Cover Story: Making meaningful connections

This article first appeared in Digital Edge, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 23, 2022 - May 29, 2022.
“New technologies are only as useful as the problems they solve, specifically to improve our quality of life. In this regard, 5G provides the underlying digital connectivity to deliver these new technologies. But in order to do this, we need to make 5G affordable to the mass consumer.” - Tan

“New technologies are only as useful as the problems they solve, specifically to improve our quality of life. In this regard, 5G provides the underlying digital connectivity to deliver these new technologies. But in order to do this, we need to make 5G affordable to the mass consumer.” - Tan

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Digital Nasional Bhd (DNB) has a huge task ahead of it with the nationwide rollout of 5G. The special purpose vehicle, set up to distribute and manage the 5G spectrums and infrastructure in the country through a single wholesale network (SWN), anticipated hurdles along the way and brought on board people who would share its vision and mission and be able to tackle the challenges ahead.

Its chief technology officer Ken Tan is one of them. With more than 20 years of experience working with telecommunications companies in Australia, the 44-year-old Klang-born engineer left the Land Down Under to return to his home country and work for DNB.

Many family members and friends questioned the decision, but Tan says he had a desire to return to Malaysia. “I got a call from my mentor in Singapore and he told me about this great opportunity that would be a challenge. I then spoke to Ralph [Marshall, CEO of DNB] and the team, who shared DNB’s ambitions and visions with me.

“I’ll be upfront. It was very risky for me as I would be giving up a lot of the good things I had in Australia. But in my head, I wanted to do it because it felt that this was my time to do good things for Malaysia. It was my wife who asked me if, in a decade, I would regret not taking this opportunity and the answer was clear. From then on, there was no turning back.”

Tan’s aspirations were sky high but after working for the company for almost a year, he realised that he needed to be a little more realistic. The ultimate goal is simple: to enable 5G adoption and build up the network quickly. But before that can happen, basic connectivity needs to be distributed nationwide, even in rural areas.

“The reality is that we need to bring connectivity to everyone and bridge the digital divide. Without connectivity, we cannot do anything with 5G and that is the area that needs accelerating at the moment,” says Tan.

“I want to make sure that Malaysia can leapfrog and be something that globally, you and I can be proud of. And with the plans I have with DNB, I do believe we can easily be among the top 10 countries globally with the best connectivity in the next 24 months.”

No challenge is an easy task, he says, and he is grateful for his team who have been able to bring various technological skills and talents to the table. DNB has been under a lot of scrutiny since its inception last year, with industry players and experts questioning everything from its business model to the implementation of the SWN.

As DNB’s chief technologist, Tan’s biggest worry was establishing the multi-operator core networks (MOCN) for the SWN because historically, it had never been done with more than two mobile network operators (MNOs), which was the maximum for 4G deployment in other countries.

When DNB successfully trialled it with six MNOs in November last year, he breathed a sigh of relief as it was an incredible feat. That is because it had never been proven to work on such a scale and the team had a short time to make sure it worked well and could be deployed commercially.

“My biggest worry before was the MOCN technology and whether it would work or not. But the moment it worked, it became like a factory process, like how things were set up for 2G, 3G and 4G,” says Tan.

“Technologies need to be proved because if they aren’t, everything else won’t work and it would be a challenge for us and the government to deliver connectivity to the masses. I am confident that the technology systems are moving in the right direction.”

So far, only two telcos — Telekom Malaysia Bhd (TM) and YTL Communications Sdn Bhd — have signed a service agreement with DNB for the implementation of the country’s 5G network. It was recently reported that negotiations on the service agreement between DNB and the other telcos are still underway, according to Communications and Multimedia Minister Tan Sri Annuar Musa. The telcos are negotiating the price or value of equity offered and have been given until June 30 to finalise their participation, said the minister.

Tan realises that what really matters to the people, the economy and day-to-day life are the applications and services that add value through 5G connectivity. So, rather than focusing on connectivity alone, DNB is working with the industry to develop 5G applications and use cases, in addition to educating the public on the benefits of 5G. The MNOs will play a crucial role in bringing these applications to individual and business users throughout the country, he adds.

“5G connectivity and infrastructure are the boring bits. The cool parts are things like cloud gaming. So, rather than buying an Xbox or PS5, you can have all the gaming content on a cloud edge server. All you need is a device with modest computing power to play games, which is a completely different ball game altogether in the gaming industry. We want to encourage the community to evolve and support these sorts of innovations,” he says.

From Meru to Sydney

The second of four brothers, Tan, who hails from Meru, Klang, considered himself an average student when it came to academics. That was why his parents had to push him to study harder.

His parents had great ambitions for him and his brothers as they were sent to Sydney, Australia, when he was 12 to continue their secondary education. His mother migrated with them while his father stayed back in Malaysia to continue his business.

Times were hard during the early days in Sydney, Tan recalls, especially when it came to assimilating into a new culture and society as immigrants.

“There was a lot of hardship. My mother couldn’t speak English and in school, I was one of only two Asian kids. The other was a girl from Hong Kong and at the time, around 1980, there was an influx of immigrants going into Australia and this group faced a lot of bullying too,” he says.

“My mom had to minimise expenditure and would wake up at 6am to go to the special food markets during weekends and stock up for a month because it was cheaper than buying at the supermarkets. Kids at the time had an Atari or a Nintendo and I was very upset that instead of playing with my friends, I had to work on a farm to earn money. But all this hardship taught me a lot of life lessons and values, and I could get into the workforce quickly after graduating and eventually invested in building a house when I was 22 years old.”

Tan eventually made it to the University of Sydney, where he majored in marketing and economics, and subsequently the University of Technology Sydney, where he did a master’s degree in engineering, specialising in telecommunications. Despite his qualifications, he says he never aspired to work in the telecommunications space as he believed that working in finance would be his path to prosperity.

But life had other plans for him. While working in finance at Optus, an Australian telecommunications company, there was an opening for an engineer to do reporting and performance analysis. The job paid A$1,000 more per year than his current job and he figured that he would give it a go.

“Is this the right choice for me?” Tan wondered back then. But it wasn’t until 2001, when Singtel (Singapore Telecommunications Ltd) bought Optus did he find his calling in the telco space. During his time there, he had the opportunity to meet key leaders in the company and over time, had mentors who gave him advice on what to do in life, how to ignite passion in his career and the makings of a good leader.

“That is how I started liking the telco industry. I started doing a lot of stuff that went beyond what a normal person would do. For example, I was meant to build an IT system but I also learnt how to and built a base station. And afterwards, I would hop into a car with some of the other engineers to drive to the various base stations to test for on-the-road connectivity, even though what I really wanted to do at the time was take the car for a spin,” he says.

The Optus and Singtel merger gave Tan the opportunity to work in Australia, Southeast Asia and India — regions in which the Singapore-based telco had a presence. One of the Singtel vice-presidents at the time recognised his abilities and began mentoring him to further develop his skills in telecommunications engineering and groom him for leadership.

It took Tan about eight to 10 years to work on it, giving him a solid foundation in the industry. The next thing he knew, he was known as a problem solver in the company as he had a tendency to fix issues that no one else had noticed or could fix.

“For example, the industry collected a lot of underutilised drive-test data. I proposed that we use all that information to inform site locations for future builds. It eventually became a key objective in drive tests more broadly, whereby we now put up sites based on our drive-test predictions for data demand. It is details like these that people tend to take for granted, which I don’t accept because this information can be useful in unexpected ways later on,” he says.

But with suc­cess comes failure too. Tan admits that there were instances when he hit brick walls and it was always when he thought he knew everything there was to know. He was asked to lead a team and while doing so, he could never get a good performance rating, no matter how well he did.

“At the time, I didn’t want to manage people, I just wanted to focus on the technical side of things. My expertise was in radio and core networks as well as OSS (operation support systems), but I was given the task to handle the prepaid charging system, which I thought I was not good at,” he recalls.

“Looking back, I feel that it was a way to set me up for failure. But it was a deliberate intention for me to do bigger things in the years to come as my mentor knew my strengths and weaknesses. With the leadership and guidance I received, I started seeing things differently and through other people’s lens. This was when I really started having that growth mindset and seeing a lot of the market problems.”

One of the problems Tan worked on was the issue of mobile broadband in Australia, as there was demand for cheaper dial-up connectivity. He discovered that mobile networks were mostly used during the daytime because everyone was out and about. But when they got home at night, they used the home internet, meaning that there was spare mobile network capacity during the night.

Tan proposed to harness this information to create a product that enabled students and renters — people who didn’t want to sign up for home broadband — to have this service. This was in 2012 and it took the company a couple of years to hit its target market and eventually sign up 20,000 people. “That was on 3G and 4G, and the experience of how to offer broadband that we can use for fixed wireless access,” he says.

When Tan returned to Malaysia, this was a concept that he thought would work because fibre was not available everywhere in the country, especially rural areas. “Why don’t we just install fibre in rural areas to a certain spot and use fixed wireless access to distribute that connectivity?” he asks.

“Rather than saying it cannot be done, look at the problem, then use technology to solve it. This was my experience three years ago. And by doing it right, it can be used for 5G too.”

Future technologies

There are a lot of 5G technologies being applied globally as different parts of the world have different needs and research priorities. But without a doubt, adopting technologies is risky and requires heavy capital investment.

With that in mind, DNB chose strategic partners such as Ericsson to make sure that Malaysia’s 5G road map is compatible with global standards, says Tan. “We also make sure that whatever infrastructure we invest in is compatible with the MNO’s infrastructure, and that is how we keep driving innovation.”

He says there are potential microwave or laser beam technologies that are being talked about in the industry that can be used as an alternative to fibre, that can accommodate the 5G spectrum, but these are only usable in certain scenarios.

“New technologies are only as useful as the problems they solve, specifically to improve our quality of life. In this regard, 5G provides the underlying digital connectivity to deliver these new technologies. But in order to do this, we need to make 5G affordable to the mass consumer.”