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Friday, October 28, 2016

A realistic 5G view: Timelines, Standards & Politics

Things are moving incredibly fast for 5G!

...or are they? A couple of recent headlines make it a little hard to tell:

Verizon Eyes "Wireless Fibre" Launch in 2017 

Verizon Rejects AT&T-led Effort to Speed Up Release of 5G Standard

So, does Verizon want early 5G, or not? Are we looking at a 2017 launch, or still 2019-20? Why the apparent contradiction? And what about other operators in Asia and Europe?

I've been to recent 5G events including NGMN's conference (link), and a smaller one this week organised by Cambridge Wireless and the UK's National Infrastructure Commission (link). I've also been debating with assorted fellow-travellers online and at this week's WiFi Now event (link).

In my view, Verizon (and SKT in South Korea) are gunning hard for early "pre-5G" well in advance of the full standards, but are also subtly trying to push back the development of "proper" 5G so that they're able to influence it to their advantage. That's especially true for Verizon, which seems to be trying to out-game AT&T its with 5G strategy.

It's helpful to note a few things going on in the background:
  • 28GHz is definitely "a thing". The FCC released huge chunks of spectrum for 5G this summer (link). Even though 28GHz wasn't even identified as a candidate 5G band by ITU originally, and mmWave wasn't expected to be standardised until 2020, it is starting to look like an early "done deal", as it's also available for use in S Korea and Japan.
  • The Winter Olympics in Korea in 2018 has prompted local operators KT and SKT, as well as Samsung, to look for pre-5G solutions. They've already spent quite a lot of effort on 28GHz trials (as has DoCoMo in Japan which has the 2020 Summer Olympics) and they've gone well. They have been mostly interested in mobile broadband.
  • Verizon (and to an extent AT&T) have a different driver - gigabit-speed fixed broadband. They have been stung by the rapid growth of cable, which has far outpaced DSL in speed and market share. They also want to shut down the old PSTN and go to all-IP architectures. The problem is that much of the US is too sparsely-populated to run FTTH everywhere - putting new fibre in a trench down rural roads and driveways in Idaho, to serve a handful of homes is not appealing. But running fibre to a pole or cabinet distribution point & then using 5G as a "drop" to say 10-100 homes nearby is much cheaper. T-Mobile US and USCellular have also been trialling fixed-wireless 5G, although any deployment would be harder without their own fibre backhaul and transport infrastructure. Ericsson and Nokia are also involved in the trials.
  • Fixed-access 5G won't need complex network-slicing & NFV cores to be useful, as it can be functionally similar to other forms of broadband access. It also won't need mobility, or fallback to 4G, and will be able to run in big wall-mounted terminals connected to a power supply - and sold/branded by the carrier rather than Apple et al. In other words, it's a lot simpler, and a lot faster-to-market.
  • Meanwhile, the other "headline" use-case groups for 5G have some issues. "Massive IoT" is probably going to have to wait until after the 4G variant NB-IoT has been deployed and matured. A 5G version of low-power IoT networking seems unlikely before 2020-22. And the ultra-low latency IoT use-cases (drones and self-driving cars et al) introduce some unpleasant compromises in IP frame structure, and given probable low volumes are something of a "tail wagging the 5G dog". In other words, the IoT business models for 5G don't really exist yet.
  • Linked to the IoT argument, it seems that the much-vaunted NFV "network slicing" approach to combine all these myriad use-cases is going to be late, expensive, complex and in need of better integration with BSS/OSS and legacy domains. I wrote about my doubts over slicing last month - link
So in other words, the original 3-Bubble Venn diagram for 5G use-cases (Enhanced Mobile Broadband, Massive IoT & Low-Latency IoT) was wrong. There's a 4th bubble - fixed wireless, which is going to come first.

And this is massively important in the new technology reality. Increasingly often these days, fast-to-market beats perfect and then often defines future direction as well. We have seen various disruptions from adjacency, where expedient "narrow" solutions beat theoretical elegant-but-grandiose architectures to the punch. SD-WAN's rapid rise is disrupting the original NFV/NaaS plan for enterprise services, for example (link). Similarly, the rise of Internet VoIP and chat apps signalled the death-knell for IMS as a platform for anything except IP-PSTN.

In this case, I believe that fixed-wireless 5G - even if "pre-standard" and relatively small in volume - is going to set the agenda for later mobile broadband 5G, and then even-later IoT 5G. If it gets traction, there's a good chance the inertia will create de-facto standards and also skew official standards to ensure interoperability. This is already evident in steam-rollering 28GHz into the picture. (It's also worth remembering that Apple's surprise early decision to support 1.8GHz for LTE shifted the market a few years ago - while that had been an "official" band, it hadn't been expected to be popular so soon).

The critical element here is that AT&T is much more bullish and focused on mobile broadband (especially in urban hotspots) as a lead use-case for 5G, plus backhaul-type point to point connections. It expects that "the coverage layer will be 4G for many years to come”. At the NGMN conference the speaker noted that fixed uses were also of interest, but was wary of the business case - for instance whether it was possible to reach 10 homes or 30 from a single radio head. It also seems more interested in 70-80GHz links to apartment blocks, using existing in-building wiring, rather than Verizon's 28GHz rural-area drops. Coupled with its CEO's rather implausible assertion that mobile 5G will compete with cable broadband (link), this suggests it is somewhat distant from the Verizon/SKT/DoCoMo group. 

The kicker for me is the delay to the 3GPP standardisation of what is called the "non-standalone" NSA version 5G radio, which uses a 4G control plane and is suitable for mobile devices (link). Despite its bullishness on fixed-5G, Verizon has pushed the timeline for the more mobile-friendly version back 6 months, against AT&T's wishes. The NSA and SA versions will now both be targeted for the June 2018 meeting of the standards body, rather than December 2017.

The official reason given is fairly turgid "in order to effectively define a non-standalone option which can then migrate to a standalone, a complete study standalone would be required to derisk the migration". But I suspect the truth is rather more political: it gives Verizon and its partners (notably Samsung) another 6 months to get their 28GHz fixed-access solution into the market. Qualcomm has just announced a pre-5G chip that can accommodate just that, too. This means that standardised eMBB devices probably won't arrive until mid-2019, although there may be a few pre-standard ones for the 2018 Winter Olympics and elsewhere.

This will cement not just the 28GHz band in place, but also the fixed-5G uses and the idea that 5G doesn't need the full, fancy network-slicing NFV back-end. Given AT&T's huge emphasis on its eCOMP virtualisation project, that reduces the possible future advantage that might accrue if 5G was "always virtualised". It may also mean that lessons from real-world deployment get fed into the 2018 standards in some fashion, further advantaging the early movers. This is especially the case if it turns out that 28GHz can support some form of mobility - and early comments from Samsung suggest they've already experimented with beam-steering successfully.

Meanwhile.... what about Europe? Well to be honest, I'm a bit despondent. The European operators seem to be using 5G as a political football, playing with the European Commission and aiming at the goal marked "less net-neutrality and more consolidation". In July, a ridiculously-political "manifesto" was announced by a group of major telcos (link), trying to promise some not-very-demanding 5G rollouts if the EU agrees to a massive watering-down of regulation. The European 5G community also seems to be seduced by academia and the promise of lots of complex network-slicery and equally-dubious edge-computing visions. It's much more interested in the (late, uncertain-revenue) IoT use-cases rather than fixed-access and mobile broadband. And it has earmarked 26GHz (not 28) as a possible band for 2019 ITU Radio Congress to consider. 

In other words, it's missing the boat. By the time the EU, the European operators and European research institutions get their 5G act together, we'll have had a repeat of 4G, with the US, Korea and Japan leading the way. 

So overall, I see Verizon outmanouevring AT&T, once again. The Koreans and Japanese will benefit from VZ's extra scale and heft in moving vendors faster (notably Samsung, it seems, as Nokia and Ericsson seem more equivocal). The Europeans will be late to the party, once again. And the "boring" use-cases for 5G (fixed access and mobile broadband) will come out first, while the various IoT categories are still scratching their heads and waiting for the promised NFV slice-utopia to catch up.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Facebook Workplace: Just collaboration, or parking its tanks on UCaaS & cPaaS lawns?

Facebook has finally launched its enterprise collaboration offering, changing its name to Workplace, from the original beta-tested Facebook at Work (link). It certainly isn't a full UCaaS product - but it wouldn't surprise me if it heads (somewhat) in that direction over time, or adds in integration or PaaS capabilities that allow it to compete indirectly in future.

It's aggressively priced, and mostly targetted at the Slack-style market for timeline- and messaging-centric collaboration, also known as WCC (workstream collaboration & communication). It's got a free trial, it's free for educational users, and for businesses it costs just $1-3 per month depending on size of deployment. (For comparison, Facebook's global consumer ARPU is around 4, mainly from advertising, although this is much higher in North America - link).

Clearly, it's majoring on large similarity in user-experience to its social networking platform, which is familiar to a large % of humanity. Likes, reactions, groups and so on are all replicated.

It also has some communications capabilities already - FB's Live video-streaming service is built into the main Workplace service, while it has a separate "companion" app (Work Chat - link) for IM and voice/video. I strongly suspect it is based on WebRTC, as its consumer equivalent is one of the biggest users of the technology today. Work Chat also has file/image-sharing and (not all entirely professional) stickers, which are basically glorified emoji. 

Interestingly, the iOS appstore page for Chat - which says it's already at Version 48 - has a screenshot focusing on voice rather than video, although that may just be because it hasn't updated it yet (there's an old website link to At Work rather than Workplace too).

Some other things I've noticed:

  • It references trial user companies (for internal deployment) include telcos Telenor and Telekom Austria
  • Its partners / distributors include a division of Phillipines telco PLDT
  • Unsurprisingly, there's a big pitch on security, privacy and data-ownership for companies that may be suspicious of FB's record.
  • There's a big pitch for non-desk workers such as those in restaurants, on ships or industrial facilities (who are mostly likely to be mobile-first / mobile only, and which are often well outside the traditional UC/UCaaS universe). 
  • It's apparently air-gapped from the consumer Facebook platform - although given WhatsApp's recent history, some may speculate how long that lasts.
  • There's a way to create multi-company groups for federation, and presumably closed groups for suppliers/customers/partners.
  • Various 3rd-party providers of identity for single sign-on support (including G Suite and MS Azure).
In common with Slack and some other UC and WCC-type offers, it suggests that use of messaging and workstreams may reduce the need for voice/video realtime communications as well as email. Its FAQ says that "Companies find that they can eliminate or drastically reduce their need for internal collaboration tools such as their intranet, telephony systems, video conferencing and distribution lists."

That is quite telling for me: "reduce their need" implies that Facebook doesn't immediately see its role as replacing old phone systems or UC (or UCaaS), or that it intends to jump into the conferencing space. Perhaps I'm inferring too much, but I suspect it means:
  • Facebook isn't interested in becoming a business phone system or normal UCaaS platform, especially with PSTN interconnect. In any case, it is unclear that businesses would accept it any time soon - it's taking Microsoft a long time to move on from IM/UC to telephony.
  • The apparent enthusiasm of various telco partners could just indicate prudent curiosity - or could indicate a future alignment with network-based telephony and numbering, especially given Facebook's love of phone number-based 2-factor authentication.
  • Also at present, Workplace isn't being set up as a mechanism for B2C communications, as many thought it might. In many ways, that's more a role for consumer Facebook (& consumer FB identities) and perhaps WhatsApp for chatbots. Businesses have to pay for various services around their pages already.
  • However, it would be very unsurprising if Workplace became more of an integration platform in future. I can easily imagine it - or partners - building ways to link it to other telephony, conferencing or CRM/call-centre systems or cloud providers. 
  • Workplace could potentially become a hub for Slack-style "collaboration as a platform", also being done in various ways by Cisco Spark, Symphony, Broadsoft Tempo, Unify Circuit and many others.
  • Given Facebook's enthusiasm for live video-streaming, video-calling and other communications abilities (especially in-app on mobile) it would not surprise me to see a cPaaS play or acquisition at some point. I suspect it wouldn't aim to compete with Twilio directly, or some other UC-style rivals such as Nexmo/Vonage, but either Cisco/Tropo or Tokbox could be closer to the firing line. (Actually, Tokbox would be an interesting M&A target, if Telefonica decides it can't leverage it more than it does today).
  • I expect that a major push will be made later around "events" which seems to be mostly missing from the current release, and which is a huge draw on the consumer service. Renaming it to "meetings" or "appointments" would make a lot of sense, and absorb much more communications traffic in consequence.
  • Facebook has perhaps the best way to categorising personal "context" of any company. Its status updates have a great set of tags of location, doing/feeling activities, tagged colleagues/friends and so forth. It has the potential to leverage this in Workplace to create a really interesting platform for Contextual Communications.

Overall, I think that Facebook Workplace looks like a much more subtle and oblique entry to enterprise communications than some people expected. It's not aiming to replace UC/UCaaS outright, but instead to gradually divert (steal?) a growing slice of the overall employee-to-employee (or cross-company) communications pie. This is very different to the way that the traditional enterprise comms companies like Cisco or Avaya or various cloud-based providers are going, where they typically aim to be at the centre of a firm's communications, radiating outward from phone or conferencing. Instead, Workplace seems to be a play for adjacency, siphoning off use from email and Slack and peripheral (often unloved) UC features, at a low price point.

If companies can get over their privacy-wariness from Facebook's consumer reputation, it has quite a lot of potential. I also suspect it could be seen as attractive as a channel play by some telcos' enterprise business units, especially where they have minimal mobile footprint today. It would probably sit alongside other UCaaS offers rather than replace them. Thus far, it's a bit unclear what Microsoft plans to do with LinkedIn, but that's also in the same universe.

But Workplace also represents a starting-point for some really interesting future cPaaS and integration plays. Facebook's familiar UI - and its vast realm of heritage and skill in design and UX - could be a gamechanger. It is rightly eschewing "boring old business phone systems" for now - but should be able to help create a variety of new voice and video experiences in subsequent enhancements, if it proves the basics, gains scale quickly, and mitigates residual concern about security and privacy.

If we call the message/timeline concept WCC, maybe this will end up being called wPaaS?