Telecoms Consultant and Writer: Q&A with Alun Lewis

January 27, 2011

By Rose Ross (@Rose_at_O) and Olivia Shannon (@Olivia_at_O)

Q.  Tell us about yourself:

As someone who never fit into the classic arts/science divide – I did a degree in Zoology and Psychology – I count myself incredibly lucky to have found a career where I can indulge both interests. On the one hand, I’m working closely with engineers – on the other, it’s often about creating and presenting highly complex material in original and interesting ways. As I often say, engineers are trained not to lie – because when engineers lie, people can die. Marketing is usually different…

I was lucky enough to fall into what’s become the convergence sector – or, as I call it, “the industry previously known as telecoms” – a few decades ago. Computers by themselves never interested me as such, but I could see even then that the world was going to be seriously changed when everything inevitably became networked. I seem to have spent much of my life watching the world grow a nervous system – and it’s now a nervous system for an increasingly nervous world.

I’ve also been lucky to have played many different roles in the sector. I started doing in-house marcoms, moved into PR and marcoms consultancy with companies like Nortel (before they went psychotic), C&W and Telcordia. I’ve now spent the last twelve years or so as an independent writer and industry consultant, writing for publications, portals, companies and industry organisations like the GSMA and TM Forum.

I seem to be drawn to fairly complex and arcane topics and have tended to specialise in areas like telecoms software – IN, SIP, IMS, OSS/BSS – as well as hardcore engineering stuff like radio and optoelectronics. Like most complex systems, you get unexpected emergent properties – and they’re what make telecoms such a fascinating and rewarding area to work in.  You also tend to deal with a nicer type of person who sees through the corporate BS that infests so many workplaces.

The whole networked environment now is so interlinked and n-dimensional that so many factors have to be taken into account when explaining the possible success or failure of technologies. Most recently, I’ve been doing a lot of work on the emerging Digital Home and things like 3D – where an understanding of how the Mark 1 Human Eyeball works is pretty essential as well as appreciating the real dynamics of family households.

Q. Tell us a little bit about the titles you write for and their interest in mobile technology:

I contribute to a number of titles – and sometimes get involved in doing warm-up acts for Webinars – but the three most relevant at present are Vanilla Plus, TETRA Today and M2M Now.

I’ve been involved with Vanilla Plus since its creation, and I’m partly to blame for its original title, contrasting the plain old “vanilla” days of circuit-switched stuff with what was going to become possible with IP-based systems. As a result, I regularly write for VP on things like OSS/BSS, revenue, content and application management, QoS etc.

VP also will shortly have a sister publication focused on the machine-to-machine space called, logically enough, M2M Now, to which I just contributed my first article. This is a fascinating topic and involves all sorts of newish areas like nanotech, MEMS and e-health as well as various wireless technologies. Lots of different industry sectors are piling into this space and, of course, everyone wants to dominate. The trouble is that they don’t understand the other bits of the value chain and impose patterns on what is essentially a chaotic – in the proper sense of the word – environment.

TETRA Today is another newish publication from the people who do LandMobile, focused naturally on the TETRA world. Nice to get back into some hard radio engineering issues – and focus on specific international market sectors, like aviation and transport.

Q. What’s hot in mobiles this year?

That depends on whether you’re looking at the “froth” on the surface or what makes the people who actually run telcos wake up sweating in the middle of the night. From my particular perspective, it’s the usual problems of managing complexity in real-time and the erosion of traditional boundaries between business sectors. If there’s one defining characteristic of Next Generation Networks it’s promiscuity – and I’m not talking about adult content here.

Q. How many mobile events do you attend each year?

MWC is the main one, though I’ll probably also be going to the TETRA World Congress as well. TM World is another essential event for me.

Q. How many MWCs have you been to? Any top tips for PRs or Companies planning to engage with you there?

I first attended its predecessor – the GSM World Congress in Cannes – in 1993 when I was PRing for Nortel. The show then was mainly composed of a couple of thousand engineers in grey suits hoping that this thing called GSM was going to work. I was also able to get almost all the attending journalists into one restaurant !

Top tips ? At least sound interested in your clients and the industry ! When two or more journalists/analysts are gathered together, by the third pint of beer or second bottle of wine the conversation always comes round to which PR companies they hate the most. When you get a pitch, you can tell in the first few milliseconds if the PR has any real curiosity about the industry and its impact on the world and people – and it’s curiosity that really drives journalists. With some very honourable exceptions, so many PR companies these days seem little more than expensive call centres staffed by arts/humanities/media graduates who manage to combine both arrogance and ignorance. At least learn something about the industry and its history before engaging mouth….

Q. What types of stories or companies are likely to attract your attention this year?

QoS/QoE issues in an ever-longer delivery and billing chain. OSS/BSS challenges. Applications and IMS. Spotting emerging cans of worms, catching up with old industry friends and avoiding hangovers.

Q. How many interviews do you do per week?

Varies greatly depending on what commissions I have.

Q. What’s the best way to pitch a story to you? Email? Phone? Twitter? By mail?

Always happy to chat assuming that I’m not on deadline. Despite my comments above, I’m deeply sympathetic to young PRs pitching who’ve usually been dropped in at the deep end by their bosses without a proper briefing and often try and give a PR 101 chat to cheer them up. I too remember the churning stomach involved in having to cold-call hacks in my very first job.

Q. Who is worth listening to?

Engineers – see first comment !

Q. What’s your favourite blog?

Alan Quayle’s.

Q. What is your favourite piece of technology?

The printing press.

Q. What do you think is the most important development in mobiles to date?

High capacity batteries – without them, nothing else works.

Q. What is the best piece of advice for companies pitching stories?

Understand what you’re talking about. Understand your audience as individuals. Reverse engineer from the headline/story that you’d like to see.

Q. What was the best press trip you’ve ever been on? Worst? Why?

I think the best was also the strangest, being invited some years ago to meet a Bosnian telecoms billing company (!) and spending time in Sarajevo, meeting locals and trying to understand that particular political trainwreck. The worst ones have usually involved being lured onto a boat or to a hotel far away from the conference when you suddenly realise you’re surrounded by a bunch of boring suits and there’s no escape for another two or three hours…..and you can’t lose yourself in drink as you’ve got to keep a clear head for the morrow…..

Q.  What’s your favourite restaurant?

One where someone else is paying and the food doesn’t argue back.

Q. Are you a social media lover? Which ones are you on? FB? LinkedIn? Twitter?

Nope ! So much of the content is so banal and trivial that it’s like being stoned to death with popcorn. There are some fascinating issues starting to emerge from this “hive” mentality that humans are adopting. My general approach to life is that if you see a mass of humanity rushing in one particular direction, history tells us that it’s usually best to quietly walk the other way. I don’t like crowds particularly and I certainly don’t like herds.

Q. Tell us something no-one knows about you? Do you have any unusual or unexpected hobbies/interests? Do you have a claim to fame?

Hobbies and interests ? I’ve got back into biology again over the last few years as I see networks increasingly behaving in organic ways. I sometimes prod engineer friends with the rhetorical question, “Does a bee know it’s building its hive”? I was involved around twenty years ago in helping to research one of the first books on Virtual Reality – Glimpses of Heaven, Visions of Hell – and a lot of those predictions are coming true. When it comes to understanding how the very vulnerable human nervous system and the patterns it imposes to create “reality” are now being mediated by communications technologies, I tend to see a dystopian – not utopian – future. Science at least offers some sanity compared to the simian politics out there in society and business.

That’s why my new professional website is called www.silicon2synapse.com – which should hopefully be live by MWC.


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