Speaking Engagements & Private Workshops - Get Dean Bubley to present or chair your event

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Future Spectrum Policy: 10-year Disruptions

Yesterday, I presented & debated on disruptions & directions for spectrum-management, at UK regulator Ofcom's annual spectrum conference in London. The slide-deck (it was just a short 15-minute intro) & my Twitter thread are at the bottom of this post.

I was on a panel with representatives from Google (Simon Saunders, who looks after EMEA connectivity partnerships) & the FCC (Julius Knapp, Chief of Rules & Policy Division)

This was a really fun session, as my remit was to look into the medium-to-far future (10 years or so) and think about some totally new angles on spectrum for upcoming regulatory policy. Often, I throw rocks at things that don’t make sense… This time, it was more like tossing rocks into a pond, and watching the ripples propagate & stimulating ideas.

My previous presentations at Ofcom events have been on more immediate needs on spectrum: sharing models, local cellular, Private LTE, Neutral Host* networks [see comment on upcoming workshop, below] and the need for “network diversity” rather than just enabling a 3GPP 5G monoculture. This was about taking a much longer view.

Some of the topics I covered were:
  • Designing spectrum management policy (& future 6G mobile systems) with a direct link to implied energy consumption / CO2 emissions from its usage
  • Asking the question “will harmonisation be as important in future as it has been in the past?” given that we’re ever better at creating software abstraction layers, and creating multi-radio / multi-band chips and devices.
  • The next stages of dynamic spectrum allocatin: towards fluid spectrum marketplaces, API-led spectrum platforms, and radio resource within broader “Mobile Network-aaS or Satellite Service-aaS” concepts
  • Ensuring that spectrum allocations and processes ensure multiple delivery/business models are supported: services, private, amenity networks etc. This contrasts, for example, with existing national licenses for mobile spectrum, which are geared strongly to the MNO business model.
  • My new disruptions/distractions framework for realistic assessment of predictions of tech deployment & market evolution (see this post)
  • Spectrum releases aimed at more device-to-device & intra-device usage (for example between components on a circuit-board)
  • Potential post-Brexit divergence for UK #pectrum policy (we didn’t get a chance to drill into this much)
Overall, it was a really enjoyable session (my Twitter thread is at the end of this post). It might odd to describe a regulatory event on radio spectrum as “fun”, but this panel was certainly lively and wide-ranging. My co-panellists talked about everything from DevOps and just-in-time spectrum availability, to taking the lessons from US CBRS and expanding to other bands or regions.

I'm looking forward to similar events in the UK and other regions, both on spectrum (eg mobile / WiFi / satellite needs) and other regulatory angles on future networks and communications. Please get in touch if you need a speaker or panellist.

*Neutral Host Networks — if this area is of interest, I am running a 2nd London public workshop on Nov 21st, with Peter Curnow-Ford MIoD Details here: https://disruptivewireless.blogspot.com/p/2nd-neutral-host-networks-london-public.html And if you’re interested in a private internal session for your own team, please see here: https://disruptivewireless.blogspot.com/p/private-workshops.html

Dean Bubley presentation at Ofcom Mapping The Future 2019 Spectrum Conference from Dean Bubley

My Twitter thread for the rest of the event is here.


Friday, August 30, 2019

Timing is everything: Why telecom industry visions get it wrong


One of the things I find most frustrating about technology forecasts and visions – especially in telecoms and mobile – is the lack of awareness of adjacent issues and trends, or consideration of "gotchas" and alternative scenarios.

So for example, when telcos, vendors or policymakers predict what 5G deployment, or network-slicing, or edge-computing or anything else might result in – applications, uptake, revenue opportunities and so on – they often fail to ask two critical questions:
  • Distractions: What are the prerequisites for this to happen? What are the bits of the overall wider system that are forgotten but necessary, to make the headline technology feasible and useful? And when will they be achieved? What's the weakest link in the chain? Is delay inevitable?
  • Disruptions: What else is likely to happen in the meantime, which could undermine the assumptions about demand, supply or value-chain structure? What's going on in adjacent or related sectors? What disruptions can be predicted?

This post has an accompanying podcast, on my SoundCloud:

Internal distractions & pre-requisites

So for example, for 5G to be successful to the degree that many predict (“trillions of $ of extra GDP”, millions of extra jobs etc) there first needs to be:
  • Almost ubiquitous 5G coverage, especially indoors, in sparse rural areas, and in other challenging locations
  • Enough fibre or other backhaul connectivity for the cell-sites
  • Suitable software and hardware platforms to run the virtualised core and other elements
  • Enough physical sites to put antennas, at low-enough costs & with easy-enough planning
  • Many more engineers trained and qualified to do all of the above
  • A decent business case, for instance in remote areas
  • 3GPP release 16 & 17 to be completed, commercialised and deployed, especially for the ultra-low latency & high-reliability applications.
  • Optimisation and operational systems, perhaps based on as-yet-unproven AI
Yet vendors and policymakers often gloss over these "annoying" practicalities. There seems to be an attitude of “oh, they’ll have to make it work somehow”. Well, yes, perhaps they will. But when? And at what cost? What changes does that imply? How will the gaps and limitations be bridged? And what happens if firms go bust while waiting for it all to happen? What other ways to solve problems can users pursue sooner, that don't involve 5G?

A key implication of this is that timing and profitability of massmarket adoption is often much later than expected. While Amara's Law might eventually apply (we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long term), that doesn't mean that early initial adopters and investors make the returns they'd hoped for.

External disruptions and substitutes

Perhaps even more pernicious is the lack of situational awareness about parallel developments elsewhere in the broader tech ecosystem. These undermine both demand (as alternative solutions become viable in place of the hoped-for technology) and supply / operation (by throwing up new complexities and gotchas to deal with). 

These are often not just “what ifs" but “highly likelies” or "dead-on certainties".

So for instance, the visions of network slicing, or edge-computing for 5G (which will really only crystallise into large-scale commercial reality in maybe 4-5 years) will have to contend with a future world where:

  • 5G networks are still patchy. There will still be lots of 4G, 3G and “no G” locations. What happens at the boundaries, and how can you sell QoS only in certain places?
  • There will be a patchwork of “uncontrolled” locations – they might be 5G, but they could be owned by roaming partners, indoor network providers, private localised cellular operators and so on. How will a slice work on a neutral-host's network?
  • An ever-greater number of devices spend an ever-greater amount of time on Wi-Fi – usually connected to someone else’s fixed-line infrastructure and acting as either uncontrolled, or a direct arbitrage path. 
  • Telcos have to cap their energy use and associated CO2 emissions, or source/generate clean power of their own.
  • Wi-Fi 6 will emerge rapidly & is hugely improved for many use-cases, but most 5G predictions only compare against legacy versions
  • Hardware based on "commodity hardware" runs against the current tide of semiconductor fragmentation and specialisation (see recent post, here)
  • Devices will often have VPN connections, or use encryption and obfuscation techniques, which means the network won't be able to infer applications or control traffiic.
  • Users and devices will use multiple connections together, either for arbitrage, aggregation, or more-sophisticated SD-WAN type models.
  • Pricing, billing, customer support and security will be challenging on "federated" 5G or edge-compute networks. Who do you call when your network-slice doesn't deliver as expected - and how can they diagnose and fix the problem?
  • Liability and accountability will become huge issues, especially if 5G or slicing is used for business-critical or life-critical functions. Are your lawyers and insurers prepared? 
  • AI will be used for instant price-comparison, quality monitoring & fault reporting, collective purchasing and even contractual negotiations. "Hey, Siri, mimic my voice and get me the best discount possible with the customer-retention agents"
These are just some basic examples. Once you get into individual verticals, particular geographies or even specific companies, a whole host of other issues start to crop up  - sector regulation, value-chain shifts, government involvement, expectations of 20-30 year tech cycles and so on. Sure, in theory 5G might fit into various industries' own transformation journeys - but they won't design around it.


I find this all very frustrating. So many company boards, strategy departments or lower-level product/service management teams seem to operate on the basis of "all other things being equal..." when the one certainty is that they won't be

So the two sets of factors tend to be multiplicative:
  • Distractions are internal to a new concept, and lead to delays in technology launch, market maturity and revenue.
  • Disruptions are external and often inevitable, but any extra delay increases their range and impact yet further.
It's never possible to predict everything that might get delayed, or every possible disruption from adjacency. But it seems to me that many companies in telecoms don't even bother to try. 

Companies accept the "hype cycle" as inevitable, even if it might be possible to flatten it out.

By coincidence, while writing this post I started reading "Range" by David Epstein (link) which talks about the importance of "analogising widely", and the risks of narrow expertise and superficial analysis, rather than looking for implications of cross-sector / cross-discipline similarities and lessons. 

When evaluating new technologies and service concepts, CEOs and CFOs need to rely less on familiar industry echo-chambers and consensus hype, and instead seek out critics who can find hidden assumptions, both internal and external to their plans. This isn't just a negative exercise either - often, a "ranging" exercise throws up unexpected positives and opportunities from adjacency as well risks.

This post has an accompanying audio podcast - click here & please subscribe!

I sometimes get asked to "stress test" ideas and plans, and help companies avoid expensive mistakes, get started on future glitches today, or prepare for and avoid contingencies and unintended consequences. 

Often, that exercise will throw up new opportunities as well. Usually, a collaborative (but candid) group workshop ensures this isn't a blame-game, but a path to smoother growth and innovation. The skills and mindsets can be learned and replicated, too.

If that type of approach sounds interesting, please get in touch with me, either by email (information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com) or via LinkedIn (link).

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Edge Computing in the Network, or Network deployed at the Edge datacentre?

Warning: totally speculative “what-if” post…. 

Almost everyone assumes that MEC-type edge-computing will be *inside* 5G or converged fixed-mobile infrastructure. The idea is that telcos will host servers deep in their networks, for low-latency 5G NR radio, coupled to micro-datacentres a millisecond or so from a cell tower, or perhaps at a local fixed line exchange / central office. 

Many telcos and their vendors seem to think this could allow the industry to create quasi-AWS distributed cloud services. I've written and spoken about the landscape of edge computing several times (see blog here and podcast here)

But I wonder if we could also see the exact opposite approach. Imagine a small/mid-size datacentre in an urban area as a hub for a localised mobile network. It could have a 4G or 5G base station on the roof, perhaps with links to relay sites in the surrounding area. 

Using CBRS spectrum in the US, or 3.7-3.8GHz in Germany or various of the new UK shared bands, it could cover perhaps a 3-7km radius. As it will have plenty of fibre acceess, it could also run its own cloud-RAN network for its local region or city. 

This could give local businesses direct, one-hop-to-the-cloud connection for sites or mobile IoT. Say a local firm doing drone-as-a-service for site inspections. Or buses for a smart city. No telcos required. Now there are various challenges, like poor outdoor-to-indoor coverage at 3.5GHz. But low-band MVNO deals, WiFi & neutral hosts could help fix that.

The cloud / DC provider would certainly need additional elements, such as a core network, and perhaps a way to issue SIMs/eSIMs. But that's increasingly possible - Amazon, for instance, already hosts various cloud-based core networks from third party vendors, while Google has its own that it uses for Fi and other purposes.

Unlikely? Yes. Disruptive? Certainly.

(If you really want to push this idea, I also suggested over two years ago in this post that Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods gave it a unique urban footprint for mini-DCs. Many of those also have suitable rooftops, as well as plenty of power)

This post was originally published on my LinkedIn page. It has had over 10,000 views and has created a great stream of comments and interactions. Link here.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

How will voice be delivered on private 4G / 5G & CBRS networks? Private VoLTE?

An area I've seen little discussion about is the intersection of new private 4G / 5G networks, with voice and unified communications, UC. Most debate is about either local IoT (i.e. data) connectivity, or neutral-host / wholesale approaches for in-building or rural coverage.

But where enterprises deploy "pure" private networks aimed at employees or visitors, they are likely to want voice / telephony capabilities, plus more advanced communications capabilities. While this is already done for highly-specialised local cellular deployments for mines, military or maritime, it is much less clear how this could scale to more general enterprise users. 

Many of the existing local-cellular users are also just based on 2G/3G, for which simple circuit-switched infrastructure has been available for years (I had a client supplying softswitches for private voice with pico-cells, as early as 2006).

My view is that UCaaS, cPaaS, cloud telephony, IP-PBX & collaboration solution providers should be looking much more closely at the impact of CBRS, and its international equivalents, providing localised 4G/5G wireless in new spectrum, and neutral-host models. 

It is unclear whether enterprises will want to deploy "private IMS" solutions, cloud-based VoLTE & SMS, or use some simpler forms of wireless-capable VoIP in their own domain. There are various deployment scenarios I can see, each of which will require careful thought & focused strategies: 
  • Transition from two-way radio (eg TETRA) to cellular push to talk
  • Integration of existing UC/UCaaS/PBX with private cellular voice
  • IoT integration of realtime voice/video (for example "speak to an engineer" functions)
  • Fit with conferencing, collaboration & messaging platforms
  • Interoperability / roaming scenarios with public PSTN & mobile calling
  • cPaaS scenarios & APIs tailored for private mobile networks
  • Will private 5G networks using slicing techniques to prioritise QoS for non-3GPP VoIP?
  • For neutral hosts, how will they enable roaming telephony / messaging / other voice & video applications
  • What happens with numbering & identity?
  • Can private cellular work for contact centres?
  • Are there "IMS lite" options for enterprise, that cuts down some of the features and integration seen in telcos?
  • Is this a prime candidate for multi-tenant "VoLTE-as-a-service" cloud propositions?
I'm going to be watching this whole area more closely in coming months, as it seems to be rather overlooked, at least publicly. Given that a number of companies in the UCaaS / cPaaS space also have footholds in CBRS or mobile core networks (eg Amazon, Google, Twilio) it wouldn't surprise me if there's a lot going on beneath the surface here too....

(Please contact me if you're interested in exploring this domain, have existing solutions, or would like to engage me on private advisory work)

#5G, #cloudcommunications, #neutralhost, #UCaaS, #cPaaS, #voice, #collaboration

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