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Jean Paul Smets of Rapid Space On How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives

An Interview With David Liu

5G infrastructure is being installed around the world. At the same time, most people have not yet seen what 5G can offer. What exactly is 5G? How will it improve our lives? What are the concerns that need to be addressed before it is widely adopted?

In our series, called, How 5G Technology May Improve and Impact Our Lives, we are talking to tech and telecom leaders who can share how 5G can impact and enhance our lives.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jean-Paul Smets.

Founder of Rapid.Space and co-inventor of edge computing, Jean-Paul is promoting the development of converged cloud and vRAN industry based on radical transparency standards. Jean-Paul graduated from Ecole Normale Supérieure with a PhD in computer science and from Ecole des Mines de Paris with a Master in Public Administration. He is the original author of Nexedi’s open source ERP5 and an active member of Free Software associations.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Everything started in 2016 when Airbus Defence decided to adopt Google Cloud instead of using open source software and open source hardware. It did not make sense to me.

I then decided to create a cloud service entirely based on open source software and open source hardware. My goal was to be 10 times cheaper than Google cloud and provide unique features such as edge or private 5G. Also, I wanted to be radically transparent, publish everything so that everyone would be able to copy me and build their own cloud without having to depend on anyone. This is how Rapid.Space was born.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

With Nexedi, we deployed ERP5 to run an entire central bank which had previously failed to use Oracle’s ERP. It was a big bang switch to the new ERP5 platform. We had spent about a year testing end-to-end all banking workflows, simulating users and scalability to a level of detail that is hard to imagine. We even simulated the fact that users were sometimes going to take a short rest or were not all working at the same speed. All unit tests, integration tests, scalability tests were automated. We had rented about 100 servers to simulate database growth over multiple years.

Then the day the central bank ERP5 was launched, everything ran as planned. But after a couple of hours, we started to experience a few abnormal behavior with duplicate transactions being recorded. This was a crisis. I then remembered the lessons I had received about crisis management: split roles and trust. We split roles, we trusted each other, we did not doubt or question each other and after two nights with little sleep, we could solve a very subtle transaction management bug at the core of the application server we were using.

This is for me an important story: test is mandatory in software industry, as much as trust in the team of engineers.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Never resign to ignorance.

Being in a hurry, under financial constraints and with less time to think, it is very easy to accept doing engineering tasks without fully understanding them, to fix problems without understanding the problems, to ignore errors. This is how planes end up crashing and industrial facilities face incidents.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I want to thank Steve Helvie from the Open Compute Foundation. The Open Compute Foundation is an non profit organisation that manages the designs of all sorts of open source hardware used by Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo! Japan, Microsoft, Tesla and basically everyone now in the industry. Steve helped me a lot by introducing key people in the cloud hardware industry in Taiwan at Edge-core or MITAC who are now essential partners for Rapid.Space.

Steve has done such as a fantastic job and in a passionate and friendly way to bring around OCP a community of people and companies that share the same live for open source hardware. We hope we can give back open source hardware design to OCP.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Patience — technology takes usually 20 years to be adopted. It is not as fast as people guess. The Internet, the mouse and windows took more than 20 years to be accepted. Edge or virtual radio access networks are still barely deployed 10 years after their invention, even if everyone talks about them now. In 2009, I started a company called Tiolive which was proposing a free SaaS ERP for small businesses. But I decided to terminate it after a couple of years due to poor income. That was a wrong decision because SaaS ERP is what many people are expecting today. I was not patient enough.
  • Obstinacy — IT is a world of fashion. Every other year, another buzz comes out : Angular.js, React, Vu.js, etc. Some companies try to leverage the marketing trend by adopting new trending technology and redeveloping their software every other year. Usually, this goes nowhere. One of the greatest success I had was to start with a simple and clean design, based on science rather than on fashion, and keep on moving in the same direction for 10 years. Little by little, the product improves every year and becomes extremely competitive. Engineering teams are not disturbed by influences of IT fashion.
  • Creativity — From time to time, it is necessary to think out of the box or even think about the most absurd ideas to drive useful innovations. One such absurd idea was to use a Nokia smartphone in the early 2000 to run a business application. We really thought at that time that it did not make any sense. But nowadays, all user interfaces of business applications are running on a smartphone. Smartphones are the standard tool in many automotive factories to drive production. In less than 10 years, what sounded absurd became the best practice.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects? How do you think that will help people?

I am working on a new project called Mynij. It is a kind of personal search engine which, unlike Google or Baidu search, can still work offline and which content can not be censored. As we’ve seen recently in both the West and in China, big platforms tend to censor content, calling them “fake news” or “rumours”. However, those censored contents are sometimes, not always, perfectly valid. Being able to circumvent censorship in the future will require implementing tools for what Tariq Krim calls “personal sovereignty” and Mynij is one of such tools.

Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Like 4G, 5G has many different facets, and I’m sure many will approach this question differently. But for the benefit of our readers can you explain to us what 5G is? How is 5G different from its predecessor 4G?

5G is a minor technical evolution of 4G backed by powerful marketing.

In simple words, 5G is the same as 4G but :

  1. It can use more frequencies at the same time with less antennas
  2. It can connect more smartphones at the same time with less antennas
  3. Antennas and smartphones can exchange data in a few milliseconds instead of 20 milliseconds, which has some uses in industrial automation, robotics and 3G gaming

And that’s mostly all about it.

But if you think about it carefully, it is actually very useful. Just remember the time of 3G. In the beginning, it was working very well. It provided nice Internet access. But when more and more people started using it, it became congested. If you try to connect to a 3G network in a city like Paris, it basically does not work. No data is exchanged.

But in a city like Niamey in West Africa, in Niger, the 3G network runs fine to access the Internet and browse the Web.

What is the difference between the two: the number of smartphones connected to each antenna.

Just like 4G made it possible to connect more smartphones to a single antenna without congestion than 3G, 5G makes it possible to connect even more smartphones than 4G, without congestion, without having to use more frequencies or natural resources.

Can you share three or four ways that 5G might improve our lives? If you can please share an example, for each.

5G will help connect more devices to the Internet without consuming more energy or natural resources. For example, every person at home and every electronic device will connect through 5G to the Internet. Every appliance will be easy to manage remotely without having to go through complex network configuration.

5G will bring low cost, flat rate, broadband data subscriptions that will make optical fiber or Wifi less useful. This means less radio pollution or interference in dense areas. It also means gigabit Internet access in rural areas without having to destroy the landscape or do heavy construction works.

5G will accelerate the adoption of virtual reality and augmented reality on mobile device or smartphones thanks to lower latency. Technologies such as virtual desktops will become more realistic over 5G than 4G.

Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this 5G technology that people should think more deeply about?

More connected devices means more surveillance by states or big tech and more data collected to power AI. Shoshana zuboff’s surveillance capitalism will accelerate because of 5G. In the West, the intrusion of AI in the political landscape will accelerate and create even more conflicts between communities that are no longer able to agree on anything or even live together. In China, 5G will accelerate total surveillance by the government of every citizen.

All this is already happening today. It will just accelerate unless citizens become aware that they can oppose this trend by voting in favour of policies that protect their freedom or by using software that can protect their freedom.

Some have raised the question that 5G might widen the digital divide and leave poor people or marginalized people behind. From your perspective, what can be done to address and correct this concern?

This is a real issue, in the United States. And it is an even bigger issue than one might think of. Just think about this: in China, in Yunnan, one of the poorest provinces, 5G is everywhere, even in the middle of the “Shangri La” mountains, available for less than 10 dollar per month. And in Europe, you get a flat rate 5G for less than 20 dollars per month.

But this issue is the same as for health or access to water. It is not related to 5G. It is a public policy issue deeply rooted in the country’s political culture.

Just like access to water, access to broadband is now considered as a human right by the united nations —

It is thus the role of governments worldwide to ensure universal access to 5G, just like they have to with water.

In some countries, such as Belgium, every household has the right to access water for free, up to a certain quantity. The cost of this public policy is paid by charging a bit more to other households that consume more water.

In some countries, like France, anyone can go to hospital and get cured for free, with or without insurance. The cost of curing patients without insurance is covered by raising the price of health insurance, which is on average half the price of health insurance in the United-States.

Please note that these are not communist countries. Water distribution is managed by very large multinational private corporations. Half of hospitals in France are “for profit” businesses and all French citizens have private health insurance called “mutuelle”.

If we apply to 5G the principles of water distribution in Belgium or of health insurance in France, we could make sure that everyone gets flat rate 5G broadband at low price. This should be combined with a change of regulatory framework which boosts free market, free competition and telecom investment in the United States.

Prof. Thomas Philippon — Max L. Heine Professor of Finance at New York University and author of “The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up on Free Markets”, explains that the telecom industry in the United States has become 2 to 3 times more expensive than in Europe due to the lack of competition on the market.

In other words, a change of regulatory framework for 5G in the US could be as efficient as for telecom as Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “new deal” and President Eisenhower’s National Interstate and Defense Highway Act of 1956 have been, but without having to spend taxpayer’s money.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I hope more people and more businesses will promote radical transparency.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Sure, they can follow me on twitter @smetsjp

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.



In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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David Liu

David is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, a unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication