Orange commits to 17 5G cities in Europe in 2019 as it targets trusted AI and data role

Operator launches in-home services and shows off 5G concepts as it attempts to craft a European flavour of AI-enhanced connected services.

Orange has said it will have 17 cities in Europe with a 5G pilot network during 2020. Although the operator has previously said it would be launching a number of trial networks, with a handful in France, this is a new number that it has committed to.

The operator will launch at least one pre-commercial network in every European country in which it operates, save for Moldova. That will see networks in Spain, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Poland and Romania, although the operator is not yet willing to reveal which cities would be included.

The commitment takes it beyond the EU plan which asks member states to have at least one commercial 5G city network by 2020. Of course, Orange will not be the sole network provider launching 5G in each country. In Poland, for example, T-Mobile has already launched a trial network in Warsaw.

Speaking at the operator’s annual innovation showcase Show Hello, CEO Stephane Richard said that 4G, 5G and FTTH would underpin the operator’s foray into producing trusted, secure “digital” services to consumers and businesses. He said that it was time to remember the importance of the “physical” dimension of the digital society; the network, in other words.

Droning on on stage, a video feed from a drone over 5G

In the now obligatory live 5G demo, the operator streamed live high definition video into its Conference from a drone that was connected to a trial 5G network at its R&D centre at Orange Garden in Chatillon.

The Show Hello event also contained a number of concept or prototype ideas from the operator that require the throughput and/or low latency of 5G. These included VR demos of holographic meetings, an 8K concert livestream and telemedicine applications. Richard said that it would be businesses that would drive 5G use cases from launch, although FWA would also be a use case in certain locations or markets where fibre is lacking. 

Trust as a European value differentiator

You say Djingo, I say HelloMagenta

At the event the operator launched a new Connected Home and Protected Home security service in partnership with insurer Groupama. It also launched the Djingo Digital Assistant co-developed in partnership with Deutsche Telekom. The digital assistant is built with AI from Orange and DT, and it will also integrate Amazon’s Alexa, giving users a choice of AI provider from the same device. Users will access Orange services by saying OK Djingo, and Amazon services by saying Hello Alexa. In DT markets the product will be known as HelloMagenta. Richard said it would be priced “from” EUR49.

A demo smart home showed connectivity between the Djingo AI assistant and connected home apps such as lighting, security monitoring and hot water and temperature control. Orange said that it hoped to make inroads into the connected home market by making deployment much simpler, more secure and more trusted.

This is a messy ecosystem at the moment, as anyone who has tried to do more than configure a smart thermostat will know. Getting your lights, remote controls, TVs, music systems etc all connected to something that lets you manage them via a PC or phone is to enter a forest of different app controls and protocols. There are also increasing concerns about security and privacy relating to having a connected camera and/or speaker in the home.

Telcos are not, despite those who make dollars stating the opposite, stupid. Slow to move, perhaps, but not stupid. They have seen the data breaches, the concerns about what GAFA are doing with people’s data, the increasing unease that many customers have that they are the product.

It may be a front, but telcos know that they have a chance to position themselves as a trusted player. In effect Orange is saying, “Our AI will be useful and secure, and GDPR compliant. We won’t track you via dubious third party apps that piggyback on your pre-ticked preferences.” To that end Orange is forming an AI and data ethics committee, which will include membership from outside the company, and be chaired by CEO Richard. The committee will be open to reports and suggestions from customers and others, to form appropriate policies and take the necessary action, Richard said. Orange’s commitment to act as an ethical AI provider and data broker comes six weeks or so after Telefonica became the first telco to publish its AI ethics and principles as formal guidelines.

Deutsche Telekom CEO Tim Hottges said that European companies in particular have the opportunity to “win” in data and AI by acting in a more democratic and accountable manner than Chinese and US-based tech companies to date. In a call to arms for European values, he said that the European tech sector, losers in the “first half” of the digitalisation, could yet win the second half that will see companies compete over cloud, data and AI – but only if governments and the industry start having the right conversations now and enabling the right environment. 

CFO Ramon Fernandez said that would include Europe using its May 2019 elections to move towards a genuine digital single market, with common regulation, spectrum bands and rules of engagement.