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Monday, June 22, 2020

Industrial 5G networks will mostly be discrete and isolated

A key argument cited for telcos having a central role in industrial / vertical #5G networks is "service continuity". Devices and users can connect both on-premise and in the wide area, because both are enabled by the same operator. An MNO can thus best provide on-premise connectivity as an extension, or slice, of its normal national cellular network.

MNOs and industry groups often assert this to dissuade governments and regulators from assigning local spectrum licences directly to businesses.

This argument doesn't stack up, for several reasons.

On a recent virtual event I moderated for Nigel Yeates Juliet #5grealised the speaker from Three. Business pointed out that its customers' private 4G/5G networks were generally isolated, not part of 3's macro network. They even use different spectrum. They can do roaming, but it's not a priority.

A central point is that most connected IoT and automation systems don't move outside the facility. Industrial robots don't go for a walk to the shops. What does move are vehicles, personal devices and shipped electronic goods.

Yet here, having local & wide area coverage from the same MNO is of minimal use. Guests, contractors and employees have devices on *all* networks, not just that of the on-prem network operator.

So some sort of roaming or neutral-host arrangement would be needed. And those capabilities could be also be offered a new specialised provider, as well as by an incumbent MNO.

In fact, it might be easier (and quicker) for a genuinely neutral wholesale player to offer that capability, rather than one MNO trying to negotiate a site-specific roaming or interconnect deal with all its rivals.

Another reason is eSIM and dual-SIM. Devices can have separate profiles for on-premise and wide-area subscriptions, and just switch from one to the other when they're off-site. This is an increasingly common feature in smartphones and vehicles.

In fact, private cellular networks don't even need SIMs - 5G allows the use of other identifiers such as enterprise security credentials, or even the new Wi-Fi OpenRoaming model.

At a radio level, there are distinct advantages to running private networks in isolated fashion, in separate spectrum. They can use different configurations to the macro environment, perhaps optimised for a different mix of up- and downlink in TDD spectrum.

And lastly, it is much easier to treat a private network as private, rather than some unusual public/private hybrid. The legal situations and liabilities are clearer. SLAs can be described and enforced in contracts. There doesn't have to be alignment in deployment speeds or priorities. Different vendors can be chosen.

This doesn't mean that MNOs don't have a role in such private enterprise networks - but it's likely to be done by a separate business unit that can engineer solutions specifically for verticals, thinking about the customer first. It won't be done by the main "mothership" network group, desperate to find "5G use cases" and crowbar-ing its main network (and also its #networkslicing and #edgecomputing platform) into unsuitable applications.

That MNO enterprise business unit might decide the macro RAN is suitable for a given client. Or it may choose to build its own network locally, with the enterprise owning the spectrum license. Or it might work with 3rd parties - or use WiFi instead. I'm expecting MNOs to acquire lots of vertical-specialist integrators and network installation firms in some industries like manufacturing, ports, mining and healthcare.

Maybe over time they'll add value and revenue to the central 5G network business, or act as channels for its #URLLC and MEC businesses. But that won't be their only offering - just one of a portfolio of options.

More generally, all of this points to private 4G/5G networks - especially in industrial sectors and areas such as ports and mining - being based on discrete, isolated deployments. There may be involvement by a national MNO in its deployment or operation (or spectrum licensing), but the network usually won't be part of an MNO's main infrastructure. There might be service continuity - but there's many ways to offer that, and it usually won't be in the top 10 priorities considered.

I definitely think that the roaming approach and neutral-host model offer many opportunities connected to private cellular too. There's some interesting angles relating to Open RAN here as well. Unfortunately, many of the verticals holding most appeal - hotels, airports, stadiums, office complexes - have obvious problems for the next year or so, given the pandemic and ensuing recesssion.

I'll be exploring these issues at a couple of different upcoming events.

Firstly, on July 7th, I'm running my next private workshop on Neutral Host Networks with Peter Curnow-Ford. It's now switched to a virtual event, over morning and afternoon sessions - plus a networking event (a virtual "pub" with special entertainment) in the evening. The broad outline is the same as first announced (link here) with more detailed updated agenda and format in the next couple of days. It will remain as a private, off-the-record event under the Chatham House Rule.

Also on August 20th, I'm doing another #5GRealised session with Juliet Media, specifically on the role of telcos in private networks. Details are here

As always, this theme and broader area is one I also advise on privately. Please drop me a message if you have specific needs for consulting or insight.

#5G #NeutralHost #Verticals #PrivateLTE #Private5G

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Changes are coming to home broadband. Expect prosumer offers, WFH special features and consumer SDWAN

Expect a big upsurge in "prosumer" and WFH broadband over the next year, including consumer-oriented SDWAN approaches, FWA bundles and more. This offers opportunities for fixed and mobile telcos, Wi-Fi and gateway vendors, and enterprise systems-integrators and resellers.

Lockdowns have led to massive surges in home broadband demand. ISPs' networks have generally held up well, as home working and education has (mostly) just smoothed out evening streaming peaks across the whole day. Uplink data has risen much faster than downlink, because of cloud and video-calling use.

Mobile usage has been relatively flat during lockdown. Lower out-of-home usage (especially at entertainment venues and in-car) has been offset by non-WiFi / non-fixed broadband users consuming more data at home. FWA connections have been growing where available, and broadly mirroring fibre / cable usage trends.

But other issues are more complex.

Employers are struggling with their home-workers' poor bandwidth (especially upstream), unreliable connections and new network-security risks. Households with 2+ adults doing WFH, plus children home-schooling (or playing games) struggle with capacity and prioritisation. Some people are working from the garage, attic, garden shed or anywhere there is space - but perhaps not Wi-Fi coverage. (Ironically, I'm now working from my basement, which is actually where my Wi-Fi AP is, so my broadband experience is actually better than normal).

We will see many solutions:
  • Extension of company BYOD mobile policies, covering costs of upgrades to existing home broadband
  • Telcos offering high-QoS partitions on existing broadband
  • Small-biz broadband products sold for home use, including via employers
  • Businesses giving WFH staff a dedicated FWA modem or mobile hotspot, kept completely separate from normal home-broadband, for easier management by IT staff
  • Home Wi-Fi improvements where in-home is the bottleneck (WiFi6 & mesh). This is already filtering through via retail, but expect more ISPs/telcos to offer upgrades to old CPE soon.
  • Fixed+cellular converged broadband gateways, especially where 5G is available
  • 3rd-party gateways acting as SDWAN nodes, bonding fixed broadband with mobile/FWA from another telco
  • Second fixed connections to homes, in areas where there are 2+ fibre/cable infrastructure providers
There will be no obvious single "winner" here - it will depend on a given country's competitive landscape for broadband, telcos with new fibre build-outs looking for quick wins, urban density, single homes vs. apartments, availability and capacity of 4G/5G FWA networks, family size & make-up and much more. I'd expect dozens of innovative offers to emerge over the next 2-12 months.


Are you looking for a quick burst of market insight, product or service stress-testing, or idea-generation? As I'm WFH at the moment, I can now offer by-the-hour advisory sessions. See this link for details of availability & booking.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Edge computing meets Private Networking: quick thoughts

This morning, I gave a short presentation & then joined a panel of other speakers from Athonet, Ericsson, Huawei & Hewlett Packard Enterprise on a webinar session organised by TechUK.

It covered the role of edge computing in the context of private networks.

There are many possible different touch-points I see evolving between these two domains:
  • Enterprises wanting both private networks & on-premise edge compute for inhouse IoT systems and analytics (eg in manufacturing). This is not necessarily 3GPP-style MEC, though - it could be a local hyperscale node eg AWS Outpost
  • MNOs offering enterprises their own on-prem EPC/5GC node
  • MNOs offering 3GPP Release 16/17 5G with network slicing & integrated MEC edge capabilities (personally, I'm a bit skeptical that this is a big opportunity(
  • Metro edge datacentres for SPs running multiple private/vertical networks in a city, for hosting their own multi-tenant virtual cores or Open RAN elements
  • Neutral-host wireless networks for buildings or metro areas also offering "neutral edge" facilities, eg TowerCos or campus-network specialists
  • An edge data centre operator deploying its own citywide CBRS-type network for "one hop to the cloud" 4G/5G. (This harks back to my belief that Amazon could start using Whole Foods stores as mini data-centres, with direct fibre or cellular connectivity to the surrounding area)
  • Localised interconnect facilities (between MNOs, or private cellular network operators reaching cloud & public Internet). There's a whole host of edge-interconnect models I think will be essential - for instance where users of different MNOs have to interact with low latency (eg AR gaming), or where companies need external inputs to private networks & applications (eg 3rd party AI microservices for analytics).
In essence, this is a hugely complex intersection, which I'm only scratching the surface of here.

Ping me if this is an area where I can help you brainstorm new ideas, or test existing ones

Monday, May 04, 2020

Mobile standards may fragment again, driven by geopolitics

I think we might see a return to the old days of multiple competing mobile standards.

But rather than the US/Europe technical war of 2G/3G over the nuances of GSM & CDMA, this time I see a scenario driven more by US/China geopolitics and ideology, enabled by various technology catalysts.

[This is an extended and more nuanced version of a post of mine on LinkedIn - link, which I edited to fit the 1300chrs limit. It's worth looking at the discussion in the comments there]

The past: how LTE and 5G became global standards

To understand how we got here, and why we might diverge in future, we need to look at the past. Historically, there were two main competing camps for 2G and 3G networks:
  • GSM/UMTS, championed by 3GPP and Europe-centric players such as Ericsson, Nokia and major European operator groups such as Vodafone & Telefonica.
  • CDMA, driven by US companies, especially Qualcomm and Verizon, plus also Sprint, Lucent, Nortel and others, organised via 3GPP2
Back around 2006-7, when 4G was being designed and specified, a number of options were proposed:
  • LTE was the 3GPP's option
  • UMB was the CDMA/3GPP2 approach, leaning heavily on Qualcomm's acquisition of Flarion, which was developing an IEEE 802.20 wireless system.
  • WiMAX, which came from vendors with a Wi-Fi background, notably Intel. That was an IEEE technology too - 802.16.
For various reasons, LTE won, and the others disappeared. (I wrote plenty about this at the time, if you want to go through my archived posts, such as here and here). 

IEEE still technologies dominate in local networks such as Wi-Fi and "personal area networks" such as Bluetooth, but for wide-area mobile, the 3GPP dynasty rules supreme.

But there's a back-story to LTE's success, and its rise as the single global standard for 4G.

In the 3G era, it wasn't just UMTS vs. CDMA2000, but also the Chinese TD-SCDMA standard. (& minor proprietary techs, such as Nextel's & Motorola's iDEN)

TD-SCDMA never gained traction outside China's domestic market, but it helped build the local industry to scale and then evolved into TD-LTE for 4G, which was folded in as part of the global LTE story.

The world's mobile-dedicated spectrum comes in two varieties - FDD (frequency-division duplexing) which uses separate 'paired' bands for uplink and downlink, and TDD (time-division duplexing) which uses a single 'unpaired' band, alternating between up/down slices of time. 2G and 3G were dominated by FDD radios. The inclusion of TD-LTE enabled 4G to access both categories. (WiMAX was TDD-only, a major failing).

The Europe+China combination made 3GPP / LTE unstoppable, especially given the extra scale in terms of both market size and spectrum it enabled. It also cemented Huawei's role as a powerhouse, and partly led to Alcatel's acquisition by Nokia and Nortel's cellular business by Ericsson. Qualcomm's conversion to the LTE cause helped too.  

In parallel to the radio, the 4G cellular core network (EPC) also rose in perceived importance compared to 2G/3G eras, as it allowed MNOs much greater control over data flows. It also allowed vendors easier lock-in.

For the last 11 years, the mobile industry has exploded, partly because of LTE's ubiquity and scale economies, and partly because of the simultaneous rise of the iPhone and Android. It's worth noting that 3GPP's original vision for 3G and 4G didn't see access to the "public Internet" as a core part of the service, although it now dominates usage and value.

In recent years, we have seen the 3GPP "global standard" continue to evolve to 5G, with Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson, Qualcomm dominating the landscape again, plus Samsung and a few others following behind them. At the moment, most 5G is "non-standalone", using the existing 4G cores - and thus again locking-in the established vendors, and the existing powerful core and exclusive national-licence philosophy favouring traditional large MNOs.

However, the 5G vision of many of the industry "old guard" is still centres on the them vs. us approach to network control and "native" (ie telco-delivered) services. There's still the almost-bigoted rhetoric and lobbying about so-called "OTTs" (an obsolete and self-damaging term, in my view), and the attempt to dilute - or at least monitor - the user's desire & ability to access open Internet applications and even connect independently via Wi-Fi.


But now, I see clouds gathering - or new rays of sunshine, depending on your perspective.

I think that geopolitics may undermine the "single global standard" for mobile, along with some conveniently-timed technical evolution paths. This is not a forecast, or even the most likely outcome - but I believe it is solidifying into a much more realistic scenario.

For the later stages of 5G (from Release 17 onwards), and then beyond that with the evolution of 6G, I think the US might be about to diverge from the last decade's consensus.

The Sino-US politics were already stark, even before the COVID19 pandemic added more fuel to the fire. We have already seen massive pressure with regard to Huawei, not just in North America but across Europe and other OECD countries such as Japan and Australia. The US has previously taken action against ZTE as well, and more recently has started even discouraging interconnection with Chinese telcos (link). 

Apparently, the US tech industry is now being pushed/advised to avoid working with China, even on standards development (see this Economist article, although it may be behind a paywall for some - link). That potentially weakens US influence at 3GPP, and could prompt it to seek alternative paths forward. We can expect the US Presidential campaign to focus on this theme as well, over the next 6 months - although both major US political parties have been fairly unified on the ongoing trade disputes with China.

There are also some signs of tougher views in Europe. Even though the UK and EU have allowed continued limited engagement with Huawei, the politics is still hardening, especially in the wake of the virus' trajectory (link).

But this is not just about geopolitics. It is also about technology "philosophy". I see something of a divide here, too. In a way, it's a modern-day version of the Bellheads vs. Netheads battle of the past (link):

  • Control: On one side is a vision of mobile world with strong vendor / MNO / national control, evolved from today's 3GPP & GSMA vision. This has
    • Strong policy control - and eventually network-slicing - delivered from a powerful core network. 
    • Deep reach down into devices, from SIMs to connectivity management, and perhaps surveillance options. 
    • A big focus on optimised & automated infrastructure, which probably favours single-vendor (or at least big-vendor) approaches. 
    • An expectation of exclusive national spectrum licenses, with limited scope for local or enterprise networks which do not also lean on MNOs' services. 
    • There's also a lot of work aimed at reinventing TCP/IP in ways that give telcos more control, as well. 
    • Edge-computing is integrated into the telco domain as much as possible, and delivered as part of a "slice" or MNO service.
  • Openness:The other world vision has a more open / Internet-centric approach. It's more "permissionless" with vendor or even operator lock-ins of any sort being anathema. There's:
    • Less core-network control, favouring local breakout & device-led multiple connections, without the MNO (or government) having a panopticon view of traffic. 
    • An emerging focus on disaggregated & open RAN models (O-RAN, TIP, OpenRAN etc), favouring multivendor- and IT/cloud -centric architectures. 
    • An expectation of Wi-Fi indoors, often owned and controlled by a non-MNO. 
    • Growing availability of more-open spectrum with dynamic / local licenses, as well as traditional exclusive bands as a foundation. 
    • Edge computing is primarily an enabler of telecom networks, not delivered by them - and the expectation is that most will be neutral or independent, in local 3rd-party datacentres/modules or on enterprise premises.
In a way, this is almost a 3GPP vs. IEEE/IETF divide, but just as politics has shifted from a left/right axis to open/closed, perhaps something similar is happening here too.

It's not clear that the wireless world will cleave cleanly along this divide, especially in the near future as 5G is still being deployed. AT&T and Verizon will not be happy relinquishing control-points, either. So today, we have some fairly messy - and maybe unworkable - hybrids. There's lots of talk about opening APIs for enterprises to configure their own 5G slices. We have some grudging approaches to blending cellular and Wi-Fi, and various moves to enable "non-public networks" for enterprise in Release 16 & 17 of the 5G standards. But even that phrasing is awkward and somewhat derisive - as is the term "non-trusted" to describe other access networks.

But the technology forces are clear, even beyond the politics. In the last year or so we have seen:
  • CBRS launching, with dynamic spectrum and a focus on new use-cases and business models, especially enterprise/local networks. It is catalysing a new vendor ecosystem of small cell suppliers, cloud EPCs and specialised SPs and integrators.
  • Huge interest in local/private spectrum and networks in Germany, UK, Japan and elsewhere
  • Rakuten, Dish and other operators validating the vRAN model and working with new US-centric vendors like Altiostar and Mavenir. (Rakuten is, like Softbank, an Internet company diversifying into cellular. Dish isn't "old school" mobile, either, but a satellite TV provider).
  • Huge upswing of presence of IT/cloud players in cellular infrastructure, including acquisitions. IBM/RedHat, Dell/VMware, Microsoft/Affirmed, HPE, Oracle - plus AWS and Google taking various roles from RAN to core, as well as Facebook with TIP and its new stake in Reliance Jio
  • A massive tranche of 6GHz spectrum being made available on an unlicensed basis in the US, primarily for Wi-Fi6E, but also maybe 5G variants in future as well. This has further killed off the (already implausible) idea that cellular-based LANs might edge out Wi-Fi
  • Fragmentation of the EPC / 5G Core marketplace, with low-cost / cloud-based / programmable / "light" variants that look like a normal piece of the IT stack, rather than arcane telco wizardry. (I wonder if we'll see "core-optional" mobile networks - but that's for another post).
  • More interest in mmWave in the US and South Korea, including for indoor use.
  • FCC and the White House have taken a close interest in 5G and next-gen wireless, and seem keen to foster a local technology ecosystem for mobile (link)
  • Innovation in satellite constellations such as SpaceX's Starlink
  • Plenty of other big US-centric technology players watching closely, such as Cisco, Juniper and of course Apple.
  • (I know there's also various moves around evolving TCP/IP, but I haven't had a chance to get my head around them yet).
We might still see 5.5G and 6G world emerge as an elegant hyper-converged version of these two philosophies. And we'll certainly see firms such as Ericsson and Huawei try to continue the 3GPP/control vision, while also exploring the opportunities and tools from the other side. Neither seems especially happy with the rise of local/private spectrum or pure-play enterprise and neutral-host providers. It's easier to sell direct to 100s of MNOs, than 10000s of enterprises via a myriad of new channels and integrators.
I'm also interested to see what happens with ownership of Nokia (which seems a bit more open to the new realities) given its financial woes - and also how the European governments and regulators act. Is Europe a bridge between the two worlds, or does it fall in the gap? 

In many ways, I see the EU model lean more towards MNO control, with governments happier to focus regulation on competition at commercial levels, rather than technical - it tends to push harmonisation heavily, as a consequence of its previous success with GSM which catalysed the whole sector. There is more wiggle-room around enterprise and local spectrum licensing, given the strong lobbies for manufacturing and other industrial sectors., plus more emphasis on privacy.

I can imagine Japan aligning more with the US vision, but South Korea in a similar position to Europe. A year ago, Samsung was the obvious beneficiary of Huawei's problems. Now, it's probably the OpenRAN ecosystem that's the effective #3 choice.

At the moment, I'd rate the chances of a more-serious and clearer split at 30% and rising. It won't happen overnight - I think that Release 17 is probably the trigger-point. By the time we get to 2030 and 6G though, I wouldn't be surprised to see a revival of something that looks like 3GPP2, or perhaps (whisper it, as many will cringe) WiMAX2. At the very least, it will be more Internet-flavoured.

If the "old guard" vendors and their institutional peers within 3GPP, GSMA, ETSI etc. want to avoid this bifurcation, they are going to have to make some difficult decisions, and soon. Otherwise the potential to be disrupted from adjacency will grow. They need to be genuinely open, and start loosening the vision of pure "end-to-end control", and embracing imperfect, inelegant pragmatism about network design, operation and ownership. Exactly how that fits with the worsening geopolitical landscape is a problem I'll leave for the diplomats and spin-doctors.

Note: If you are interested in understanding more about this scenario, or are looking for an analyst or advisor to help formulate strategy in the wireless technology space, please get in touch with me. I can be reached via LinkedIn, @disruptivedean on Twitter, or via information at disruptive-analysis dot com.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Rethinking wireless networks for post-COVID19 Smart Buildings

For the past month or so, I've been thinking about the longer-term technology, policy and business trends that might emerge in the wake of the current pandemic. I'm especially interested in those that could directly or indirectly affect the use and deployment of networks and communications.

I wrote up my initial scenarios for what might lie ahead for the telecoms industry in the recent STL Partners report on COVID-19: Now, Next & After (link), and also discussed them on the STL webinar on the same topic (link). The next update webinar is on May 6th - link. 

I've also participated in other client webinars and podcasts on campus networks (link), private 4G/5G (link) and Wi-Fi6E (link) recently - and I always include a section considering the pandemic's impact. (Any market analysis or opinion formed more than 2 months ago now needs to be reconsidered in the light of the pandemic and coming economic recession).

With that in mind, one area I've started thinking about is that of in-building wireless and smart buildings, especially relating to business locations. (Residential coverage of cellular and better home broadband / Wi-Fi is also top-of-mind, but I'll tackle that separately another time).

Obviously, offices and shopping malls are currently empty in much of the world, but eventually they will return to regular use, to some level at least. Even buildings sadly vacated by companies that cannot survive the economic impact will likely gain new tenants and uses.  

Making buildings pandemic-proof 

We already have building codes and regulations to protect us against fire risks, and even earthquakes. For fires, we have sensors, alarms, fire escapes, drills, signage and so on. In parts of the world there are specific rules governing indoor coverage for public safety radios, and they are being updated as agencies upgrade from P25 / TETRA systems to 4G / 5G critical-communications cellular alternatives.

So what else would it take to make a building "pandemic-proof"? I'm especially interested how we manage social distancing - both during the next phase of recovery and a gradual return to near-normal when a vaccine becomes available, but also during possible future waves of COVID or new entirely outbreaks. 

In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis there was a big focus on banks' transparency, financial stability and regulatory "stress tests". I'd be very surprised if equivalent changes don't take place over the next few years - especially as many coronavirus infections are understood to occur indoors.

I've found various articles about smart buildings and the pandemic already, where the main focus seems to be on general hygiene and infection control. Using thermal cameras (and perhaps facial recognition) can automate detection of people with fevers. LED lights can provide disinfection in some cases, and bathroom sensors can help enforce hand-washing. Remote access to building-management systems allow facilities personnel to work from home. Better management of temperature and humidity may reduce the survival time of viruses and bacteria.

I can imagine a range of strategies being adopted in coming years:
  • Temperature-detection and hygiene management, as above.
  • Ability for remote building-management wherever possible
  • Design guidelines for wider corridors and stairways, better ventilation, virus-unfriendly surfaces, automated doors rather than handles, and so on
  • Ways to impose, measure and enforce social-distancing rules in emergencies - for example by dynamically lowering maximum numbers of permitted people in enclosed spaces, or digital signs for making corridors or aisles into one-way systems.
  • Use of sensors to measure occupancy, density and flow of people, and control entry/exit better
  • Automated disinfection systems or processes (maybe using robots)
  • Use of occupants' / visitors' phones or other devices to help them navigate / work more safely
  • Ability for authorities to use cameras, admission-control and other data for contact-tracing purposes (subject to emergency laws on privacy etc).
Clearly, not all of these can apply to all buildings - and there is obviously a huge spectrum of venue types with different requirements. A supermarket is different to an office block, a corner-shop, a factory or warehouse full of robots. Older buildings are not likely to be able to widen corridors, while a "cube farm" has more flexibility. 

But what that means is that in a future outbreak, a government could say: "Workplaces certified to standard PNDMC-A can remain open, if they reduce occupancy to X, Y & Z metrics. PNDMC-B locations must comply with emergency rules A, B & C. All others must close."

Clearly, those type of rules will incentivise building owners and developers to upgrade their sites wherever possible. While it is too early to guess exactly how the specific regulations might be formulated, there are nonetheless some initial ideas and steps to think through.

The role of networks

Given my own focus on mobile and wireless systems, a key theme immediately leaps to my mind: many of these techniques and practices will require better and wider indoor connectivity than is common today in many places. 

While some building-management systems will be based on wired connections (not least as they'll need cables for power anyway), I expect wireless networks to be extremely important for much of this.

I see wireless networks being employed both indirectly (for connection of sensors, cameras or other devices, such as smartphones used for distancing apps) and directly by using the network itself as a sensing and measurement tool. Indoor mapping and positioning will be needed in tandem with wireless for various use-cases.

There are particular challenges and opportunities for indoor wireless systems here:
  • There will be a need to support both public networks (for indoor use of nationwide MNO networks and services) and localised private wireless, for the building or company's own needs.
  • Almost inevitably, both 3GPP cellular (4G/5G) and Wi-Fi (5/6/7) will be essential for different use-cases and device types, plus public-safety wireless such as TETRA. In many some cases additional technologies such as Bluetooth low-energy, ZigBee or proprietary systems will also be required as well. 
  • All of this will occur while major transitions to 5G (at different frequencies) and private cellular networks are ongoing in coming years.
  • Any real-time mobile app, whether it is giving alerts, or uploading updates on location, will be dependent on good wireless connectivity, either via Wi-Fi or in-building cellular connections
  • Proximity-based apps (for instance using Bluetooth) will risk false-positives if they are not integrated with building location and indoor-mapping systems. You can safely stay 2 metres from someone infected, if there is a wall or floor/ceiling between you.
  • IoT systems such as disinfectant robots will also need access to indoor maps and granular positioning technology.
  • Next-generation networks such as private/campus 5G and also recent Wi-Fi meshes have improved wireless-positioning abilities. This could allow both real-time and reported proximity-monitoring - as well as enabling remote working & even "lights out" full automation in industrial settings
  • Both Wi-Fi and cellular networks can work out how many devices/users are not just connected, but detected, even if they do not attempt - or are not permitted - to connect to a given system. That could yield good data on user-density, especially if they are personal devices such as smartphones.
  • Wi-Fi enhancements already enable motion-detection - which can be considerably more accurate than traditional infra-red, and also work through walls. One technology innovator here is Cognitive Systems (link) but there are others as well. I've also seen suggestions that future 5G variants may be able to do something similar, if deployed with small cells. (I'm not sure how it would work with other in-building shared networks, though).
  • Potential to use localised cell-broadcast messaging, or Wi-Fi hotspot captive-portal pages, to distribute public health information and advice
  • There may be a growing need to align the indoor wireless network(s) with nearby outdoors connectivity, or link multiple buildings together well. Campus networks are already growing in importance for multiple reasons (link) and social-distancing and control adds another set of use-cases. (Consider private/public spaces such as courtyards, rooftop bars, parking lots and so on).
  • The use of virtualised radio networks (or specific variants such as OpenRAN) could also prove valuable here - for instance to enable operators to scale up/down capacity dedicated to indoor 5G wireless systems, or switch radio VNFs between indoor and outdoor coverage. (This goes far beyond pandemic-proofing and I will write about it another time). 
  • Neutral-host indoor wireless systems will be able to onboard new tenant networks such as public safety, or private building management networks, depending on future requirements and spectrum licensing policy.
  • There may be edge-computing requirements driven by pandemic-proofting, although that doesn't necessarily imply either on-prem or very granular nearby edge facilities, rather than metro-level.
This is still just a very rough draft of my ideas - and clearly there are various policy / regulatory hypotheses here as well as technology direction. I'm not a specialist on building regulations, so it's quite possible I've made unreasonable assumptions. But this is intended as the start of a discussion, rather than a definitive forecast. I expect this topic and more detailed discussion to surface in coming months and years.

Your comments are very welcome - and if you want to get in touch with me directly, please connect on my LinkedIn, or send me a Twitter DM. If you're hosting any webinars, or holding internal brainstorms on this, I'd be very interested in participating.

Monday, February 24, 2020

3rd Neutral Host Workshop + OpenRAN for shared networks. Early bird still available

NOTE: Owing to uncertainty around the impact of Coronavirus on travel, event attendance, company policies & venues, this workshop has been postponed from 31st March until 7th July. We have contacted existing registered attendees to discuss the options

On March 31st  July 7th I'll be running my 3rd public workshop on Neutral Host Networks in central London, together with colleague Peter Curnow-Ford.

As well as covering the basics of new wholesale/sharing models for MNOs, both with and without dedicated spectrum, we will also be looking more closely at the fit between NHNs and new virtualised vRAN / OpenRAN technologies. 

We'll cover all the various use-cases: metro-area network densification, indoor systems for various venues, road/rail coverage, rural wholesale models, FWA and more. 

The links (and differences) between neutral-host and private LTE/5G will be discussed, as well as alternative models such as multi-MNO sharing or national roaming. (see this post for some previous thoughts on this)

Different countries' competitive, regulatory and spectrum positions will be covered, to assess how that will impact the evolution of NHNs. 
Early bird pricing is available before June 7th.

Full details and registration are available here

Friday, January 03, 2020

Predictions for the next decade: looking out to 2030 for telecoms, wireless & adjacent technologies

It's tempting to emulate every other analyst & commentator and write a list of 2020 predictions of success and failure. In fact, I got part-way into a set of bulletpoints about what’s overhyped and underhyped. 

But to be honest, if you read my articles and tweets, you probably know what I think about 2020 already. Private cellular networks will be important (4G, initially). 5G fixed wireless is interesting and will grow the FWA market - but won't replace fibre. 5G is Just Another G and is overhyped, especially until the new core matures. RCS is still a worthless zombie, eating brains. But I don't need to repeat all this in detail, just because I'm a bit more sharp-worded than most observers. It wouldn't tell you much new.

But seeing as I spend a fair amount of time advising clients about the longer-term future, 5-10 years out or even further, I thought I'd set my sights higher. I use the term "telco-futurism" to look at the impacts of technology and broader society on telecoms, and vice versa.

So, at the start of the 2020s, what about the next decade? Assuming I haven't retired to my palatial Mars-orbiting private Moon in 10 years' time, what do I think I'll be writing, podcasting (or neural-transmitting) about in 2030?

So, let's have a few shots at this more-distant target...

  • 6G: In 2030, the first 6G networks are already gaining traction in the marketplace. The first users are still fixed connections to homes, and personal devices that look a bit similar to phones and wearables, but with a variety of new display and UI technologies, including contact lenses and advanced audio/haptic interfaces. 6G represents the maturing of various 5G concepts (such as the new core), plus greater intelligence to allow efficient operation. 
  • Details, details: Much of the 2020s will have been spent dealing with numerous "back-office" problems that have stopped many early 5G visions becoming real. Network-slicing will have thrown up huge operationalisation and security issues. Dealing with QoS/slice roaming or handoff, at borders between networks (outdoor / indoor / private / neutral / international) will be hugely complex. Edge computing scenarios will turn out to need local peering or interconnection points. All of these will have huge extra complexities with billing, pricing and monitoring. mmWave planning and design tools will need to have matured, as well as the processes for installation and operation.Training and skills for all of this will have been time-consuming and expensive - we'll need hundreds of thousands of experts - often multi-domain experts. By the time all these issues get properly fixed, 6G radios and vendors will exploit them, rather than the "legacy 5G" infrastructure. See this post for my discussion about the telecom industry's problems with accurate timelines.
  • Device-Network cooperation: By 2030, mobile ecosystems and control software will break today's silos between radio network, devices and applications much more effectively. Sensors in users' devices, cell-towers and elsewhere will be linked to AI which works out how, why and where people or IoT objects need connectivity and how best to deliver it. Recognise a moving truck with machine-vision, and bounce signals off it opportunistically. Work out that someone is approaching the front of a building, and pre-emptively look for Wi-Fi, or negotiate with the in-building neutral host on a marketplace before they enter the door. Spot behavioural patterns such as driving the same route to work, and optimise connectivity accordingly. Recognise a low battery, and tweak the "best-connected" algorithm for power efficiency, and downrate apps' energy demand.Integrate with crowd-flow patterns or weather forecasts. There will be thousands of ways to improve operations if networks stop just thinking of a "terminal" as just an endpoint, and look for external sources of operational data - that's a 20th Century approach. Expect Google's work on its Fi MVNO & Android/Pixel phones, and similar efforts by Samsung and maybe Apple, Qualcomm and ARM, to have driven much of this cross-domain evolution.
  • Energy-aware networks: Far more energy-awareness will be designed into all aspects of the network, cloud and device/app ecosystem. I'm not predicting some sort of monolithic and integrated cascading-payments system linked into CO2-taxes, but I expect "energy budget" to be linked much more closely to costs (including externalities) in different areas. How best to optimise wired/wireless data for power demand, where best to charge devices, "scavenging" for power and so on. Maybe even "nudge" people to lower-energy applications or consumption behaviours by including "power-shaming" indicators. If 3GPP and governments get their act together, as well as vendors & CSPs, overall 6G energy use will be a higher priority design-goal than throughput speed and latency.
  • Wi-Fi: We'll probably be on Wi-Fi 9 by 2030. It will continue to dominate connectivity inside buildings, especially homes and business premises with FTTX broadband (i.e. most of them in developed markets). It will continue to be used for primary connectivity on high-throughput / low-margin / low-mobility devices like TVs and display screens, PC-type devices, AR/VR headsets and so on. It will be bonded together with 5G/6G and other technologies with ever-better multi-path mechanisms, including ad-hoc device meshes. Ease of use will have improved, with the success of approaches like OpenRoaming. Fairly little public Wi-Fi will be delivered by "service providers" as we think of them today.  We'll probably still have to suffer the "6G will kill Wi-Fi" pundit-pieces and hype, though.
  • Spectrum: The spectrum world changes slowly at a global level, thanks to the glacial 4-year cycle of ITU WRCs. By 2030 we will have had 2023 and 2027 conferences, which will probably harmonise more spectrum for 5G/6G, satellites & high-altitude platforms (HAPS) and Wi-Fi type unlicensed use. The more interesting developments will occur at national / regional levels, below the ITU's role, in how these bands actually get released / authorised - and especially whether that's for localised or shared usage suitable for private networks and other innovators. By 2030 we should have been through 2+ cycles of US CBRS and UK/Germany/Japan/France style local licensing experiments, allocation methods, databases and sensing systems. I think we'll be closer to some of the "spectrum-as-a-service" models and marketplaces I've been discussing over the last 24 months, with more fluid resale and temporary usage permits. International allocations will still differ though. We will also see whether other options, such as "national licenses with lots of extra conditions" (eg MVNO access, rural coverage, sharing, power use etc) has helped maintain today's style of MNOs, despite the grumbling. We will also see much more opportunism and flexibility in band support in silicon/devices, and more sophisticated approaches to in-band sharing between different technologies. I'm less certain whether we will have progressed much with commercialisation of mmWave bands 20-100GHz, especially for mobile and indoor use. It's possible and we'll certainly see lots of R&D, but the practicalities may prove insuperable for wide usage.
  • Private/neutral cellular: Today, there's around 1000 MNOs globally (public and private). By 2030, I'd expect there to be between 100,000 and a million networks, probably with various new types of service provider, aggregation hubs and consortia. These will span industrial, city, office, rural, utility, "public venue" and many other domains. It will be increasingly hard to distinguish private from public, eg with MNOs' campus networks with private cores and hybrid public/private spectrum. We might even get another zero, if the goals of making private 4G/5G as easy and cheap to build as Wi-Fi prove feasible, although I have doubts. Most of these networks will be user-specific, but a decent fraction will be multi-tenant, either offering wholesale access or roaming to "legacy MNOs" as neutral hosts, or with some sort of landlord model such as a property company running a network with each occupied floor or building on campus as a "semi-private" network. Some such networks will look like micro-telcos (eg an airport providing access to caterers & airlines) and will need billing, management & security tools - and perhaps new forms of regulation. This massive new domain will help catalyse various shifts in the vendor community as well - especially cloud-native core and BSS/OSS, and probably various forms of open RAN, and also "neutral edge".
  • Security & privacy: I'm not a security expert, so I hesitate to imagine the risks and responses 10 years out. Both good and bad guys will be armed to the teeth with AI. We'll see networks attacked physically as well as logically. We'll see sophisticated thefts of credentials and what we quaintly term "secrets" today. There will be cameras and mics everywhere. Quantum threats may compromise encryption - and other quantum tools may enhance it, as well as provide new forms of identity and authentication. We will need to be wary of threats within core networks, especially where orchestration and oversight is automated. I think we will be wise to avoid "monocultures" of technologies at various levels of the network - we need to trade off efficiency and scale vs. resilience.
  • Satellite / HAPS: We'll definitely have more satellite constellations by 2030, including some huge ones from SpaceX or others. I have my doubts that they will be "game-changers" in terms of our overall broadband use, except in rural/remote areas. They won't have the capacity of terrestrial networks, and signals will struggle with indoor penetration and uplink from anything battery-powered. Vehicles, planes, boats and remote IoT will be much better-connected, though. Space junk & cascading-collision scenarios like the movie Gravity will be a worry, though. I'm not sure about drones and balloons as HAPS for mass-market use, although I suspect they'll have some cool applications we don't know today.
  • Cloud & edge: Let's get one thing clear - the bulk of the world's computing cycles & data storage will continue to occur in massive datacentres (perhaps heading towards a terawatt of aggregate power by 2030) and on devices themselves, or nearby gateways. But there will be a thriving mid-market of different sorts of "edge" as I've covered in many posts and presentations recently. This will partly be about low-latency, but not as much as most people think. It will be more about saving mass data-transport costs, protecting "data sovereignty" and perhaps optimising energy consumption. A certain amount will be inside telcos' networks, but without localised peering / aggregation this will be fairly niche, or else it will be wholesaled out to the big cloud players. There will be a lot of value in the overall orchestration of compute tasks for applications between multiple locations in the ecosystem, from chip-level to hyperscale and back again. The fundamental physical quantum of much edge compute will be mundane: a 40ft shipping container, plonked down near sources of power and fibre.
  • Multi-network: We should expect all connectivity to be "software-defined" and "multi-network". Devices will have lots of radios, connecting simultaneously, with different paths and providers (and multiple eSIM / other identities). Buildings will have mutliple fibres, wireless connections and management tools. Device-to-device connections and relaying will be prevalent. IoT will use a selection of LPWAN technologies as well as Wi-Fi, cellular and short-range connections. Satellite and maybe LiFi (light-based) connections will play new roles. Arbitrage, bonding, load-balancing will occur at multiple levels from silicon to OS to gateway to mid-network. Very few things will be locked to a single network or provider - unless it has unique value such as managed security or power consumption.
  • Voice & messaging: Telephony will be 150yo in 2026. By 2030 we'll still be making some retro-style "phone calls" although it will seem even more clunky, interruptive, unnatural and primitive than today. (It won't stop the cellular industry spending billions upgrading to Vo6G though). SMS won't have disappeared, either. But most consumers will communicate through a broad variety of voice and video interaction models, in-app, group-based, mediated by an array of assistants, and veracity-checked to avoid "fake voice" and man-in-the-middle attacks of ever increasing subtlety. Another 10 years of evolution beyond emojis, stories, filters and live broadcasts will allow communication which is expressive, emotion-first, and perhaps even richer and more nuanced than in-person body language. I'm not sure about AR/VR comms, although it will still be more important than RCS which will no doubt be celebrating its 23rd year of irrelevance, hype and refusal to die.
  • Enterprise comms:  UCaaS, cPaaS and related collaboration tools will progress steadily, if unspectacularly - although with ever more cloud focus. There will be more video, more AI-enriched experiences for knowledge management, translation, whispered coaching and search. There will be attempts to reduce travel to meetings and events as carbon taxes bite, although few will come close to the in-person experience or effectiveness. We'll still have some legacy phone calls and numbers (as with consumer communications) although these will be progressively pushed to the margins of B2B and E2E interactions. Ever more communications will take place "contextually" - within apps, natively supported in IoT devices, or with AI-based assistants. Contact centres and customer interactions will be battlegrounds for bots and assistants on both sides. ("Alexa, renegotiate my subscription for a better price - you have permission to emulate my voice"). Security and verification will be highly prized - just because something is heard doesn't mean it will match what was originally spoken
  • Network ownership models: Some networks of today will still look mostly like "telcos" in 2030,  but as I wrote in this post the first industry to be transformed by 5G will be the telecom industry itself. We'll see many new stakeholders, some of which look like SPs, some which are private network operators, and many new forms of aggregator, virtual operator, wholesale or neutral mobile/fibre provider. I'm not expecting a major shift back to nationalised or government-run networks, but I think regulations will favour more sharing of assets where it makes sense. Individual industries will take control of their own connectivity and communications, perhaps using standardised 5G, or mild variations of it. There will be major telcos of today still around - but most will not be providing "slices" to companies and offering deep cross-vertical managed services. There will be M&A which means that we'll have a much more heterogeneous telco/CSP market by 2030 than today's 800 identikit national MNOs. Fixed and fibre providers will be diverse as well - especially with the addition of cloud, utility and muncipal providers. I think the towerco / property-telco model will be important as asset owners / builders as well.
I realise that I could go on at length about many other topics here - autonomous and connected vehicles, the future of cities and socio-political spheres, shifts in entertainment models, the second wave of blockchain/ledgers, the role of human enhancement & biotech, new sources of energy and environmental technology, new forms of regulation and so forth. But this list is already long enough, I think. Various of these topics will also appear in podcasts - which I'm intending to ramp up in 2020. At the moment I'm on SoundCloud (link) but watch out here or on Twitter for announcements of other platforms.

If this has piqued your interest, please comment on my blog or LinkedIn article. This is a vision for 2030, which I hope is self-consistent and reasonable - but it is not the only plausible future scenario.

If you're interested in running a private workshop to discuss, debate and strategise around any of these topics, please get in touch via private message, or information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com. I work with numerous operators, vendors, regulators, industry bodies and investors to imagine the future of networks and other advanced technologies - and steer the path of evolution.

Happy New Year! (and New Decade)