Interview Series: Bruno Germain
Interview by Jean Dominique Séval and Dragos Calcio , May 2022
Edited by Nil Larom
CEO & Managing Director, Orange Labs China
1. Why have you chosen to come to China?
China holds a special place for me in a career marked by international mobility. I started in Morocco, as part of a VIE (Volontariat International en Entreprise), to open a subsidiary of a French plastics company, of which I quickly became the managing director . This was a unique opportunity for a young, self-taught 25-year-old like me. It was an exciting four-year experience, which then allowed me to return to France to become the CEO’s right-hand man.
It was at this point that the Thomson Multimedia group asked me to come to China to manage the complete localization of television production. I arrived in Beijing in 2000, in what was called China’s golden years. Can you imagine? I had to find a company that could manufacture the parts of our TV sets that were still made of wood at that time. It was an exciting experience that was followed by a move to Shenzhen, as head of international industrial coordination and LCD strategy for the new entity (TTE) created in 2004, when Thomson Multimedia’s activities were sold to the Chinese group TCL.
I then had the opportunity to join the Orange’s team in the UK in 2006 to oversee the group’s validation activity of the mobile terminals. It was an exciting assignment that took me to Asia over 150 times over the course of 12 years to monitor the work of our Chinese, South Korean and Taiwanese suppliers. It was an opportunity to participate in the evolution of components and OS for terminals from 2G to 5G. Always with the same conviction, shared by the Orange Group, that the mobile terminal we provide to the customer is a screen that above all allows access to a complete world of services and applications, and that it must be constantly adapted and personalized.
In 2018, I was asked to take over the management of Orange Labs in China. It was a great opportunity to come back to Beijing with my family and especially for my daughter who was born there.
2. How is Orange the international leader in telecom services in China?
Orange Labs’ scope in today’s China is composed of a set of activities that covers production, anticipation and research.
On the Production side, we produce software to customize the group’s network devices. We also supervise the validation test process for equipment purchased by Orange. We have completely revised our strategy due to the explosion in the number of terminals over time (over 150 per year ), which has led to an explosion in testing operations. This greatly benefits the specialists in the field to whom we used to subcontract these tasks . We prefer to develop a “Self Certification” network that relies on the tests that suppliers already carry out on their own behalf.
On the Anticipation side, we take advantage of our solid historical relationships with major operators, such as China Mobile, and equipment manufacturers, such as Huawei, to evaluate new products. This is an opportunity to carry out field tests on deployments on a scale unmatched anywhere else in the world. It is also an opportunity to test new applications within our Orange service platforms, such as Live Objects in the field of the Internet of Things (IoT).
This is particularly fertile ground for Orange Group Research . Of course, it’s an opportunity for us to monitor the disruptive technologies that are being deployed in China, but also to understand the trends in standardization, which in some areas will influence the rest of the world .
We are particularly looking at the development of OTT services which have exploded here, particularly around the QR code. Adding to this are the uses of 5G in the industrial and service sectors, enabled through the 1.5 million 5G antennas already deployed in 500 million 5G smartphones on the market; these include:
- 5G private networks, which are developing rapidly, notably through Open-source resources, which allow business users to open up to several suppliers;
- the contribution of 5G in ambulances (transmission of data in real time ),
- 5G tele-action in electricity distribution,
- preventive maintenance in factories, etc.
Furthermore, we produce research in a few major areas – Smart city, IoT and Edge computing, AI – from the perspective of user experience, responsibility and ethics. Whenever possible, we also get start-ups to work on PoCs (proof of concept) to benefit from their entrepreneurialism and agility.
3. Do you also support your customers in China?
Yes, we offer a range of communication services to businesses through our subsidiary OBS (Orange Business Service), which is present in five cities including Shanghai and Beijing. The complete range of services spans from connectivity to data hosting, in a secure framework and fully adapted to Chinese regulations.
We are very actively involved in the entrepreneurial community via the CCI France-China, the CCE (foreign trade advisors) and, of course, La French Tech Beijing, which we support with the aim of promoting French technological excellence and helping the initiatives of project leaders based in Beijing.
It is in this spirit that I was pleased to launch a co-research activity, in 2019, with BeiHang University (Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics), which hosts Ecole Centrale. The aim is to encourage students and professors to work together with Orange teams through internships, research work and co-funded research.
4. What are the subjects you like to follow in China, and which still surprise you?
Among the characteristics that always surprise me is their speed of deployment, as is the case with autonomous cars. I am also personally surprised by the place that the Health Kit is taking in the daily life of the Chinese, as well as our own. After more than two years of pandemic, it has become a tool, present on our smartphones and increasingly complete as it integrates the latest movements, the series of tests carried out as well as the vaccination profile. This represents a spectacular acceleration of health surveillance on a very large scale, undoubtedly a first step towards more general monitoring and use of other personal data.
If I look at elements at our company level, it is probably the issue of energy transition that has held my attention the most. China intends to play a major role in this area, and it is also a key issue for the Orange Group, through its commitments to sustainable development within the framework of the “Engage 2025” plan. We are on the front line in enabling the group to monitor our industrial partners with the respect to their commitments , given that most of them are in China. It is therefore essential for us to understand how and at what pace they will succeed in their ‘Green’ transition.
This is a fascinating subject that raises many questions, some of which are counter-intuitive ; as an example, consider the savings that remote meetings are assumed to generate, while the consumption of cloud resources making them possible are in fact exploding. As an example , with the help of the Ecole Centrale team in Beijing, I am currently thinking about developing an ‘energy meter’ and integrating it into our videoconferencing platforms (Zoom, Teams, Wechat, etc.). This would allow to realistically measure the energy consumption of all our virtual meetings. This is a way of making us aware of the impact of new digital technologies, which is still a long way from our goal of controlling their impact on the planet.
Credits: Jean Dominique Séval & Dragos Cacio (interview), Nil Larom (editor), Alex Goncalves digital-space.cn (illustration).