dilemmas as there are different jurisdictions with different legal approaches. If you are a global company you will still have to establish a corporate policy. Is there anything you can share on managing this?

Nicki: It’s tricky… nations are obviously sovereign entities. They have the ability to regulate, depending on the country and the legislative framework. If you’re providing products and services in a variety of geographies, it can be very helpful to have employee representatives in those countries. This will provide a deeper knowledge of the regulatory and policy environment than simply managing a global business from one part of the world, for example. When it comes to networks, the most efficient network designs don’t necessarily conform to country or state boundaries. Data traverses these networks and has to comply with rules based on where it originated, terminated, and the path it takes along the way.

Designing networks to comply with all the restrictions or regulations in each country is quite a challenge. That’s why we need to work together in a partnership to understand the best way to achieve efficient solutions that meet the unique regulatory environments.

Maria: What are your views on governance and corporate responsibility? Are there any examples from your experience that you want to share?

Lucy: In my company we have always had a focus on sustainable development. In 2020 we adopted a core strategy that put sustainable development at the centre of our strategy. And we set out some targets in terms of environmental, social and governance areas and we integrated them into our business plan. It wasn’t only storytelling; it was integrated into the operations of the company. We focused on 4 main areas: Environmental Protection, promoting the circular economy and digital growth in Italy. This required a lot of education and strengthening internal governance on sustainable development. Some specific measurable targets were identified and each year we measure our performance against these targets.

Most large companies are rated by ESG certification authorities and the rating can provide feedback on how you are doing around ESG.

Thanks to a very concrete approach, TIM’s ratings have improved dramatically over the past years. We’ve been recognised for this in several reports on sustainable development. It has been a success story also from an internal cultural point of view as employees are much more aware about this issue on a day-to- day basis, which is also very good.

Nicki: I think many companies in our industry have been forward thinking about ESG and sustainability goals. During my time at Verizon, I was always very proud of our climate commitment and our path towards net zero. We issued green bonds that were very successful. And while Verizon’s energy use and transition to renewable energy is on a solid path, it’s important to always endeavour to do more.

Maria: How would you advise an 18-year-old who is about to start studying at university or start working about choosing their career path?

Nicki: I’m so impressed by this generation. They are so smart, so willing to learn, and so purpose driven. They want to solve big problems and their ability to pick things up is amazing. I know a lot of people are frustrated by what is seen as impatience in this generation and the drive to rapidly climb the corporate ladder. But I really think this generation is absolutely amazing. Those of us that are closer to the tail end of our career than the front end can learn a lot from them.

I have one child recently graduated from college, another in college, and one in high school. So I’m giving this type of advice all the time. I advise that technology must be part of your formal and informal education. I fully understand if tech is not the centrepiece of what you want to do with your life.

No matter what career you desire – technology will make you better at it. It is a part of every industry in every single way and you really can’t get by without it. So find a way to stay current with technology, even if you think it’s not your jam.

Lucy: I think we’re in the middle of what the World Economic Forum calls the cyber physical revolution. Even if you don’t want to know about technology you are using a mobile phone so you need to know how to insert a SIM card inside and how to connect it. To use your computer you need to be able to use basic software like Word or Excel.

My key piece of advice to the next generation is to never stop learning.

I studied optical physics and robotics, but I could never have imagined that I would end up in telecommunications. I could never imagine that the mobile revolution would be so pervasive, and I ended up doing things that didn’t relate to what I had studied. I think the next generation’s experience will be more and more like that. They will study and learn some skills, but then throughout their career they will have to never stop learning.

Maria: I would like to ask you both about how companies should react to regulation of digital technologies. In Europe at present, and probably also in the US, there are massive waves of new tech regulation that needs to be implemented. So how do companies want to be perceived amongst their peers and remembered by society in relation to these regulatory proposals? What kind of actions have you taken in your current positions or in previous roles to make sure that you are seen as a surfer rather than a drifter?

Lucy: It’s about adopting a day-to-day approach to new things, rather than one-off decisions. We are facing technical evolution and new dilemmas every day and there’s no rule book to guide us, especially as managers within a company that is quickly evolving. We have to make decisions daily and implement new procedures and advocate also for new ways of doing things within our companies, within our teams.

It’s more about the values you bring as a manager within your company than one single decision or action you did throughout your career.

Nicki: It’s a good strategy to make some time in your schedule for learning. It always seems there’s not enough time or there’s other priorities that get in the way. But continuous learning is how you surf as opposed to getting crushed by the waves. You know you’re going to feel the pressure of those waves, but the only way to rise above is to go with that flow and be willing to learn.

Some people still feel that the executive or the manager is the one that should have all the answers. I think those days are gone and that’s why it’s a matter of learning from this new generation coming up because they’re pretty impressive – so keep your ears open.

Maria: We have a question from the audience: are digitally native companies more able to deal with consumers?

Lucy: I definitely think so because we experience the technology ourselves and we are able to understand them a little bit better. Employees of a telecommunications company are consumers too, so we are in a better position than other companies to explain the technology we’re selling to non-digital natives as well as digital natives.

Nicki: You have to meet customers where they’re at. Someone who is a digital native is going to have certain requirements and demands. They’re going to speak a certain way. They’re going to want to deal with companies that understand that and meet them where they’re at. Take the example of paper billing. So many companies have been talking about doing away with paper billing over time for the cost savings and positive impact on the environment. The digital native says – don’t send me a paper bill, I might not see it, it might not get paid. They aren’t expecting it and don’t want it. But there are customers out there who aren’t digital natives.

Companies have a responsibility to serve a broader population and have to be mindful of both. It’s about understanding the different segments of customers and the unique ways they want to interact with service providers.

Companies that are small and digitally-enabled and native can move fast. The trick for large company leadership is to try to be nimble like a small company while taking advantage of the resources and institutions of an incumbent. It’s also one of the reasons why a company like Verizon and others have experimented with sub brands. Verizon has a brand that’s called Visible that is 100% digital, with no stores, no paper bills, everything is online and geared towards the digital native. It might not be for everybody, but it is certainly on target for a segment of the population. And so those are the types of things I think that the larger companies need to do to stay relevant to this generation.

Maria: I would love to hear from both of you about your vision about these new trends we’ll be facing in the years to come.

Lucy: I’m a fan of innovation and trends that make sense, but I am not a fan of slogans. I’m very practical and pragmatic from that point of view.

Every industry will have to look at the next big thing that works for their own company, there is not one size fits all.

From a telecommunication perspective, it really depends whether you’re working in a developing market or a highly developed market. In Italy we have a mobile penetration rate above 95% which means 95 people out of 100 have a mobile connection including newborn babies and the elderly. We have coverage for most of the population. The pandemic relied heavily on telecommunications and this brought a renewed focus on core services: most of our innovation strategy today is around making things better, using innovation to improve internal procedures. Using AI to help us to better filter out the trouble tickets that come from our network. Using IoT to measure or monitor the longevity of the poles for our telecommunication network. How we use drones for instance, to check our radio base stations up on the pole without having somebody climb up there and risk injury. These are the next very concrete innovations that we’re looking into.

Nicki: I couldn’t agree more, especially the use of AI for internal operations. I think that is getting missed in the conversation because it’s just a very broad topic.

For industry, AI can drive efficiency, provide new insights, and even improve reliability and security if done right.

There are also other technology trends in our industry that have been around for a while but are really starting to heat up. First off, whether you call it mobile edge compute (MEC) or whether you are just changing your topology to have additional resources closer to where customers develop them and need them, MEC is a major trend that is affecting the wireless, landline and satellite industries.

Private networking is also a huge trend. Every company has a digital strategy, whether it’s just for their own internal operations, to enable a mobile sales force or to connect with their customers. It is no surprise then that these companies also want more control over their networks and now they’re able to do that. Network slicing is also uniquely enabled by 5G. We’re at nascent stages here but this is a big trend in the B2B space.

Virtualization is not new but is pervasive now and is partly why some of my recommendations to this generation relate to software – because software will be powering everything. Virtualization is in part of the core network as well as edge elements and the RAN. It’s all about skills and talent and how do you really skill up your workforce because these networks are very different from the networks of the past.

In addition to software skills, there’s an enhanced requirement for integration expertise since operators are not buying as many purpose built, end to end solutions from infrastructure providers.

The last trend I want to mention is simply spectrum depth. In 2000, when Verizon was formed we had about an average of 50MHz of wireless spectrum in the US. In 2010, 4G LTE total average spectrum depth had doubled to around 100 MHz but 4G was only 20 MHz of that – 10 uplink and 10 downlink. That’s it. And now as we enter 2024, that number grows to almost 300MHz average spectrum depth in the US for VZW. So what does that mean?

Greater capability but added complexity – how to ensure the right spectrum is used for the right use case at the right time in the right places. Ultimately, that’s the work of mobile operators but it’s becoming more complex, there are more integration challenges, and it’s certainly more software driven. That’s what I see in the future of the mobile industry.

Maria: Thank you both for sharing your experience and insights into the digital generation and the legacy that we in the industry are now passing on to them. You are both an inspiration to us all.

This webinar took place on 16 January 2024.

  1. https://energy.ec.europa.eu/news/commission-takes-first- step-towards-establishing-eu-wide-scheme-rating-sustainability-data-centres20231212_en#:~:text=The%20Directive%20identifies%20the%20Information,2030%20%2D%20a%2028%25%20increase. ↩︎