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Thursday, January 06, 2022

Private 4G/5G: Three Markets, Not One

Private 5G segmentation: Introduction & Overview

Private 4G and 5G networks are rapidly becoming mainstream. This isn’t news.

But from recent conversations, client engagements and events, it’s becoming increasingly clear that many don’t quite grasp how private cellular use-cases are segmented – and why it’s going to get even more complex in the next 2-3 years.

In reality, this isn’t really “a market” in a singular sense. It’s currently at least three separate and distinct markets, with only minimal overlap at present. The main common thread is the deployment of cellular (3GPP 4G/5G) networks by non-MNOs.


A common fallacy involves talking about “vertical industries” as the main way to divide up the sector. But that doesn’t really work, as any given vertical has dozens of sub-categories and hundreds of potential applications and deployment scenarios. For instance, the “energy vertical” covers everything from a gas station, to an offshore windfarm, a 1000km pipeline or an oil-futures trading floor in a financial district.

Verticals are useful ways to divide up sales and marketing efforts, and make sense for cohesive reports, papers or webinars, but also blend together elements of three very different markets for private 4G/5G:

  •        Critical communications networks
  •        Indoor mobile phone networks
  •        Cloud and IT/IoT networks
No alt text provided for this image

It is worth discussing each of these in turn.

Critical communications networks

These have made up the bulk of major private network deployments over the last 5-10 years. They are typically deployed for utilities, oil & gas, mining, public safety, airports and military purposes. Often, they are used in rugged environments, for human communications (typically push-to-talk), as well as in-vehicle gateways and specific automation systems such as remote sensors and monitoring systems. The specialised GSM-R system for railways fits in this category as well.

Usually, they are replacing alternatives such as private mobile radio (PMR), TETRA and microwave fixed-links. They have typically been packaged and deployed by specialist integrators for sectors like oil-rigs or field-deployment by military units. There is limited “replicability”. They vary widely in size, from a single portable network for public safety, up to a national network for a utility company.

There is little need for interconnection with public mobile networks; indeed it may be specifically avoided in order to maintain isolation for optimal security and “air-gapping” for critical applications.

Most are 4G, reflecting mission-criticality and its frequent need for proven, mature technology and wide product availability. 5G is however used in certain niches and is being tested widely, although the most useful features will only arrive when Release 16/17 versions are commercialised in the next few years.

Indoor mobile phone networks

This includes some of both the oldest and newest deployments. Early local private 2G/3G networks essentially used GSM phones and thin slices of light-licensed/unlicensed spectrum to replace DECT cordless phones in a few markets – notably the UK, Netherlands and Japan.

They could also work with multi-SIM phones to blend public and private modes. I first saw an enterprise-grade GSM picocell in 2001, and an on-premise core network box in 2005. There are still several thousand such networks around, including ones updated to 4G and some that run on ships or onboard private jets.

More recently, there has been growing interest in using private 4G/5G to create neutral host networks for in-building, or on-campus coverage. There are multiple models for neutral host (I’ve counted around 10-15 variations), with some needing a full local network with its own spectrum and core, and others just relying on the tenant MNOs’ active equipment. In the US, CBRS-based options may turn out to be among the more sophisticated.

Whether used to support public MNOs more effectively than alternative indoor systems such as DAS (distributed antenna systems), or perhaps for linking to a UC / UCaaS system for enterprise voice, the main use-cases are for phones. They are almost always deployed for a single building or campus.

This segment is the most likely to require interconnection with the public mobile infrastructure, as well as supporting normal “phone calls” rather than push-to-talk voice.

Cloud and IT/IoT network

This category of private cellular is probably receiving the greatest attention from many newcomers to the sector, as well as external observers such as analysts and journalists.

It ties in with many of the newest trends around cloud and edge-computing, AI and machine vision in factories, robots and AGVs in warehouses, security cameras and more general IoT / smart building use-cases. It aligns with many of the "transformation" projects in IT, plus some parts of the OT (operational technology) space such as smart manufacturing.

As such, it tends to be viewed as a complement – or alternative – to other IT-type network technologies like Wi-Fi and fibre-based ethernet. And given that many of the use-cases have a heavy cloud (or at least multi-site WAN) orientation, there is more acceptance of virtualisation of cores and perhaps in future the RAN.

This is currently the area with the greatest amounts of experimentation and innovation – although actual large-scale operational deployments are still relatively few. There is more focus on 5G than 4G, although that might change as executives learn more about the practicalities and economics. Vendors often orient on the soundbite that "private 5G should be as easy as Wi-Fi".

There is a major focus on automation, replicability and ease-of-use. This was exemplified by the recent AWS Private 5G announcement, which seems squarely aimed at this segment.

However, there is perhaps a divide opening between the IT-type scenarios (where it can be seen as a sort of enterprise Wi-Fi-on-steroids vision) and OT deployments in which it gets embedded into larger industrial automation or other systems, such as factory robots or dockside cranes. In the latter scenarios we can see companies like Siemens integrating cellular into their wider systems, just as they have historically used Wi-Fi/WLAN and fibre.

Although the main focus is on building / campus networks for this model, it may also extend to larger domains such as smart cities, as well as multi-location users such as retail chains.

There is some overlap with the critical communications segment, but that is fairly rare at the moment, especially given the lesser role (and trust) of public cloud in many of those areas.

In addition, there is a fair amount of talk about interconnection with the public mobile network (especially where telcos are acting as vendors), but in reality, that's a secondary consideration that doesn't go much beyond a PowerPoint slide for now. There are certain exceptions which are interesting, but they're far from typical.

Conclusions and the Future of Private Networks Segmentation

At present, the "private 5G market" is actually at least three separate markets. And it's mostly about private 4G rather than 5G. Critical communications networks, indoor mobile phone networks and cloud/IT/IoT networks are largely distinct in terms of motivations, channels, economics, devices and applications. There is much less overlap than many observers expect.

(There are also smaller adjacent sectors such as community networks, 4G/5G-based FWA and other specialities).

But over the next 1-2 years, we can expect the three bubbles on the Venn diagram to overlap more – although asymmetrically. Critical and cloud/IoT networks will start to become hybridised. Critical 4G/5G networks in mines or utility sites will start to support extra IT-like applications, for instance (although that probably won't need formal network slicing).

Some enterprise private cellular networks will examine adding neutral-host and inbound roaming or interconnect from public MNOs' subscribers – although there are assorted regulatory and security/operational hurdles to address.

There won't be much overlap between critical networks and neutral/guest cellular, though. Nobody's smartphone will be roaming from their normal consumer 5G network onto the utility company's private infrastructure, I think. A few employees' devices might have special arrangements though.

But we will also see the emergence of a number of additional bubbles on the chart, some of which are more like "quasi-private" models, such as outdoor neutral host networks, selling wholesale capacity to MNOs. There will be various forms of Wi-Fi integration (but probably less than many expect / want). And we will undoubtedly see maturity of both cloud-delivered private cellular like AWS's, and (belatedly) some sort of MNO-based network slice integration.

And if you want an "outlier" to ponder, consider the potential for grassroots private "consumer-grade" 5G. There's a lot of hype about things like Helium's decentralised and blockchain-based model, but I'm deeply sceptical of this (that's for another post, though). More likely is the emergence of a true Wi-Fi hotspot approach, where we start to see lightweight "free 5G" options, using unlicensed (or maybe CBRS GAA) spectrum, with a cheap core and small cell. Scan the QR code next to the barista to download your eSIM, and you're good to go….


The bottom line is that the private 4G/5G market is complex and nuanced. Market statistics frequently combine everything from a nationwide utility's or railway's critical infrastructure, to a few small-cells connecting up digital signs in a mall car-park. It's easy to assume it's all about millisecond-latency robots zipping about factories, rather than a security guard with a handheld radio, or indoor network coverage for a hotel.

Operators, vendors, enterprises and governments need to delve a bit more deeply than just talking about "verticals" for private cellular, or else they risk making errors with their product portfolios or regulatory direction.

Dean Bubley (@disruptivedean) is a wireless technology analyst & futurist, who advises a broad range of companies and institutions active in the 5G, Wi-Fi and cloud marketplaces. He has covered private cellular networks for more than 20 years. He is a regular speaker and moderator at live and virtual events. Please get in touch on LinkedIn or via information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com for advisory or speaking requests.

#Private5G #Private4G #CriticalCommunications #5G #IoT #IIoT #Cloud #WiFi #verticals

Monday, November 29, 2021

Update: Recent Posts & Themes

(This article was initally posted on my LinkedIn newsletter. If you are not already signed up, please subscribe here)

I have a couple of other deep-dive themes cued up for articles in coming weeks, but I wanted to put out a quick newsletter update covering a few recent themes, posts and events that have been occupying me.


The last month has featured a lot of thinking, speaking & client engagements on private 5G, infrastructure-sharing and neutral-host business models, network slicing and capability/API exposure, Wi-Fi 6E & 6GHz, Open RAN and the interaction of cellular & other wireless technologies.

Some recent short-form posts that you may have missed:

  • Telecom operators (and their partners & regulators) should be giving as much consideration to *buying* APIs and capabilities as selling them - LINK
  • Thoughts on the Ericsson / Vonage acquisition - LINK
  • Should we be thinking more about "micro-churn" incidents, where subscribers temporarily switch between operators, using technologies such as eSIM? - LINK
  • Want me to speak at, or moderate your 2022 event? Or present at an internal workshop or offsite? - LINK
  • RCS messaging is still a purposeless zombie technology, continuing to eat brains after 13 years. Google's involvement hasn't changed much - LINK
  • The telecoms industry still hasn't gone beyond telephony, to think more broadly about "voice" services & applications - LINK

I've been to a couple of recent "verticals" events, about networking in ports and for railways. There's a lot of interest in private cellular - but also a huge amount of emphasis on Wi-Fi, including specialised versions with 60GHz or unique forms of QoS intended for industrial or trackside use.

I also presented on a webinar recently on behalf of iBwave, about the scope for Private 4G/5G networks for utilities and energy companies (LINK to view on-demand). Watch out for an upcoming eBook on the same topic. Another webinar on the competiton/convergence between Wi-Fi6 and 5G was for Spirent (LINK


Scott and Iain at Telecoms.com invited me onto their weekly podcast for a (rather irreverent) chat about the current trends and news from the industry, over a couple of beers. We took aim at 5G, the Metaverse, Open RAN & a lot more. YouTube link embedded above!

In addition, I moderated a panel on Infrastructure Sharing for the 5G Techritory event. I'm not sure if an archived version will be put online, but keep a watch out for it here.

And on a personal note, I also took part in my first improv comedy performance. If you book me to speak at one of your events, I can't promise to wear the same shirt as in the picture, but I will certainly be happy to make things up on the spot spontaneously, or deal with any hecklers ruthlessly!

#5G #WiFi #verticals #PrivateLTE #Private5G #mobile #telecoms #spectrum #voice #messaging #networkslicing #neutralhost #regulation

Sunday, November 07, 2021

No, the Metaverse is not the killer app for 5G

(This article was initially published on my LinkedIn Newsletter - click here to see the original, plus comment thread. And please subscribe!)

Let's stop the next cliche before it even starts.

Most knowledgeable people now roll their eyes in derision whenever they hear the words 5G and autonomous driving (or robotic surgery) mentioned in the same sentence. But the mobile industry's hypesters are always casting around for some new trope - and especially the mythical "killer app" that could help to justify the costs and complexity.

And as if on cue, the Metaverse - essentially a buzzword meaning a hybrid of AR/VR with the social web, collaboration and gaming - has captured the headlines.

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The growing noise around Metaverse technologies - and especially Facebook's recent rebrand to Meta - is attracting a whole slew of bandwagon-jumpers. The cryptocurrency community has been the first to trumpet its assumed future role - perhaps unsurprisingly, since they tend to be even more fervent and boosterish than the mobile sector. But we're also seeing the online shopping, advertising and gaming worlds hail the 'Verse as the next big thing.

Next up - I can pretty much guarantee it - will be the 5G industry talking about millisecond latency and buying a "Metaverse network slice". We'll probably get the edge-computing crowd popping up shortly afterwards too. I've already seen a few posts hailing the Metaverse as the possible next big thing for MNOs (mobile network operators).

They're wrong.

The elephant in the room

If you've found this article without knowing my normal coverage themes, you might be surprised to read that the single biggest issue for connecting Metaverse devices and users will be real, physical walls.

If you go through Mark Zuckerberg's lengthy video intro to Meta and his view of future technologies, you'll notice that a high % of scenarios and use-cases are indoors. Gaming from your sofa. Virtual living rooms. Hybrid work environments blending WFH with in-person meetings, and so on.

This shouldn't be a huge surprise. The more immersive a technology is - and especially if it's VR rather than AR based - the more likely people will take part while seated, or at least not while walking around an outdoor environment with obstacles and dangers. Most gaming, and most business collaboration takes places indoors too.

And indoor environments tend to have particular ways that connectivity is delivered to devices. Generally, Wi-Fi tends to be used a lot, as the access points are themselves indoors, at the end of broadband connection or office local area network.

Basically, wireless signals at frequencies above 2-3GHz don't get inside buildings very well from outside, and the higher the performance, the worse that propagation tends to be. Put simply, 5G-connected headsets and other devices will generally not work reliably indoors, especially if they have to deliver consistent high data speeds and low latencies which need higher frequencies. We can also expect the massive push for Net Zero in coming years to mean ever-better insulated buildings, which will make matters even worse for wireless signals as a side-effect.

For sure, certain locations will have well-engineered indoor 5G systems that will work effectively - but software developers generally won't be able to assume this. Airports, big sports venues, shopping malls and some industrial sites like factories will be at the top of the list for these types of solutions. For those locations, 5G Metaverse connections may well be widely used and effective. However, those are the exceptions - and it will take many years to deploy new in-building systems, or upgrade existing infrastructure anyway.

In particular, most homes and offices will have patchy or sometimes no 5G coverage, especially in internal rooms, elevators or basements. (There might be a 5G signal or logo displayed on the device, but that doesn't mean that the famously-promised gigabit speeds or millisecond latencies will actually be deliverable).

In those locations, expect Metaverse devices to use Wi-Fi as a baseline - and increasingly the Wi-Fi 6/6E/7 generations with better capabilities than previous versions.

What the Meta video tells us

I'm aware that the Metaverse is more than just Facebook / Meta, but the 1h17 video from Zuck (link) is not a bad overview of what to expect in terms of experiences, devices and business models. Obviously there will be different views from Epic Games, Microsoft's various initiatives around Hololens and Mesh, plus whatever Apple is quietly cooking up, but this is a decent place to start.

The first thing to note is the various Horizon visions that Meta is pitching - Home, Worlds and Workrooms. These are (broadly) for close social interaction, gaming/larger-scale social and business collaboration - especially hybrid work.

Mostly, the demos and visions are expected to take place from the participant's home, office, school or similar venue. There's a couple of outdoor examples of enhanced sports, or outdoor art/advertising as well. Virtual desktops, avatars that mimic eye and facial movements and so on.

In terms of devices, there's a large emphasis on headsets (obviously the Oculus Quest, and also the new high-end Cambria device promised for 2022) as well as discussions of AR glasses, from the RayBan Stories recently launched, to a forthcoming project called Nazare.

The technology discussion is all around the functional elements, not the connectivity. Optics, sensors, batteries, displays, speakers, cameras and so on. There are developer tools for hand and voice interaction, and presence / placement of objects in the virtual realm. There's lots of discussion around creators, advertising and the ability to own (and interoperate) virtual avatars, costumes and furniture. There are also nods to privacy, as would be expected.

There's no mention of connectivity, apart from noting that Cambria will have radios of some sort. The section on the "Dozen major technological breakthroughs for next-gen metaverse" doesn't mention wireless, 5G or anything else.

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It's worth noting that Oculus devices and the RayBan glasses today use Wi-Fi. We can also expect the gesture-control in future will likely lean on UWB sensors. Outside of Facebook / Meta essentially all of today's dedicated AR/VR headsets connect with Wi-Fi or a cable, to a local network or broadband line. (That might be 5G fixed-wireless to the building for a few % of homes, but that will still use Wi-Fi on the inside).

Where cellular 4G/5G takes a role in XR is where the device is tethered to a phone or modem, or is experienced actually on the smartphone itself - think Pokemon Go, or the IKEA app that lets you design a room with virtual furniture.

We can expect the same with the Metaverse. If you're using a smartphone to access it, then obviously 5G will play a role, just as it will for all mobile apps in 3-4 years time when penetration has increased.

Will Cambria and future iterations feature 5G built-in? Maybe but I doubt it, not least because of the extra cost and engineering involved, as well as multiple versions to support different regional frequency options. Would a future Apple AR/Metaverse headset feature cellular, like some versions of the Watch? Again, that's possible but I wouldn't bet on it.

In the second half of the decade, later versions of 5G (Release 17 & 18) will have useful new features like centimetre-accuracy positioning that could be useful for Metaverse purposes - but again, that's reliant on having decent coverage in the first place. There will likely be some useful aspects outdoors though - for instance accurate measurement of vehicles on roadways.

Facebook Connectivity becomes Meta too

One other thing I noticed is a reference on LinkedIn to Facebook's often-overlooked Connectivity division, which does all sorts of interesting programmes and initiatives like TIP (which does OpenRAN and other projects), Terragraph 60GHz mesh, Express Wi-Fi and the low-end Basics "FB-lite" platform for developing markets with limited network infrastructure.

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Apparently it's now being renamed Meta Connectivity - partly I guess because of the reorganisation and rebranding of the group overall, but also as a longterm part of the Metaverse landscape.

To me, that also indicates that the Metaverse is going to use multiple wireless (and wired) technologies - which aligns with Zuckerberg's view that it's more of a reinvention of the Internet/Web overall, rather than a particular app or experience.

Bandwidth-heavy? Or perhaps not....

One other thing needs to be considered around the Metaverse and connectivity. The immediate assumption is that such a "rich" environment, either full-virtual or overlaid onto a view of the real world, will need lots of data - and therefore the types of bandwidths promised by 5G. If we all use Metaverse devices to project "virtual TV screens" onto virtual surfaces, it will use lots of capacity, supposedly.

But it strikes me that avatars (even photo-realistic ones) & 3D reconstructions of real-world scenes will likely need less bandwidth than actual video. Realtime rendering will likely be done on-device in most cases, just sending the motion/sensor data or metadata about objects over the network.

Clearly this will depend on the exact context and application, but if your PC or phone or headset has a model of your friend's virtual house, or your virtual conference room - and all the objects and people/avatars in it - then it doesn't actually need realtime 4K video feeds to show different views.

In addition, the integration of eye-tracking allows pre-emptive downloads or actions, so "pseudo-latency" can seem very low, irrespective of the network's actual performance. If the headset sees you looking at a football, it can start working on the trajectory of a kick 10's or even 100's of milliseconds before you move your virtual leg.

That said, the sensor data uplink & motion control downlink will need low latency, but I suspect that will be more about driving localised breakout and peering rather than genuine localised compute. If you're in a hybrid conference with distant colleagues, the main role for edge-computing is to offload your data to the nearest Internet exchange with as few hops as possible.

(Some of the outdoor scenes in the Meta video from Connect seem rather unrealistic. They show groups of people playing table tennis and a virtual basketball match with "friends on the other side of the world", which would involve some interesting issues with the speed of light and how that would impact latency.)


In a nutshell - no, the Metaverse isn't the killer app for 5G.

The timelines align between the two, so where 'Verse apps are used on smartphones they'll increasingly use 5G if it's available and the user is out-and-about. But that's correlation, not causation. Those smartphones will typically be connected via Wi-Fi when at home, school or work. I suspect the main impact on smartphones will be on the need for better 3D graphics capability and enhanced sensors and cameras, rather than the network side.

Will we see some headsets or glasses with built-in cellular radios, some with 5G support? Sure, there will certainly be a few emerging in coming years, especially for enterprise / private network use. I'd expect field-workers, military, or industrial employees to exploit various forms of AR and VR in demanding situations well-suited to cellular, although many will tether a headset or glasses to a separate modem / module to reduce weight.

Many devices will also include various other wireless technologies too - Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, maybe Thread/Matter, UWB and so on.

But if anything, I suspect that the Metaverse may turn out to be the killer app for WiFi7, especially for home and office usage. That doesn't mean that 5G won't benefit as well - but I don't see it as a central enabler, given the probable heavy indoor bias of the main applications. (I don't think that cryptocurrency or edge-computing are key enablers either, but those are debates for another day)

(This article was initially published on my LinkedIn Newsletter - click here to see the original, plus comment thread. And please subscribe!)

#Metaverse #Facebook #Meta #AugmentedReality #VirtualReality #5G #WiFi #MixedReality #Mobile #Wireless #Devices #Gaming #Collaboration #HybridWorking

Friday, October 01, 2021

5G hype and exaggeration - be clear and realistic about your claims!

 This was originally posted on my LinkedIn (here) & the main comment thread is on LI

I'm getting really fed up with a lot of the hype and exaggeration around #5G at the moment, especially PR and marketing puff that creates unclear or misleading claims. It's damaging to the credibility of the industry overall & the specific organisations involved.

In recent weeks I've seen examples of:

  • "Ultra-low #latency" claimed for a manufacturing network that uses non-standalone 5G (so, using a 4G core network & incapable of getting anywhere near 1 millisecond)
  • Augmented reality demos claimed as 5G when actually they're using Wi-Fi or a wired tether
  • Use of a 5G fixed-wireless access link to a building (distributed with #WiFi locally via a hotspot or router) leading to an application described as 5G-enabled
  • A healthcare application with an internal diagnostic wireless camera within the patient's body, connecting to an external or gateway or handheld. The press release was vague on which bit of the solution was 5G, but a social media reply asserted it was a "virtual assistant" " (5G? really?) and refused to detail the system publicly, trying to get me to take the discussion offline
  • A CBRS "hotspot" described as 5G, despite no 5G #CBRS standalone standards or devices yet being available yet
  • 60GHz wireless (mostly using 802.11a or y) described as "5G" because it might be able to connect to a 5G core. There is no 60GHz 5G NR yet.
  • Spurious claims that 5G will generate $Xbn in GDP, or save Y tons of CO2. What's the baseline for 4G/other wireless & what's the uplift attributable to 5G? What % of CO2 savings are from the wireless rather than 100 other system elements, or are you double-counting?
  • Regular comments that compare performance of old versions of WiFi with future versions of 5G. Rather than, say, comparing WiFi 6E vs. 5G Rel 16, or WiFi7 vs. Rel 17.
  • Cliched use of "billions of IoT devices" when we all know only a tiny % will ever connect with 5G
  • Small 5G pilots being deliberately misused to imply large-scale or “production” use by a company.

The commentary is often along the lines of "Oh, well it might be proper 5G in the next version. This just the demo".

In which case, be honest and transparent and SAY SO CLEARLY.

Do not just release a press statement claiming yet another wondrous 5G use case. Be specific:

  • Is it *actually* 5G? Or is this just using 5G as a buzzword?
  • Which specific wireless connection in the solution uses 5G? Between which points / devices?
  • What version/features of 5G is used? What frequency band & coverage is needed?
  • What technology was used in past for similar solutions? What problems does 5G fix?
  • Does the application work equally well over other wireless technologies such as 4G or Wi-Fi6?

It's not just marketing - this actually matters, as things like government funding or spectrum policy may be justified on the basis of spurious claims.

Let's have some more honesty here about
what 5G can do today & what might be possible tomorrow. And let's all call out the chancers in public.


This was originally posted on my LinkedIn (here) & the main comment thread is on LI


Wednesday, September 08, 2021

Drawing flawed conclusions from public misconceptions about wireless

(Cross-posted from my LinkedIn Newsletter - see original + comment thread here)

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve come across several clear examples of general confusion about connectivity and wireless technologies – including among smart and otherwise tech-savvy people.

  • A recent survey came up with the remarkable result that over a million people in the UK think they already have “satellite broadband”. The real number is likely under 100k. But many still associate the telecom brand Sky with its early involvement with satellite TV. (Expect Dish to face the same issue in the US).
  • On a client workshop discussing future devices, a user-interface expert referred to “Wi-Fi towers”, rather than mobile/cellular towers. I've also heard someone talk about "satellite Wi-Fi" when referring to things like LEO constellations.
  • A friend posted a photo of mobile antennas in London, in black enclosures to match the structure they were mounted on. One comment was that they were “definitely 5G” with no explanation why they distinguished them from 4G (or indeed, multi-radio RAN units as I suspect they were). Another confidently asserted they were definitely “boosters”, whatever that means.
  • A fascinating Nokia-produced podcast, with a visionary from Disney, covered a huge amount about AR/VR, branding and new experiences. The only problem was the assertion that this would all depend on 5G – even indoors on the sofa, where we can expect essentially all headsets and most smartphones to be connected to Wi-Fi.
  • Another podcast referenced Mavenir's acquisition of cPaaS provider Telestax, with the farcical suggestion that it tied in with B2B uses of 5G. Instead, it's more about platforms for enterprise messaging and calling. Getting an automated dentist-appointment reminder or automating a call-centre process doesn't depend on 5G (or any other G, or even wireless).
  • I've lost count of the people who think 5G enables 1 millisecond latencies everywhere.

At one level, we can just shrug and say this is just normal. People often fail to grasp distinctions between categories of similar things that are obvious (and important) to experts involved in their production or classification. 


Source: https://pixabay.com/users/peterdargatz-5783/

 How many people confuse bulldozers and excavators, a flan vs. a quiche, or even a spider and insect? Yet we don’t pay much attention to the exasperated sighs and teeth-grinding of civil engineers, chefs or arachnologists. We in the industry don’t help much either – how many Wi-Fi SSID access names are called “5G” instead of “5GHz”?

Yet for connectivity, these distinctions do matter in many real ways. They can lead to poor decision-making, flawed regulation, misled investors and wasted effort. In some cases there is real, physical harm too – think about all the crazy conspiracy theories about 5G (especially "60GHz mmWave 5G" - which doesn't even exist yet), or previously Wi-Fi.

Think too about the huge hyping by politicians about 5G – despite many of the use-cases either working perfectly well on older 4G, or in reality more likely to use fibre or Wi-Fi connections. That can feed through to poor policy on spectrum, competition – and as seen in many places recently, vendor diversification rules which ignore the vibrant ecosystem of indoor and private cellular suppliers.

Think too about the ludicrous assertions that LEO satellite constellations like SpaceX’s Starlink could replace normal home broadband or terrestrial mobile, despite the real practicalities meaning endpoint numbers will be 100x fewer, even with optimistic projections.

This all puts a new angle on a common refrain in telecoms “users don’t care what network they’re connected to”. In reality, this could be more accurately rephrased as “users don’t understand what network they're connected to…. although they really should”.

This also applies to the myth of "seamless" interconnection between different technologies, such as Wi-Fi and 5G networks. The border (ie seam) is hugely important. It can change the speed, cost, ownership, security, privacy, predictability of the connection. Not just users, but also application & device developers need to understand this - and if possible, control it. Frictionless can be OK. Seamless is useless, or worse.

What should be our practical steps to deal with this? Realistically, we're not going to get the population to take "Wireless 101" courses, even if we could agree amongst ourselves what to tell them. We're certainly not going to give people a grasp of radio propagation through walls, nor ITU IMT-Advanced definitions and how that relates to "5G".

But on a more mundane level, there are some concrete recommendations we can follow:

  • Use generic terms such as "advanced connectivity" without specifying 5G, Wi-Fi or whatever, wherever possible. At least that's relatively accurate.
  • Ignore any surveys of the general public about wireless technology. Assume that 90% of people won't understand the questions, and the other 10% will lie. Actually, ignore most surveys of the industry as well - most have appallingly biased samples, usually over-represented by people trying to sell things.
  • Don't repost, retweet or otherwise circulate hyped-up articles or comments. If someone claims that $X Trillion will be generated by 5G, ask if they've looked into what the baseline would be for 4G, and what the assumptions and sensitivities are.
  • I'll be bad at this myself, but we should try to gently point out to people they're wrong, rather than either shrug-and-ignore, or ridicule-and-point. If a politician or marketer or broadcaster talks about 5G or Wi-Fi or satellite with clear factual errors, point it out online, or in person.
  • Ask open-ended questions such as "why do you think satellite broadband can really do that?" or "have you considered how that would work indoors?" and see if people have actually given it any real thought.
  • Don't let your boss or your clients get away with these misconceptions, even if you think correcting them could cause a negative reaction. Don't be a yes-person. (If you need to, let me know & I can debunk their claims for you. I'll probably enjoy it too much though....)
  • Do NOT hire clueless "content marketing" people to write gibberish about "Why Tech X will Change the World"
  • Watch out for logical fallacies like "appeal to authority". There's no shortage of very senior and well-known people spouting the type of nonsense I describe here.
  • Run internal training sessions on "myth vs. reality" about wireless and telecoms. Make them fun.

I don't know whether this campaign to improve genuine understanding (and a bit of skepticism of hyperbole) will pay off. But I think it's important to try. Feel free to add other examples or suggestions in the comments! Also, please subscribe to this LinkedIn newsletter & follow @disruptivedean on Twitter.

(And yes, that's an excavator in the image above).

#5G #WiFi #mobile #wireless #satellite #broadband

Sunday, May 09, 2021

Telcos: Stop Thinking You're Always the Leading Actor

Hubris: "an extreme and unreasonable feeling of pride and confidence in yourself"

I've followed developments in the telecoms industry for over 25 years. I've seen positives (eg broadband, SMS, LTE) and negatives (UMA, RCS) as well as a shifting landscape of regulation, the rise of the Internet, and multiple generations of network technology and services infrastructure.

Undoubtedly, both fixed and mobile networks have added massively to economies, society and our current way of life. It's understandable that network operators - and their vendors and governments - feel proud of their legacy and want to perpetuate it.

Yet it's possible to take this too far. Even beyond obviously-silly pronouncements such as "5G is as important as electricity", there remains a constant thread among the telecoms industry that it is absolutely central to all future developments, and that the network's finely-engineered QoS mechanisms are the wellspring of technology-derived value, as well as pivotal to future GDP and world happiness.

But while self-belief and aspiration is helpful, arrogance and self-delusion is not.


Starring role, or supporting cast?

There is an assumption that the (public, traditional) network is always the leading actor in any movie about Industry 4.0, IoT, smart homes, AI, pandemic recovery & the "new normal", combating climate change, or creating new modes of communications and entertainment like AR/VR.

And yet in reality, the telecom network - especially public 5G - is often going to be a supporting actor. Or perhaps just have a walk-on role, or be relegated to an extra who gets dubbed in a different language.

You can almost imagine a C-list celebrity arriving at a busy party and shouting: "Guys, guys! Listen up! You can get rid of all your old stuff, all your Internet apps, all your legacy Industry 3.0 gear... just use our new [Technology X] instead, and we'll offer it all with a nice monthly per-GB subscription. You can even buy a slice!"

Heads swivel. Eyes roll. People refill their glasses & continue their conversations.

A bit more realism and humility is required. Telecoms isn't always the star of the show, and neither does it write the screenplay for the rest of the infrastructure or solution.

That doesn't mean it lacks value, or has a limited opportunity - but that it has to play nicely alongside others... and accept that the director and producer have other priorities to focus on - and a wide choice of alternatives to cast in the same roles.

Leaving the acting analogy aside, it's also important to understand that the nature of the word "telco" is itself changing. Looking out to 2030, the "telco of the future" isn't like todays - there won't just be 3-4 national MNOs and a handful of converged/fibre/fixed-line operators. There will be a vast diversity of service provider types and private/community networks. I've written before about the "new telcos" and this is a critical aspect for traditional ("legacy"?) operators to understand and even embrace.

This isn't just 5G-related

It's tempting to just see this as a problem with how 5G is being positioned and hyped. But while I discuss that below, it's far from being unique. This attitude has been around for years, and pervades the entire industry. Some examples of this mindset include:

  • Telcos consistently assume that "voice" means the same as "telephony", since they only do the latter. Telephony is just one voice application of hundreds - and a 140yr-old clunky and poorly-optimised one at that. This is why telcos don't have a foothold in voice assistants, critical comms, gaming voice, podcasts and so on - and get out-competed by cloud players for UCaaS and cPaaS. (For more: see my upcoming workshop series on the future of Realtime Comms, Voice & Video, starting May 19th)
  • 20 years ago, 3G networks were pitched as platforms for telco-created and telco-delivered videoconferencing, games, "value-added services" (ringtones, basically) and much more inside "walled gardens". The killer app was, in fact, plain vanilla Internet access - despite early dataplans trying to restrict the use of VoIP and IM.
  • Some 1980s & '90s telcos saw themselves as central to enterprises' telephony systems and pitched "Centrex" services - basically a precursor to today's cloud-based UCaaS. Most businesses decided that running their own PBXs was a better option - it fit with their internal organisation and operations much better.
  • Telcos' MEC edge-compute was supposed to take centre-stage against hyperscale cloud providers. Instead, MEC's main use is to host internal NFV or vRAN functions that run the network itself. Or enable some hyperscalers' own edge platforms on a wholesale basis, where they don't have other options. Meanwhile, edge-compute evolves in many other (non-telco) domains much faster, including on-device / gateway, or linked to non-3GPP technologies such as Wi-Fi and fibre.
  • RCS was initially supposed to replace all Internet-based messaging apps. Then its believers pivoted to pitch it as a universal B2C tool for mobile customer interactions. In reality, it's (at best) just another slow-moving messaging app with few users and no loyalty, or special features. It turns out to be channel #17 for consumers dealing with companies that don't merit downloading a proper app or which have a lousy website. RBM's best hope is for things like tickets from that 3rd-tier airline you're forced to use to get to an obscure airport, or ordering a new recycling bin from the local council's chatbot. It's competing with the browser, not apps or Internet messaging.
  • MNOs' public 5G with network-slicing was supposed to replace all the cumbersome enterprise network gear such as ethernet and Wi-Fi. There are still visions within obscure 3GPP work-groups about "5G LANs" and I still read and hear nonsense from the cellular industry about it replacing Wi-Fi at scale....
  • ... or alternatively, the new story is that the 5G core is going to be the centrepiece of all telecoms and networking - it'll control Wi-Fi, fixed broadband, satellite connectivity etc. on operators' terms and policies, of course. (See the Broadband Forum's rather Machiavellian efforts here - led unsurprisingly by behemoths like Verizon & Deutsche Telekom that want the core network as a "control point" all the way to end-devices in the home). Yes, maybe Wi-Fi can easily just slot into 5G's shiny new cloud-native core - but in reality, 99% of Wi-Fi has nothing to do with cellular networks, offload, or non-trusted / non-3GPP access
  • As I mentioned recently, the telecom industry tries to take 100% of the (carbon) credit for new technologies reducing energy consumption or emissions.

The ridiculous and judgmental term "OTT" exemplifies this - creating a them-and-us fallacy of "web" companies using "our" pipes. Never mind the fact those technology companies build their own infrastructure, and invest billions in R&D for everything from AI to chip design. Or that all telcos themselves deploy "OTT" apps, websites and Internet-delivered functions.

To use a more sociological phrasing, many network operators still have a "sense of entitlement". They feel that they should be running everything from voice and video communications to networked entertainment, smart homes, or B2B commerce and industrial automation.

This attitude extends into public policy, and discussions on topics like spectrum, where there is a sense of exerting "license privilege". There is often an attempt to exert control before earning it. This is different to (say) Apple's control of its AppStore.

(*Sidenote [And apologies to my clients if this stings!]:if you work in telecoms & talk casually about "OTTs" for anything other than TV streaming, you should be fired, and so should your boss. It's not only wrong, it's flat-out ignorant and damaging. It indicates gross incompetence. It's not quite a "hate crime" but it is a them-and-us divisive term for a distinction that simply does not exist).

Actions have consequences

There are several reasons why this problem is more than just "attitude" or normal marketing-related hyperbole. It directly translates to business successes and failures.

  • Many telco technologies don't just benefit from n-squared network effects, but depend on them. They degrade "non-gracefully" if they're not ubiquitous - which means they need to be adopted by other telcos at the same time. Messaging is a good example - at 50% uptake, across 50% of operators that implement a new standard, there's a high % chance that two people on different networks won't be able to communicate, especially internationally. There's no focus on saturating small niches, or communities of interest, then expanding over time.
  • Telcos spend so much time envisioning themselves as "platforms" that they fail to realise that pretty much every tech platform evolves from a great (and widely-used/loved) product. Google indexed the web & created a great seach function, before it started selling ads. Apple sold the iPhone for a while before launching the AppStore. It also had a loyal base of iPod users who wanted a music-phone, too. Amazon sold books before it launched AWS. All of them had platforms in mind earlier... but had to create a product before tuning the way the platform needed to behave for customers / developers.
  • The telecom industry always assumes that it will be a "net exporter" (or even pure exporter) of capabilities and APIs. It expects it will sell more "exposed functions" than it buys. It assumes a role at the top of the value chain, rather than the middle. This is starting to change now with the recognition of the role of buying public cloud services for virtualisation, but prior to that it just relied on Google Maps for "find the closest store", or credit-checking agencies for new subscriptions. Almost all successful tech businesses these days are more like trading hubs, importing AND exporting functions, APIs and data. The assumption that telcos will always be the OrchestratORS rather than OrchestratED is leading to an unrealistic world-view and poor decisions.
  • Conversations with regulators and governments try to amplify the supposed "special" status and reinforce the spurious divide with new telcos or Internet/tech firms. "We don't want to be dumb pipes, so please tax & regulate the clever people, because we can't compete". This might seem smart - and perhaps gets better access to new funds for rural coverage or pandemic recovery - but it also hampers and limits future options, for instance around international mergers and expansion. Domestic champions find it hard to live dual lives as global heroes.

What needs to change?

There needs to be a frank, honest discussion about "Telcos' place in the world", which works out how to transition from a world of a few licensed network operators per country, to one in which the landscape is much more complex and nuanced.

  • Position the term "telco" as a broader church & consider the needs/roles of the wider group. MNOs and fixed telcos are important, but not alone here. TowerCo's are telcos. Neutral Hosts are telcos. WISPs are telcos. MVNOs are telcos. Governments can act as telcos. Community networks are telcos. Consider them peers. Insist that GSMA, CTIA, ETNO and others treat all telcos equally and offer membership (and governance) on reasonable terms.
  • Don't push back against governments trying to enable new forms of competition and new entrants. Instead, exploit them. Offer reference designs for Open RAN internationally (see Rakuten). Launch Private 5G services in new countries with local spectrum (Verizon is doing this). Run MVNOs in other countries (Turkcell, China Mobile etc).
  • Internet, IT and industrial automation (OT) companies need to be seen as equal and equivalent peers too. Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Siemens, Honeywell, IBM, HPE, Tech Mahindra, NTT Data & many others will often own the customer relationship. Sometimes telecoms fits into their frameworks, and sometimes theirs' fits into telcos. Maybe there are roles for gatekeepers, but only where there is enough competition.
  • Telecom standards need to become much more "loosely coupled". The traditional insistence that a 5G radio needs a 5G core and IMS/VONR telephony needs to stop. 3GPP standards and interfaces should be mix-and-match. Rather than trying to push complex core networks into fixed broadband architectures, the industry should instead make core-optional lightweight variants of 5G RANs, or expose interfaces that make them controllable by enterprise IT, or a Wi-Fi platform.
  • Offer both complete solutions and sub-component services. Don't assume primacy - sell what customers want. Maybe enterprises want their own Private 5G, but would happily use telcos to do the installation and maintenance, or to enable roaming or as a provider of eSIM-aaS
  • Use 3rd-party infrastructure and connectivity where it makes sense - for instance on neutral host networks. Attempt to automate onboarding, and remove friction wherever possible. Accept national roaming if it means your customers get better access in remote places, or indoors.
  • Work out better metrics to measure the business & communicate these to investors and regulators. See this article on what metrics are especially poor.
  • Understand software and app developers' mindsets. They don't want to pay for "premium QoS" on a thousand networks. They want warning of congestion, and how to adjust their apps' demands - when/how to use on-device compute vs. cloud, which codecs and compression, and so on.
  • Stop thinking that phone calls (and worse, video calls) are perfect manifestations of communications, with just an upgrade every 10 years from circuit to VoLTE to VoNR. Why doesn't the dialler app get updated once a month with new features, or give the user more controls?
  • Look at alternatives to subscription business models. Why not an insurance-style annual premium? Or "dark spectrum" just like "dark fibre"? Or 100 others?
  • Invent more stuff. Spend money on R&D rather than sports TV rights. Much of the current angst comes from competing against tech firms that actually create products and services that people want to buy/use.
  • Have a much clearer policy and stance on buying/selling technology and services. Make using platforms effectively seem as important as creating platforms. This is starting to happen with cloud and Open RAN, but it's very slow.

It has been interesting to see that the most interesting - and lauded - new telcos have come from different backgrounds, and have different attitudes. Rakuten is a cloud/eCommerce company first and foremost. Dish started as a satellite TV provider. Jio's parent Reliance Industries is a broad conglomerate. Although not a new company, South Korea's SKT is part of the SK Group, which also has a broad set of non-telco assets.

To be fair, one area where telcos are taking a more hybrid position is around physical assets. Some are operators/co-owners of shared networks, some spin-out tower businesses, some sell dark fibre and some buy - or both in different places. Some use public colocation and data-centres, while others are looking at local offices as possible edge compute sites.


This undoubtedly comes across as a bit of a rant (and not for the first time...) but it's coming from a position of frustration. I've seen the same issues play out for years - and at the core is this attitude of entitlement that I mention above.

It's totally counterproductive, even if the inertia - and sense of history - is understandable.

Everyone wants to be the star, especially if they've been the lead actor for decades. But sometimes, the role just involves a couple of scenes. And often, it's just the cameo roles - if played well - that get the headlines after all.

[A quick plug again: my upcoming Future of Video & RTC workshop series is here]

Cross-Posted from my LinkedIn Newsletter Article (here). Please see comments there & Subscriber.

#telecom #5G #telco #cloud #technology #regulation #voice #edgecomputing

Thursday, May 06, 2021

Why does the Edge Computing sector ignore Wi-Fi?

We should be talking more about Wi-Fi-Edge as well as 5G-edge. Arguably, it is more important (along with fibre-connected edge)

Yes, the 3GPP term MEC has been upgraded from "mobile edge compute" to "multi-access", but there's still little focus on local edge-cloud use-cases that rely on fixed (usually fixed + Wi-Fi) broadband.

Given today's Wi-Fi often has lower latency than current 5G versions (2-5 milliseconds is common), and many devices such as AR/VR headsets don't have 5G radios, this seems odd.

Many of the use-cases for advanced connectivity, especially IoT in smart buildings and smart homes, as well as gaming and content/video display, uses Wi-Fi predominantly. 5G won't replace it.

On enterprise sites, Edge Computing applications will terminate to end-devices connected with a mix of 5G (public and private), 4G, Wi-Fi, fibre, Ethernet, LPWAN & other tech. This isn't just about low-latency, but connections for IoT devices, cameras, screens etc. that require local processing - and local storage ("data sovereignty"). 

They might use cloud-type software stacks, and use hyperscale cloud for deep analytics, but there will be various reasons for on/near-prem edge.

Offices connect all laptops, collaboration/meeting systems and screens with Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi dominates in education. Even in retail settings and #smartcities, there's a lot of Wi-Fi or proprietary industrial WLAN variants.

In homes, the opportunity is almost entirely about #WiFiEdge. TVs, laptops, voice assistants, smartphones, tablets, AR/VR headsests and most other residential devices connect with Wi-Fi (plus some short-range Bluetooth, ZigBee etc). Very few end-devices inside the home connect with 4G/5G, and even in future the low-band 5G connections that penetrate the walls likely won't support the ultra-low latencies that many talk about.

All of these have significant links to #cloud platforms and applications. Indeed, many higher-end Wi-Fi systems are themselves cloud-controlled. 

Outdoors, especially for mobile and vehicular use-cases, #5GEdge (& 4G for years) will be important plus maybe SatelliteEdge & LoRaEdge

In general, I'd expect "fixed edge" of one sort or another to be far more important than "mobile edge" or MEC. In many ways, it already is, given #CDNs largely service fixed broadband use-cases.

Possibly this is just reflecting a lack of marketing - or perhaps the cloud/edge/datacentre sector has been blinded by #5Gwash hype and has forgotten to focus on often more-important technologies for some critical applications - whether that's security-camera analytics or multiplayer games. They may well need low-latency or secure on-premise compute, but won't (often) be using 5G.

This also perhaps reflects the fact that 5G needs some edge-compute for its own operation (especially Open RAN), so the industry is trying to offset the costs by hyping the potential revenues of using that infrastructure for customer applicatins as well. That's less true for other connectivity types, although fixed/cable broadband has a lot of localised compute infrastructure too.

I'm curious to see if this blending of #WiFiEdge has resonance.
At the very least I think the Wi-Fi and fixed-broadband providers should be making much more noise about it. Seems bizarre that 5G-edge gets all the attention when it is, well, a bit of an edge-case.