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Thursday, July 11, 2019

Neutral Host Networks for 4G & 5G - latest learnings

On July 9th, I ran my first whole-day workshop in London on the emerging sector of Neutral Host Networks (NHNs), together with Peter Curnow-Ford of Viatec Associates. The event backgrounder is here (link).

It covered an important new addition to the mobile industry landscape. Along with pure private networks and "thick" MVNOs, NHNs are extending the 4G/5G marketplace, to many more stakeholders than today's handful of cellcos in each country.

Definition: An NHN is 3rd-party cellular network providing wholesale, commercial mobile localised coverage solutions to national mobile network operators (MNOs) or other communications service providers (CSPs). That access can be either paid or unpaid, and in dedicated NHN-owned spectrum, unlicenced/shared or the MNO's own bands. NHNs typically use small cells, but not always.

Podcast: An accompanying audio track for this post is now available at: https://soundcloud.com/user-521594836/neutralhost



NHN uses & types

NHNs have many possible use-cases, and several business and technical archictecture models. 

The main common theme is wholesale enablement of 4G/5G, in areas with poor coverage, reflecting difficult economics or tricky accessibility. A secondary motivation is a desire by venue/property owners for more control of wireless usage - and ideally monetisation.

The key uses for NHN deployment are:
  • Rural / remote areas
  • Metropolitan centres needing 4G/5G densification with small cells
  • In-building, especially for large sites such as offices, stadiums and hotels
  • Road and railtrack coverage (and potentially in-vehicle)
  • Industrial sites and large transport hubs
  • Temporary sites and events (eg festivals, major construction projects)
  • Some classes of residential and SME commercial venue
There are several types of NHN model emerging, plus a number of other similar or overlapping approaches, as well as hybrids. The two most important versions of NHN are:

  • Multi-Operator Small Cell as a Service (SCaaS), without the NHN having spectrum of its own. This can either use multiple small cells clustered together (eg one per MNO) & sharing backhaul, or a single small cell capable of virtualisation and with radios supporting multiple MNOs' frequency bands.
  • Spectrum-based NHNs, where the provider is a full local MNO in its own right, with its own radio resources (shared or dedicated) and network, hosting other MNOs & SPs as tenants or roaming partners.
An additional model is the use of some form of cloud/virtualised RAN, with shared fibre / antennas linked back to different MNOs' signal sources and core networks. One more option is for "pure" private 4G/5G networks, run by an enterprise, to also offer NHN capabilities as a secondary function - for instance for a 5G-enabled factory where the  network is mostly for the robots, but can also support employees & visitors' smartphones.

We considered NHN to be different to a few other alternatives such as national roaming, network-sharing, or government-run/funded wholesale cellular networks. 

There are several SCaaS players already in the market, and many more being trialled or discussed. Some are TowerCo's expanding to new markets, some are indoor specialists, and others are starting with metro deals with local authorities, or street-furniture assets.

As yet, we were unaware of any of the spectrum-based NHN offers being fully commercialised yet, although that should change in the next 12 months, either in the US with CBRS spectrum, or in a number of other markets such as UK, Germany, Ireland, NZ and elsewhere with early trials ongoing, with new spectrum owners or lessors.

The workshop discussed which model is the best-fit for each use case, summarised in the chart below. This may evolve over time, and there are certainly nuances and exceptions, but for now, this is a unique mapping of the overall opportunity space. Rural coverage in particular has many options - and while NHNs have opportunity, there is also a chance that the existing MNOs may collaborate, if allowed (or encouraged or forced) by regulatory authorities.



Challenges and Opportunities

The workshop discussed a whole range of NHN enablers and components, such as suitable spectrum bands and cloud-based core networks, and perhaps eSIM. I'll cover those in other posts or presentations.

There are numerous technical and operational challenges to getting NHNs to work properly, especially where dedicated spectrum and core networks are involved. The workshop discussed these, and while some of the detailed discussion will remain private, it's worth highlighting a few interesting outputs of the day:

  • The biggest variable is how to get operators to sign up to use NHN capacity, especially where they have to pay for it. Sometimes access will be free to the MNOs (perhaps beyond providing backhaul or core-network interconnect), and paid for by a venue. But even in those cases, there are substantial contractual and organisational challenges.
  • There is a lack of appropriate tools and back-end software. Planning and design tools are not yet focused on NHN deployments, especially if they use different spectrum bands, or have other constraints. There is also a gap around NHN-friendly billing and charging software, although perhaps existing wholesale billing platforms can be customised.
  • Security was raised as an issue - can NHN deployments be fully trusted by MNOs, which may be using them as local partners? How is security - at many levels from physical access to small cells to authentication and fraud-management - managed? This could well be an obstacle to uptake (or an excuse for inaction)
  • For 5G, can NHNs and MNOs inter-operate their mechanisms for QoS and network-slicing? How can an MNO offer a premium service & SLA to a developer or content provider, when the final delivery is on someone else's infrastructure?
  • Skills - are there enough engineers and installers who understand how to make this work? Especially where 5G small cells are involved, perhaps with mmWave and MIMO radios - there simply isn't a deep pool of trained and certified personnel to deploy them for NHNs in-building or wide rural areas.
  • How can efficient marketplaces for spectrum resale/leasing or wholesale access be developed? What does a future NHN "dashboard" or aggregation play look like, and are there APIs being implemented to enable them?
  • Backhaul and fibre - is it in the right place, either indoors or outdoors? This is problematic in rural areas in particular, but also for enterprise deployment, particularly where landlords may have different investment priorities to their tenants.
Some of the key opportunities in the next 24 months will be in solving these problems, as well as the early pioneers rolling out NHN services themselves. 

We will also see numerous "adjacencies" for NHN that tie in with it. There is a strong overlap with open-access wholesale fibre deployments, as well as some interesting NHN/edge computing scenarios such as combining multi-operator SCaaS with multi-operator (and enterprise) edge cloud facilities.

One possible rival technology is better Wi-Fi, especially Wi-Fi 6 for indoor and industrial use. If it gets deployed quickly, and if easier access with the new OpenRoaming concept gets adopted by enterprises, it is possible that the opportunity space for NHNs may shrink in some locations.


Conclusions and next steps

There's a huge amount of interest in the NHN space. Numerous countries are releasing new spectrum bands, and many stakeholders (such as infrastructure owners, venues, enterprises and local goverment authority bodies) are keenly interested in experimenting. Trials, testbeds and prototypes are attracting attention and investment.

While a limiting factor might be getting the big MNOs on board, there is a chance that they may get pre-empted by other NHN tenants that nudge them into action. Cable operators, MVNOs, cloud players and others might exploit NHNs - especially the spectrum-based ones - to launch their own 4G/5G services at lower cost than solo deployments. One enterprise I spoke to recently even suggested launching venue-specific MVNOs themselves, on their own core-network platform. We can expect a whirlwind of innovation around NHNs, and also the wider class of "non-public networks" (NPNs) for 4G and 5G.


If you're interested in more detail about Peter & my work on NHN models, please drop me a line at information at disruptive-analysis dot com. We're intending to run additional public workshops later in the year, in London and elsewhere. Potentially, we're interested in partners to help market the events, or assist with with logistic in other geo's. In addition, if you want a private under-NDA workshop for your organisation, we can adapt to meet your specific needs. We also work with investors, enterprises, venue-owners and solution vendors to craft strategies around the NHN sector. 

Podcast accompanying this blog post
 

Thursday, June 06, 2019

Neutral Host Networks - Announcing July 9th Workshop on a key industry trend

One of the most interesting trends at present is the reinvention of "wholesale" in various parts of the telecoms and computing industry. Often rebranded as multi-tenant or open-access, there are growing parallels between a whole set of areas I'm following:

  • Neutral Host Mobile networks (more on this below)
  • Open-access fibre (longhaul & metro)
  • Shared spectrum bands
  • 3rd-party cell tower providers (and also ducts and poles)
  • Colocation data-centres
  • Public cloud PaaS / IaaS
  • Multi-tenant NFV platforms
  • 4G / 5G MVNOs & network-slicing
  • Hosted telephony, UCaaS & cPaaS
  • eSIM and multi-IMSI SIM cards
In other words, the technology world is getting much smarter about sharing assets and access, while maintaining - or improving - competition. Telcos, IT companies and enterprises often cannot justify the risk and capital involved in having dedicated - and possibly replicated - facilities. There is no point in every business having its own datacentre, or every mobile operator building its own tower on a given hilltop. 

Sharing - and some form of neutral / open / wholesale intermediary service provider - often makes more sense. Regulators are recognising this in many domains as well.

I've written & spoken about the mobile angles on this for a while - I've covered MVNOs in the 5G era (link), shared spectrum for private mobile networks (link) and open-access fibre for backhaul (link). I've also watched the evolution of small cells and related business models for many years - I first met ip.access in 2001.

Neutral Host Mobile (NHN) fits directly into all of these trends. I'm seeing huge interest in organisations building multi-tenant mobile networks in locations that the normal MNOs cannot address for economic or practicality reasons. In-building, metro densification, rural and road/rail-side use are prominent examples. 

The idea is that an NHN builds a network (with or without its own local spectrum), and the other companies either roam onto it, or used its shared facilities for their own radios.

This has got huge attention, especially with the rise of CBRS in the US, and the realisation that 5G will need lots of small cells, especially in cities. Sharing some or all of the infrastructure makes sense, at least theoretically. It also ties in with edge-computing, MVNOs and various of the other wholesale/hosting models I mention above.

So I'm running one of my periodic small-group workshops on NHNs, on July 9th in Central London. As usual, I'm doing it with a colleague - this time Peter Curnow-Ford of Viatec Consulting.

(I've previously run workshops on the Future of Voice, Telco-OTT Services, Private Cellular, AI for Telecoms, Blockchain for Telecoms, and 5G+MVNOs)

If you're interested in attending the public session, the full details are on this page (link)

Alternatively, if you are interested in a private workshop or deeper advisory engagement, please drop a message to information  at disruptive-analysis  dot com
 
 

Monday, May 20, 2019

5G as an enterprise LAN / Wi-Fi replacement is a myth

Introduction

There are at least 10 reasons why 5G will not be a viable WLAN (wireless local area network) technology for mainstream enterprise. Despite recent claims to the contrary, it is not an alternative to Wi-Fi in offices, hospitals, apartment blocks or similar locations. 

Enterprises, investors, policymakers and vendors should be extremely skeptical of assertions 5G will displace mainstream Wi-Fi uses. Indeed, they should question the credibility and honesty of those uttering such claims.

There will certainly more deployments of indoor cellular (including private and neutral host networks) in future, but these will almost all be incremental and not substitutional to Wi-Fi. They may be used for IoT/OT uses, but typically these will be entirely new. 

4G / 5G technologies will not be integrated into most laptops or tablets, despite hype.

This post looks at why 5G cannot replace enterprise Wi-Fi - including numerous obvious reasons - and then examines why the cellular industry (which mostly understands the problems) is pretending otherwise. What's the story behind the unrealistic fantasy?

(It's quite long. Get a coffee first.)


What is wireless used for in enterprises?

Before drilling into the specifics of 5G, it is worth looking at how and why wireless gets used in enterprises at a local area. Local area here means a single office or site - whether that's an office block, a supermarket, a hospital or a factory. Some locations have multiple LANs across several buildings on a campus network, such as a university, corporate HQ site or major new property development.

(By contrast, WANs run over wide areas, such as between a retail chain's stores and warehouse sites in different cities, or linking a multinational bank's offices in several countries. Huge locations like smart cities and airports are somewhere in the middle).

A top-level list of local wireless uses, often with separate infrastructure, includes:
  • Local IT / Internet connectivity - this is the main LAN space, dominated by fixed ethernet and Wi-Fi. It connects PCs, laptops, deskphones, tablets, conferencing gear and various other computing products, either to the business's own servers or to the Internet and cloud. It is also good for private use of smartphones.
  • Coverage extension of public mobile operator (MNO) services onto private property, where outdoor-to-indoor signals don't reach. This uses various forms of distributed antenna system (DAS), repeaters, small-cells etc, typically installed today only in the largest buildings. Essentially, this enables local smartphone connectivity both to the telco's services (eg telephony) and to the public Internet. In some cases Wi-Fi is used to "offload" data that could normally have gone over the carrier network. Note: genuine offload is a tiny fraction of total smartphone data traffic - see this post for more (link)
  • Local IoT connectivity (connecting building automation systems, HVAC, entry control etc. This can be further divided into
    • Static IoT - things that don't move around, such as sensors, door controls, CCTV cameras & aircon units
    • Mobile IoT, for instance credit card terminals, robots, wearables, asset-tracking tags etc
  • Local OT connectivity - operational technology, often business/safety-critical with a need for realtime deterministic control, such as industrial machinery, process controls, medical equipment and so on.
  • Local voice connectivity - especially walkie-talkies and private two-way radio, which are now starting to be replaced with cellular alternatives.
  • Other local uses - numerous sectors have their own niche wireless requirements, maybe linking to public safety / first-responders, broadcast, audiovisual systems etc
While some of these categories overlap (for example, smartphone connections), others remain pretty well-defined in practice. Yet often, they get conflated, especially in discussions about the future roles of 4G/5G cellular networks, whether run by mobile carriers, or new/specialist indoor operators and the enterprises themselves.

This post is specifically about the IT/LAN/Internet access use-case. I think cellular has a lot to offer IoT (especially mobile IoT) for enterprise, as well as OT in industrial settings. We will also see more indoor / premises neutral-host networks (NHNs) both for coverage and private onsite voice/smartphone access. However, none of those generally gets classed as "LAN" connections.

(SAVE THE DATE: I will be running a private workshop in London on July 9th about NHNs, looking at both indoor and wide-area / metro / rural uses and deployment scenarios)




Why can't 4G/5G be used for wireless LANs instead of Wi-Fi?

At the heart of this debate is whether 3GPP cellular technologies can be used for local-area computing networks, especially for laptops, tablets and private smartphone use. Can it replace fixed ethernet and especially Wi-Fi connections? Will future PCs connect to the Internet via 5G? I'm being asked this by various of my clients, so it's worth going in to some detail here (and obviously, more detail & analysis for paying advisory customers)

This is not a new discussion - the 3GPP vs. IEEE standards war has waged for decades. I've addressed the topic multiple times, whether that's been about in-home usage (link), debunking the "5G will kill WiFi" myth (link) or discussing the important role for private cellular in industry and the need for local spectrum licensing (link). 

I can see at least 10 reasons why cellular (whether provided by MNOs as a service, or owned by the business or an NHN provider) is not a suitable IT LAN technology for enterprise:
  • 13bn installed base of actively-used Wi-Fi devices today, of which only smartphones typically have cellular radios. Some have shortish replacement cycles (eg tablets) but others will last for 10+ years. They will need to be supported in-building.
  • A tiny fraction of laptops & tablets have in-built 4G radios today. Despite the hype, this will not change significantly with 5G. Customers won't pay more for them, and manufacturers don't want the margin hit. We might see 10-20% penetration, but I'm doubtful (This is a whole other "10 reasons" post in its own right...) Wi-Fi remains primary.
  • Plenty of other devices will never have cellular connections (5G printers? Servers?!). The number of Wi-Fi devices is exploding in IoT as well - from smart-speakers to lighting to interactive screens and terminals. Add in new low-power Wi-Fi for things like headsets (and a separate battle between Wi-Fi / BLE / ZigBee which cellular doesn't even have a toe in). Again, Wi-Fi remains primary. High-end/critical IoT devices may actually adopt passive optical LAN connections, rather than any wireless technology.
  • Private 4G/5G networks are not just radios. They need core networks, control software, and maybe SIMs/eSIMs. The average IT department does not want to, or have the skills, to deal with all this, compared with installing some ethernet wiring and some Wi-Fi APs.
  • Almost no businesses want to deal with the complexities of private / public cellular interconnection, roaming, regulation (lawful intercept?!) and so forth
  • Even if some IT departments want to go towards 4G/5G connectivity, they still have BYOD policies, and guests, contractors and tenants who will keep desiring (& often expecting) Wi-Fi
  • In-building 5G is going to be hideously complex anyway, especially for mmWave frequencies. Installing small cells also needs fibre backhaul, power etc. in the right places, whch may be different locations to Wi-Fi APs.
  • Ironically, in-building 4G small cells usually need wired LAN connections to connect them. In future, it might even be possible to use Wi-Fi6 as backhaul, as it should have good-enough deterministic QoS for the time-sync requirements.
  • The world would need, I estimate, 100-300,000 more enterprise cellular specialists for designing, installing, maintaining & operating 5G LANs. And AFAIK there aren't even proper training programmes, or certification schemes. That's a decade or more on its own (and probably a big opportunity for some) 
  • Indoor wireless coverage is difficult and variable. Radio is absorbed by interior walls, partitions, furniture, insulation, pipework etc. Giving QoS guarantees is almost impossible. Few design, planning and testing tools are available.
  • Device-to-device use cases for Wi-Fi are not easily replicable with cellular. Maybe in the future.
  • User perceptions of Wi-Fi and cellular, and behaviour around it, are entrenched and will take years to change, if ever.
  • Patent & royalty costs for cellular are higher, as well as the extra chipset costs.
  • Unknowable new security / threat surfaces (and the fact that Wi-Fi security is often integrated with the enterprise's identity & threat-management systems today)
I could go on. Some of these will change, some will have rare exceptions, and some industries will have particular local requirements for whatever reasons. But the underlying story is clear: 5G is not a Wi-Fi replacement for the enterprise. 
 
This should not really be a surprise to anyone. I honestly find it hard to believe that most people involved in networks/telecoms don't realise at least 4 or 5 of these points off the top of their heads.

Historical note: I've been skeptical of cellular-enabled laptops since 2006 (link). I wrote a full report in 2008 (link), which was actually far too optimistic (I predicted 30% attach-rate by 2011) despite being criticised as too-negative by the cellular industry. Most of the arguments remain valid for 5G.


So why the hype?

What's a bit baffling is why the 5G/WiFi replacement fantasy is becoming more common. Even AT&T's CEO was quoted at the company's financial results event (link) as saying "It’s serving as a LAN replacement product". Other 5G-centric commentators have said similar things.

To be fair, in some cases it will be genuine ignorance, although frankly anyone that clueless about enterprise networks shouldn't be making pronouncements anyway. Another more important issue is the conflation of all the different use-cases for connectivity (as above), and people conflating the LAN, offload and IoT domains in particular. Through that lens, the AT&T statement could (very generously) be considered applicable to some IoT scenarios.

Yes, 5G has a long-term role in some industrial verticals, especially with time-sensitive networking and private control of core and/or radio & spectrum. Neutral-host cellular will be important indoors too. But controlling robots & process machinery, or doing asset-tracking in a hospital, is not the same as accessing SaaS applications from a laptop or tablet, or local IoT applications from billions of devices with local gateways. Neither is using a new 4G/5G CBRS or local-spectrum network for "reverse roaming" or "MVNO onload" really a LAN business either.

But I think there are a few other more cynical reasons in play too:
  • Embarassment over mmWave's poor indoor penetration (despite the rhetoric), meaning Wi-Fi is an essential in-building complement for any 5G FWA deployment. This applies in residential use, but also for businesses too. Pretending that some sort of 5G outdoor - 5G indoor hybrid could fix this might spare a few blushes.
  • Cost & complexity of future indoor 5G deployments: Reality is biting. Existing indoor systems are going to be hard to upgrade to even 3-4GHz bands, let alone adding mmWave and massive-MIMO support too. It's not just the radio elements, either - how exactly are carriers going to offer QoS / network-slicing over someone else's indoor wiring and antenna infrastructure? See this eBook I recently wrote for iBwave (link) for more details. Basically, if the telcos are going to help pay for 5G indoor connectivity, then new use-cases/revenues are desperately sought, beyond just MBB coverage. A "managed 5G LAN" line on a spreadsheet likely looks appealing, even if it's an exercise in wishful thinking.
  • Bluster & hype aimed at regulators considering the 6GHz or other bands for unlicensed use (& thus mostly more Wi-Fi). The US FCC and various European regulators seem minded to add another large band (500-1200MHz) to the unlicensed systems arsenal. Taking a public stance of saying "Oh, 5G could do all those use-cases as well - how about normal exclusive licenses for that band instead?" fits the political narrative, even if it doesn't fit reality. 
  • Some 3GPP fundamentalists' dislike of Wi-Fi and unlicensed spectrum generally, or non-telco controlled networks, explains some of the comments. I've seen posts on LinkedIn saying "I wish Wi-Fi would go away", and similar. They have long fantasised about MNO-managed cellular LANs , in the same way that some Wi-Fi (and satellite) fundamentalists think they can replace mobile networks. They're all wrong. (And so are the 5G FWA folk claiming it's a mainstream alternative that could replace fibre or cable).


Conclusion

So to sum up:
  • There's lots of different uses for wireless networks in enterprise, whether in individual buildings or across larger campuses. Ignore anyone who groups them all together.
  • IT-centric LAN connections, for normal computing devices connecting to the Internet, cloud or local servers, are dominated by ethernet - either using fixed cabling, Wi-Fi or occasionally optical LAN. Smartphones connect both by Wi-Fi and cellular, where indoor connection is good enough.
  • A handful of laptops and tablets can use 4G connections today, although few owners even bother to sign up for data plans. A slightly larger handful will have integral 5G in 5 years time, but most will just stick to Wi-Fi only. They will need to be supported in all the same locations as today, plus many new ones (eg public transport & retail).
  • Private 4G and 5G networks come in many varieties, with a huge range of shared/local spectrum options being considered by regulators (link). Most, however, are not aimed at LAN use-cases, but more oriented to IoT/OT/indoor cellular coverage requirements. In those instances, Wi-Fi has limitations, for instance in applicability to robots moving around a large factor or warehouse.
  • Some industrial/critical use-cases are not ideally suited to unlicenced spectrum, even with the better performance of new WiFi6 deployments. Given that the WiFi industry doesn't (yet) have a licensed-band version, then cellular is a likely option instead. 
  • Neutral host cellular networks are very exciting future developments, both indoors and out. But they're not going to be LAN replacements either.
  • Operator 4G and 5G networks are very important to extend in-building, especially if telcos want to offer new network-slicing or QoS products that don't just work outdoors. However, upgrading existing in-building coverage solutions to 5G is hard, expensive and has many unknowns. Many small buildings don't have indoor coverage solutions at all today. The mobile industry is casting around for new revenues, as well as costs. One takeout: end-to-end network slicing is largely mythical, and will need to work over 3rd-party Wi-Fi indoors.
  • We will also see various forms of Wi-Fi + cellular bonding, with devices connecting to both networks simultaneously. That's for another post.
  • As with all areas of 5G hype, there's an "it'll solve world hunger", "one-size fits all" pitch to politicians, regulators, investors and media. It needs to be called out for its disengenuousness.
Overall, the key takeout: 
Private/enterprise 4G and 5G networks have lots of potential future use-cases & market opportunities. Replacing Wi-Fi for IT/Internet access LANs is not one of them.

Note: if you're interested in deeper analysis, or a private workshop / advisory engagement on this topic, please drop me an email at information at disruptive-analysis DOT com, or contact me via LinkedIn or Twitter.

Also - on July 9th, I'm running a London private workshop on Neutral Host Networks, together with Peter Curnow-Ford of Viatec Associates. Drop me a message if you're interested, and look out for full details & registration coming very soon.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Wi-Fi dominates in the home, but the industry cannot be complacent about the challenges of 5G

I recently gave a keynote speech at the Wi-Fi Now conference in Shanghai (link), which was co-located with the Wi-Fi Alliance's Asia regional members' meeting. My presentation (link) covered the forthcoming opportunities and challenges for Wi-Fi technology and solutions.



My key points were that of a mixed, nuanced, good/bad story:
  • The position of Wi-Fi in the home is extremely strong. The growth of whole-home Wi-Fi using extenders and mesh-network technology, cloud management platforms and the imminent arrival of Wi-Fi6 (formerly 802.11ax) for more capacity and performance, gives it an unassailable lead for most domestic applications and devices.
  • 4G and 5G pose almost no threat to Wi-Fi dominance in the home. While smartphone users may spend slightly more time on cellular if they have large/unlimited data plans, this is more than offset by greater use of Wi-Fi-only devices (TVs, PCs, smart speakers & other IoT products). Few homes or people will go smartphone-only, especially in developed economies. Furthermore, cellular networks lack the in-home positioning and intelligence layer of newer Wi-Fi solutions. Fixed-wireless 5G will almost always need Wi-Fi inside, connected to an external/window antenna. Even in the (few) places 5G FWA can substitute for fixed/cable broadband, it will still mostly deliver last-metre connections via Wi-Fi.
  • A small number of future consumer IoT devices may have "direct to cellular" connections, but these will be the minority, typically restricted to out-of-home products like pet trackers or smart watches. 5G/eSIM-based PCs, wearables & tablets will remain a tiny % of the total device universe. Don't expect 5G-enabled TVs or 4G/NB-IoT washing machines. For low-power smart home products, alternative connections like Bluetooth and ZigBee will remain important - not everything can use Wi-Fi. There might be some LPWAN devices using SigFox, LoRa or perhap Wi-Fi's own HaLow technology, although that is still moving only slowly.
  • In "carpeted enterprise" offices, Wi-Fi will remain critical for many users, alongside wired ethernet for desktops, servers and other non-moving equipment. While there will be a growing need for better indoor 4G/5G coverage (especially in higher frequencies), that cannot replace normal LAN technology. Users will expect both Wi-Fi and cellular to have reliable indoor coverage, capacity and security. The Venn diagram of use-cases only has a narrow overlap. That said, delivering good Wi-Fi indoors is not easy - and like cellular, it will need more "deep fibre", especially for higher frequency bands in future, like 6GHz or 60GHz.
  • Industrial Wi-Fi faces more challenges. While for many applications, industrial-grade Wi-Fi and meshes is widely used, the growth of IoT, robotics and realtime automation/cloud will start to make wireless connectivity more business-critical, and in some cases safety-critical. Unlicensed spectrum, and limited coverage/mobility support may make Wi-Fi's role prone to substitution by public and private 4G/5G networks in some cases. There appears to be more work being done to make spectrum available, as well as integrate with manufacturing / process machinery on the cellular side. There doesn't appear to be as much of a cohesive ecosystem - I don't see a Wi-Fi equivalent of the 5G Alliance for Connected Industries and Automation, for instance. 
  • Limited focus on verticals and testbeds. While I'm skeptical of mobile operators' roles in pushing 5G solutions on various sectors, there is no doubt that the cellular industry is working hard. There are countless "5G for Sector X" associations and collaborations, multiple university and government 5G research institutes, and promotional efforts galore. Why is there no equivalent "University of ABC Wi-Fi Innovation Lab", of "Wi-Fi Healthcare Alliance", where vendors and developers can experiment with new use-cases and create more public "buzz"? The industry - and its major vendors - need to step up and increase funding for this sort of thing. Broadcom, Qualcomm, Cisco, Google, Intel, HPE, Amazon, Arris etc - I'm looking at you.
  • Public Wi-Fi faces growing risks. While I'm writing this article on my laptop in a cafe, most of my fellow coffee-drinkers are using smartphones. This location has a simple one-click access to Wi-Fi, but other places often have crass and privacy-invasive attempts to "monetise" Wi-Fi, with extra login personal data demanded, or attempts to get users to connect with FB or Twitter accounts. The growing number of large/unlimited data-plans, coupled to reduced roaming fees for travellers, and even tethering for PCs, makes the relative pain of accessing 4G vs. public Wi-Fi very different to a few years ago. Venues wouldn't force people to give email addresses or social logins to use amenities like elevators or bathroooms; they shouldn't for Wi-Fi either. The industry should campaign against cumbersome logins. It doesn't need full automation like PassPoint or HotSpot 2.0 - just "frictionless" access. One click on a splash-screen is fine.
  • The Wi-Fi brand is over-protected. Technically, Wi-Fi is a brand that can only be used by products or SPs that get certification from Wi-Fi Alliance. The technology is based on IEEE 802.11 standards. While the guarantee of interoperabilty and "it works anywhere" is great, this poses a problem. There's a lot of cool stuff being done with 802.11 that isn't standardised and fully certified. I've seen licensed-spectrum versions (potentially more suitable for industrial markets). There's some great innovation with 60GHz 802.11, formerly called WiGig. Some vendors have proprietary tweaks, like Blu Wireless allowing gigabit transmission to fast-moving vehicles with handoffs in the UK AutoAir testbed (link). These innovators can't use the term "Wi-Fi", so instead they call their products "5G", adding to the noise and hype - and its impact on regulators and policymakers who then think that 5G deserves special treatment (and spectrum). In my view, the Wi-Fi industry is undermining its own importance, especially if they want to create a case for 6GHz, or other future bands. Most people in politics don't grasp Wi-Fi's level of economic and societal contributions, so to me this seems to be an own-goal. Maybe WFA should create a new category called something like Wi-FiX for "experimental" technologies to capture this extra goodwill.
  • Wi-Fi combines well with other technologies. I'm seeing a growing amount of important intersections between Wi-Fi and other domains. AI, for instance, is being used to manage Wi-Fi fleets by major service providers, as well as cloud companies. Juniper just acquired Mist Systems for its AI-enhanced Wi-Fi solution (link). It's being integrated with both consumer and enterprise IoT. Amazon just acquired eero, a home mesh-Wi-Fi specialist. I'd be unsurprised to see some sort of Alexa-eero hybrids in future (link). And I've written before about the Wi-Fi + blockchain opportunities, including those of my friends at AmmbrTech (link) and assorted others. There's some cool stuff using Wi-Fi for motion-detection as well.
  • The Wi-Fi industry needs to be emphatic - and fast - about creating versions designed to work in all spectrum bands, licensed, unlicensed and shared. There are use-cases for all of these, especially with moves to opening up CBRS and c-Band for more innovative use-cases. We see cellular technologies adopting unlicensed variants like 4G-LAA and MulteFire. Wi-Fi should make the opposite & equivalent move.
  • Yes, 5G and Wi-Fi will work together. Absoutely, I see many reasons to integrate 4G, 5G and Wi-Fi in various guises, both at a network level and service level. We will see MNOs that have big Wi-Fi footprints. We'll see 5G FWA with Wi-Fi indoors. We see dual-connected home broadband gateways with both fibre and cellular modems. We have offload, onload, Wi-Fi first MVNOs, Wi-Fi calling and and non-3GPP access to 4G and 5G core networks. This trend will continue. Yet I still see ignorant references to Wi-Fi being "part of 5G", or "killed by 5G". It is neither; sometimes the technologies will be complementary, and sometimes competitive or substitutive. But in all cases, they compete for the oxygen of publicity, attention and policymaker focus. The Wi-Fi industry needs to shout louder to the media and governments.
  • This is Wi-Fi's 20th Anniversary year as a consumer brand, notably. Maybe Apple (which launched its original AirPort in 1999) might pull a "One more thing..." surprise this year...
In summary: I'm very positive about Wi-Fi, especially with the capabilities of mesh, cloud and Wi-Fi6 for the home. But I'm also concerned that the industry isn't being sufficiently ambitious. Yes, in the US there are a lot of positive signs from the FCC about 6GHz The recent European emphasis on Wi-Fi derived DSRC for vehicles is another win. But while those could be big successes, and keep the industry busy for a long time, it's not enough. 



In industrial use-cases, Wi-Fi faces significant challenges. For public hotspots, some venues' ludicrous sign-up demands are self-defeating and harm overall public perception of the technology. HaLow isn't getting enough attention in the LPWA space. The industry needs to market itself more loudly, more globally, and to a wider audience. It needs to create more space for innovators and developers, with collaboration forums and easier access to documents - and a willingness to extend the brand's goodwill, even to those that aren't doing something fully-standardised.

The Wi-Fi industry deserves congratulations on 20 years and $2trillion of economic value. But it needs to double-down on its scope and ambitions, to make sure it will be in strong position at its 40th as well.


Watch out soon for a podcast covering this article - my SoundCloud account is here (link)

And if this is an area where you'd be interested in my input for advisory work, speaking/presentations, or other engagements, please contact me via information AT disruptive-analysis dot com

I will also shortly be publishing a long-form research report on the Consumer Wi-Fi sector, as part of my Network Futures subscription stream with STL Partners (link). It looks at some of the issues raised here in more detail, and focuses in particular on the implications and role of telecom operators and other broadband providers. I'll update this blog post, and also put out details on my Twitter account (link) when it's available.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

3 Emerging Models for Edge-Computing: Single-Network, Interconnected & Federated

Summary

Edge-computing enables applications to access cloud resources with lower latencies, more local control, less load on transport networks and other benefits.

There are 3 main models emerging for organising edge-computing services and infrastructure:
  • Single-Network Telco Edge, where a fixed or mobile operator puts compute resources at its own cell-sites, aggregation points, or fixed-network central offices.
  • Local / Interconnected Datacentre Edge, where an existing or new DC provider puts smaller facilities in tier-2/3 cities or other locations, connected to multiple networks.
  • Federated / Open Edge, where a software player aggregates numerous edge facilities and provides a single mechanism for developers to access them.
These are not 100% mutually-exclusive - various hybrids are possible, as well as "private edge" facilities directly owned by enterprises or large cloud providers. They will also interact or integrate with hyperscale-cloud in variety of ways. 

But there is a major issue. All of these will be impacted by even faster-evolving changes in the ways that users access networks and applications, such as "fallback" from 5G to 4G, or switching to WiFi. In other words, the most relevant "edge" will often move or blur. Superficially "good" edge-compute ideas will be forced to play catch-up to deal with the extra network complexity. 
 
(Also - this model excludes the "device edge" - the huge chunk of compute resource held in users' phones, PCs, cars, IoT gateways and other local devices).

Note: this is a long post. Get a coffee. 

There is also an accompanying podcast / audio-track I've recorded on SoundCloud that explains this post if you'd rather listen than read (link)



Background and Overview 

A major area of focus for me in 2019 is edge-computing. It’s a topic I’ve covered in various ways in the last two year or so, especially contrasting the telecom industry’s definitions/views of “in-network” edge, with those of enterprise IT and IoT providers. The latter tend to be more focused on “edge datacentres” in “edge markets” [2nd-tier cities] or more-localised still, such as on-premise cloud-connected gateways. 

I wrote a detailed post in 2018 (link) about computing power consumption and supply, which looked at the future constraints on edge, and whether it could ever really compete with / substitute for hyperscale cloud (spoiler: it can't at an overall level, as it will only have a small % of the total power).

I’m speaking at or moderating various edge-related events this year, including four global conferences run by data-centre information and event firm BroadGroup (link). The first one, Edge Congress in Amsterdam, was on 31st January, and followed PTC’19 (link) the week before, which also had a lot of edge-related sessions.


(I’m also collaborating with long-time WebRTC buddy Tsahi Levent-Levi [link] to write a ground-breaking paper on the intersection of edge-computing with realtime communications. Contact me for details of participating / sponsoring)


Different drivers, different perspectives

A huge diversity of companies are looking at the edge, including both established large companies and a variety of startups:
  • Mobile operators want to exploit the low latencies & distributed sites of 5G networks, as well as decentralising some of their own (and newlyt-virtualised) internal network / operational software
  • Fixed and cable operators want to turn central offices and head-ends into local datacentres - and also house their own virtualised systems too. Many are hybrid fixed/mobile SPs.
  • Long-haul terrestrial and sub-sea fibre providers see opportunities to add new edge data-centre services and locations, e.g. for islands or new national markets. A handful of satellite players are looking at this too.
  • Large data-centre companies are looking to new regional / local markets to differentiate their hosting facilities, reduce long-distance latencies, exploit new subsea fibres and provide space and interconnect to various cloud providers (and telcos).
    At PTC’19 I heard places like Madrid, Fiji, Johannesburg and Minneapolis described as “edge markets”.
  • Hyperscale cloud players are also latency-aware, as well as recognising that some clients have security or regulatory need for local data-storage. They may use third-party local DCs, build their own (Amazon & Whole Food sites?) or even deploy on-premise at enterprises (Amazon Outposts)
  • Property-type players (eg towerco's) see edge-compute as a way to extend their businesses beyond siting radios or network gear.
  • Startups want to offer micro-DCs to many of the above as pre-built physical units, such as Vapor.io, EdgeMicro and EdgeInfra.
  • Other startups want to offer developers convenient (software-based) ways to exploit diverse edge resources without individual negotiations. This includes both federations, or software tools for application deployment and management. MobiledgeX and Ori are examples here.
  • Enterprises want a mix of localised low-latency cloud options, either shared or owned/controlled by themselves (and perhaps on-site, essentially Server Room 2.0). They need to connect them to hyperscale cloud(s) and internal resources, especially for new IoT, AI, video and mobility use-cases.
  • Network vendors are interested either in pitching edge-oriented network capabilities (eg segment-routing), or directly integrating extra compute resource into network switches/routers.
  • Others: additional parties interested in edge compute include PaaS providers, security companies, SD-WAN providers, CDN players, neutral-host firms etc
Each of these brings a different definition of edge - but also has a different set of views about networks and access, as well as business models.


Application diversity

Set against this wide array of participants, is an even more-diverse range of potential applications being considered. They differ in numerous ways too - exact latency needs (<1ms to 100ms+), mobility requirements (eg handoff between edge sites for moving vehicles), type of compute functions used (CPUs, GPUs, storage etc), users with one or multiple access methods, security (physical or logical) and so on.

However, in my view there are two key distinctions to make. These are between:
  • Single-network vs. Multiple-network access: Can the developer accurately predict or control the connection between user and edge? Or are multiple different connection paths more probable? And are certain networks (eg a tier-1 telco's) large enough to warrant individual edge implementations anyway?
  • Single-cloud vs. Multi-cloud: Can all or most of the application's data and workloads be hosted on a single cloud/edge provider's platform? Or are they inherently dispersed among multiple providers (eg content on one, adverts from another, analytics on a third, legacy integration with a fourth / inhouse system)
For telcos in particular, there is an important subset of edge applications which definitely are single-network and internal, rather than client-facing: running their own VNFs (virtual network functions, security functions, distributed billing/charging, and managing cloud/virtualised radio networks (CRAN/vRAN). They also typically have existing relationships with content delivery networks (CDNs), both in-house and third-party.

This "anchor tenant" of on-network, single-telco functions is what is driving bodies like ETSI to link MEC to particular access networks and (largely) individual telcos. Some operators are looking at deploying MEC deep into the network, at individual cell towers or hub sites. Others are looking at less-distributed aggregation tiers, or regional centres.

The question is whether this single-network vision fits well with the broader base of edge-oriented applications, especially for IoT and enterprise.




How common will single-network access be?

The telco edge evolution (whether at region/city-level or down towards cells and broadband-access fibre nodes) is not happening in isolation. A key issue is that wide availability of such edge-cloud service - especially linked to ultra-low-latency 5G networks - will come after the access part of the network gets much more complex.



From a developer perspective, it will often be hard to be certain about a given user’s connectivity path, and therefore which or whose edge facilities to use, and what minimum latency can be relied upon:

  • 5G coverage will be very patchy for several years, and for reliable indoor usage perhaps 10 years or more. Users will regularly fall back to 4G or below, particularly when mobile.
  • Users on smartphones will continue to use 3rd-party WiFi in many locations. PC and tablet users, and many domestic IoT devices, will use Wi-Fi almost exclusively. Most fixed-wireless 5G antennas will be outdoor-mounted, connecting to Wi-Fi for in-building coverage.
  • Users and devices may use VPN security software with unknown egress points (possibly in another country entirely)
  • Not all 5G spectrum bands or operator deployments will offer ultra-low latency and may have different approaches to RAN virtualisation. 
  • Increasing numbers of devices will support multi-path connections (eg iOS TCP Multipath), or have multiple radios (eg cars).
  • Security functions in the network path (eg firewalls) may add latency
  • Growing numbers of roaming, neutral-host and MVNO scenarios involving third-party SPs are emerging. These will add latency, extra network paths and other complexities.
  • eSIM growth may enable more rapid network-switching, or multi-MNO MVNOs like Google Fi.
  • Converged operators will want to share compute facilities between their mobile and fixed networks.

This means that only very tightly-specified “single-network” edge applications make sense, unless there is a good mechanism for peering and interconnect, for instance with some form of “local breakout”.



So for instance, if Telco X operates a smart-city contract connecting municipal vehicles and street lighting, it could offer edge-compute functions, confident that the access paths are well-defined. Similarly it could offer deep in-network CDN functions for its own quad-play streaming, gaming or commerce services. 

But by contrast, an AR game that developers hope will be played by people globally, on phones & PCs, could connect via every telco, ISP & 3rd-party WiFi connection. It will need to be capable of dealing with multiple, shifting, access networks. An enterprise whose employees use VPN software on their PCs, or whose vehicles have multi-network SIMs for roaming, may have similar concerns.
 

The connected edge



I had a bit of an epiphany while listening to an Equinix presentation at PTC recently. The speaker talked about the “Interconnected Edge”, which I realised is very distinct from this vision of a single-telco edge.

Most of the datacentre industry tries to create facilities with multiple telco connections - ideally sitting on as many fibres as possible. This allows many ingress paths from devices/users, and egress paths to XaaS players or other datacentres. (This is not always possible for the most "remote" edges such as Pacific islands, where a single fibre and satellite backup might be the only things available).



And even for simple applications / websites, there may be multiple components coming from different servers (ads, storage, streaming, analytics, security etc) so the immediate edge needs to connect to *those* services with the easiest path. Often it’s server-to-server latency that’s more important than server-to-device, so things like peering and “carrier density” (ie lots of fibres into the building) make a big difference.

In other words, there are a number of trade-offs here. Typically the level of interconnectedness means more distance/latency from each individual access point (as it's further back in the network and may mean data transits a mobile core first), but that is set against flexibility elsewhere in the system. 

A server sitting underneath a cell-tower, or even in a Wi-Fi access point, will have ultra-low latency. But it will also have low interconnectedness. A security camera might have very fast local image-recognition AI to spot an intruder via edge-compute. But if it needs to match their face against a police database, or cross-check with another camera on a different network, that will take significantly longer.

But edge datacentres also face problems - they will typically only be in certain places. This might be fine for individual smart-city applications, or localised "multi-cloud" access, but it still isn't great for multinational companies or the game/content app-developers present in 100 countries.


Is edge-aggregation the answer?

The answer seems to be some form of software edge-federation or edge-broking layer, which can tie together a whole set of different edge resources, and hopefully have intelligence to deal with some of the network-access complexity as well.

I've been coming across various companies hoping to take on the role of aggregator, whether that's primarily for federating different telcos' edge networks (eg MobiledgeX), or helping developers deploy to a wider variety of edge-datacentre and other locations (eg Ori). 

I'm expecting this space to become a lot more complex and nuanced - some will focus on being true "horizontal" exchanges / APIs for multi-edge aggregation. The telco ones will focus on aspects like roaming, combined network+MEC quality of service and so on. Others will probably look to combine edge with SD-WAN for maximum resilence and lowest cost.

Yet more - probably including Amazon, Microsoft and other large cloud companies - will instead look to balance between edge vs. centralised cloud for different workloads, using their own partnerships with edge datacentres (perhaps including telcos) and containerisation approaches like Amazon's Greengrass.

Lastly, we may see the emergence of "neutral-host" networks of edge facilities, not linked to specific telcos, data-centre providers or fibre owners. These could be "open" collaborations, or even decentralised / blockchain-based approaches.

The "magic bullet" here will be the ability to cope with all the network complexities I mentioned above (which drive access paths and thus latencies), plus having a good geographic footprint of locations and interconnections. 

In a way, this is somewhat similar to the historic CDN model, where Akamai and others grew by placing servers in many ISPs' local networks - but that was more about reducing latency from core-to-edge, rather than device-to-edge, or edge-to-edge.

I doubt that this will resolve to a single monopoly player, or even an oligopoly - there are too many variables, dimensions and local issues / constraints.


 
Summary and conclusions

There are 3 main models emerging for organising edge-computing services and infrastructure:
  • Single-Network Telco Edge
  • Local / Interconnected Datacentre Edge
  • Federated / Open Edge
These will overlap, and hybrids and private/public splits will occur as well.

My current view remains that power constraints mean that in-network [telco-centric] edge cannot ever realistically account for more than 2% of overall global computing workloads or perhaps 3-5% of public cloud services provision, in volume terms – although pricing & revenue share may be higher for provable lower latencies. Now that is certainly non-trivial, but it’s also not game-changing. 

I also expect that in-network edge will be mostly delivered by telcos as wholesale capacity to larger cloud providers, or through edge-aggregation/federation players, rather than as “retail” XaaS sold directly to enterprises or application/IoT developers.

I’m also expecting a lot of telco-edge infrastructure to mostly serve fixed-network edge use-cases, not 5G or 4G mobile ones. 5G needs edge, more than edge needs 5G. While there are some early examples of companies deploying mini-datacentres at large cell-tower “hub” sites (eg Vapor.io), other operators are focusing further back in the network, at regional aggregation points, or fixed-operator central offices. It is still very early days, however.

The edge datacentre business has a lot of scope to grow, both in terms of networks of micro-datacentres, and in terms of normal-but-small datacentres in tier-2/3/4 cities and towns. However, it too will face complexities relating to multi-access users, and limited footprints across many locations.


The biggest winners will be those able to link together multiple standalone edges into a more cohesive and manageable developer proposition, that is both network-aware and cloud-integrated. 

The multi-network, multi-cloud edge will be tough to manage, but essential for many applications.

It is doubtful that telco-only edge clouds (solo or federated) can work for the majority of use-cases, although there will be some instances where the tightest latency requirements overlap with the best-defined connectivity models.

I'm tempted to create a new term of these players - we already have a good term for a meeting point of multiple edges: a corner. Remember where you first heard about Corner Computing...


If you are interested in engaging me for private consulting, presentations, webinars, or white papers, please get in touch via information at disruptive-analysis dot com, or my LinkedIn and Twitter

I will be writing a paper soon on "Edge Computing meets Voice & Video Communications" - get in touch if you are interested in sponsoring it. Please also visit deanbubley.com for more examples of my work and coverage.