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Continuing our focus on leading women in the ICT industry, Telecom Review talks to Maria Lema, co-founder of Weaver Labs, on how her company’s solution is making a difference in the telecom sector.

Please tell us about the genesis of Weaver Labs.

Weaver Labs was born out of the 5G tactile internet lab at King’s College London, where I was leading operations. At that time, I was also working on delivering digital transformation projects across multiple industries, demonstrating the potential for networks to help drive value across a range of verticals. I ended up assuming leadership of the team responsible for delivering the first 5G Test Network in London as part of a government-funded trial where DCMS invested £16m to unlock the benefits of 5G.

Our co-founder and software developer, Anthony Tsiolpoulos, was the first hire for this project. Recognizing the need to expand the lab’s knowledge beyond networking alone, I realized that building software skills was a non-negotiable if we wished to build a strong foundation for progress. This was particularly important given the way the telecoms sector was evolving. With Anthony’s assistance, we assembled a remarkable team of about 20 people.

We spent long days and nights having extensive discussions on how software architectures were disrupting telco and the potential for blockchain and crypto to address some of the industry’s most pressing issues, like the need for enhanced security and transparency. Anthony and Alex Cooper, our project manager, come from the software and decentralized world, whereas I’m very much a telco person, so we had a lot to learn from each other. During the implementation of the 5G project, we could see how principles of decentralization could assist in resolving telecoms’ scaling problems — this was back in 2018, when telecoms were still very monolithic and resistant to business model changes.

With this in mind, we embarked on a new adventure: we created Weaver Labs to enable a more efficient use of the telecoms infrastructure by creating a decentralized network of telecoms assets. Our mission is to stimulate collaboration in the telecoms sector and make connectivity easy to consume.

What problems in the telecom sector does your solution aim to solve?

We live in a world where everything is connected. Not only is the world population connected through at least one device, but every application you can think of requires a network: self-driving cars, healthcare and lifestyle tech, education. Even the advancements of AI require networks to actually deliver the value they're set to deliver.

The reality is that the demand for connectivity is growing, and the supply is struggling to keep up with this demand. Why is this? The existing infrastructure and networks deliver a poor user experience, with unnecessary complexity involved. Additionally, new applications struggle to find connectivity that suits their needs outside of the available networks built for the consumer. What this leads to is a stall in innovation. No self-driving cars, limited advancements in gaming and immersive applications, and even very slow adoption of urgent digital transformation in smart cities and healthcare.

The existing telecoms model fails to deliver because it depends on decisions made by a limited number of players, despite being the largest catalyst for innovation. This only serves to stifle competition and limit progress. Telcos haven't innovated in the commercial model of how they deliver connectivity, as it is expensive and overbuilt.

To tackle this challenge, we created our product, Cell-Stack, to facilitate the adoption of connectivity in new services and applications. Through Cell-Stack, owners of telecoms infrastructure can provide connectivity as a service, simplifying access to networks and making it more agile and programmable.

Cell-Stack is a platform to monetize telecoms networks, seamlessly integrating the tools necessary for network management and enabling easy access to applications that leverage them. Positioned between the supply and demand for connectivity, it aggregates data, enables applications to be developed on top of it and promotes infrastructure sharing. This allows a greater range of players to construct networks and offer them to be accessed on demand, resulting in a new ecosystem of players that invest in infrastructure. Our approach aims to revolutionize the telecoms industry by enabling collaboration and fostering a culture of innovation to more widely benefit society.

Given the current internet cost-sharing debate between telcos and tech giants, from your perspective, how can the two entities operate on a level playing field?

The argument against “fair contribution” is essentially based on market competition. If you create a fund based on money given by others, you are still following their commercial interests to decide where infrastructure goes and how it is controlled; this is how it is right now. My position falls completely against that.

We are a business that builds software solutions to allow for on-demand and consumable connectivity. We take a similar approach to that of the big tech business model of platforms based on software, in that you can build once and reuse as much as you want, straying from the “one use case one network” strategy that is so prevalent in the industry. We need to find solutions for the longevity of infrastructure. Having the big tech companies, like Google and Amazon, pay more would essentially be taking a step backwards. To put it plainly, we should be encouraging infrastructure investment, not supporting the status quo, [which is] inhibiting industry change.

I believe that there is potential for collaboration between telcos and tech giants, but both have the same problem of control; this debate only exacerbates conflicting interests. Big tech pushes the boundaries of innovation, and we should be looking to them for insight into how they have built platforms and how they have made cloud infrastructure into a hyper-scalable business. The telco industry should adopt demonstrably effective approaches instead of continuing the status quo, so that we can actually drive impactful change.

I think that if governments step in with the intention of diversifying the supply chain, it will allow more people to come in and invest in software. This is what will bring cost savings, not a toll. Maybe then the two entities might be able to operate on a level playing field.

What has been your strategy to take the solutions to market? What are the challenges and the opportunities?

Our primary focus is on engaging with infrastructure owners seeking to grow the value of their offering: neutral host operators, independent wireless infrastructure groups, specialized network operators and smart city infrastructure through the public sector. Our vision is for Cell-Stack to become an essential tool for those building networks because it makes them discoverable, easy to use and drives cost savings whilst boosting revenue.

The UK market is a great launchpad for this, as we can leverage the momentum driven largely by the DSIT ecosystem around the Future Networks Program. We’ve been actively involved in several trials with private sector partners, which of course helps us amplify the message and increase awareness. Through this approach, we have proven there’s a strong product-market fit and that the infrastructure model is in need of a change — a change we can provide.

Scaling a telecoms business is currently hindered by significant obstacles. Although the UK has a large start-up ecosystem, it is not as developed in the infrastructure space. The industry itself is dominated by a small number of players responsible for dictating market dynamics.

As startups, we struggle to get commercial agreements with them, and oftentimes this is a lengthy and arduous process. Companies with short runways cannot cope with it.

Moreover, the startup ecosystem for telecoms software specifically is nascent and struggles to attract institutional investment pre-series A or B. That, coupled with difficult conversion from innovation to commercially viable relationships, often leaves startups in a difficult position to achieve the 1-2 million ARR mark required to proceed to Series A.

Overall, there’s great innovation happening in software for UK telecoms. But for us to be world-leading, we need investment. And for that, we need the investor community to work with us and take risks in a very similar way to what the US investment community does.

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