Barbara Dalibard, executive vice president at Paris-based France Telecom, is president and CEO of service provider Equant, which France Telecom purchased in August. After a recent technology demonstration in Cambridge, she talked with Computerworld about the need for innovations to stay ahead in the telecommunications field and how the company plans to use its global reach to set itself apart from competitors.
What will differentiate you from the other carriers?
One of the main differentiators we have is global reach. We are everywhere in the world (over 220 countries), even in places others don't want to go. Second, innovations. We really want to to be on the leading edge, ahead of the pack, working with customers to invent new kinds of innovations. We are working with customers to put our R&D people together with principle consultants.
When you look at the amount of money spent on research at France Telcom, we are ahead of nearly any telco worldwide.
You said that research investment will double to 2 percent of expenses in the next year, but isn't 2 percent low when compared to software companies?
We don't think the same way as a software company, perhaps. A lot of our expenses are operating expenses related to operating a network. We are ahead of the other operators and have won awards recognizing that.
How important is the US market to you?
Very important. We have already been working with a lot of American companies and have top [mobile carrier Orange SA] and Equant executives who are Americans. But, it's a tough market for us, as it is for most European companies. To take the example of the enterprise market, we do not plan to do everything by ourselves. We are buying services from SBC, AT&T and Verizon, depending on our customers' locations. We cannot be everywhere.
You showed European and US reporters several Orange-related technology innovations such as videoconferencing over wireless from a laptop and more. Do you have any personal favorites among the upcoming technologies?
I'm a strong believer in Wi-Fi, and Orange has 7,000 public hot spots in France, although we also provide wireless LANs for corporations. I like the story of machine-to-machine, with various technologies involved. You can have SIM (subscriber identity module) cards in one machine connected to something else over GSM, GPRS or CDMA wireless networks. You can have RFID and Wi-Fi integrated, so it's certainly an area of tremendous growth and we have to discover the models.
I think machine-to-machine is going to change the way people do business. For example, we have sold a solution to an insurance company that is up and working to monitor a car's speed over a wireless network to give drivers discounts on their insurance. It involves a SIM card embedded in a box in the car, with speed information relayed wirelessly to an Orange Connection Platform, which processes all the information on the cars. That information goes to the IT system of the insurance company to compare to insurance agreements. It's this kind of system that can be used to monitor rental cars or to track trucks. We can sell an identity bracelet to an elderly person to help find him in case he gets lost. PDAs can be used to transmit blood pressure on patients.
In this field, a lot will happen. But what's the business model?
That still has to be learned. Who would have thought all this would work like it has? With IPv6, by 2010, more objects will be connected than people over networks. There are even applications for tracking dogs over wireless.
All these examples show that, obviously, people are more and more worried about security. At the end of day, there is a strong request for security. This technology enables people to be more secure.
France Telecom is working with MIT's Sloan School on RFID research. Why?
There are many different ways to provide network connectivity that we can offer a business with RFID. You have an RFID tag somewhere and send [data from] it to Wi-Fi, perhaps, and from Wi-Fi to another network. There are some platforms to provide, and we can manage the integration. We're not going to design RFID chips but will be managing all the connected chain.
How important is having the best price in competitive bids to Equant?
Price is related to quality. We are not aiming at being the cheapest value quality guy. We want to provide the best price for the highest quality. We manage complexity. We have to link our ability to manage complexity to a network service. It's not just a basic network link between two locations.
The North American market has been very, very competitive. Even with a strong reduction in network service prices, we are doing reasonably well there. Obviously, we have some competitors who buy share by underpricing. But our customers want to have a reliable network services partner. If in five years the carrier dies because of underpricing, that's not good. Our customers obviously don't want us to die. We have a transformation plan to reduce costs to be more efficient. We manage the last mile at the end of the day.