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Wednesday, February 15, 2017

My presentation at Ofcom: What the year 2030 implies for wireless trends & spectrum policy

On the 8th of February, I gave a presentation at Ofcom (the UK telecom regulator). The event was a day-long discussion of the "Future Wireless World", looking at longer-term trends towards IoT and connectivity (5G, WiFi, mesh, satellite and more), with an implied impact on how spectrum policy needs to be reshaped to meet the changes. It was introduced and moderated by Philip Marnick (Group Director, Spectrum) and also attended by the Ofcom CEO Sharon White. On the same day, Ofcom released its latest thoughts on 5G spectrum (link)

There were about 150 attendees from a range of operators, broadcasters, government bodies, vendors, consultants, Internet and industrial players and internal Ofcom staff. There may be an audio/video recording of the sessions put up online at some point, but I'm not certain of this.

My presentation was a very broad one - I was tasked with imagining how the future economy, consumer and business environment might look like in the year 2030, what disruptions and innovations may occur between now and then, and how that flows back into the use of wireless networks and therefore spectrum. 

In other words, I was wearing my "telcofuturist" hat, where I take generic futurist themes and apply them to the specifics of telecoms and the broader wireless industry. After my presentation, I joined Philip Marnick for a Q&A session with the audience, which was a mix of regulatory, futurist and general analyst-type discussion.

The rest of the event was made up of a series of presentations and panel debates between a broad set of industry luminaries and innovators, including Dino Flore of 3GPP & Qualcomm, Simon Saunders of Google (& formerly the Femto Forum), plus others from O3B, Ericsson, Veniam, BT/EE, Vodafone, Silver Spring and others.
There was a really interesting session on mesh networks later in the day, which I also think has a lot of potential. It was a really refreshing change from some of the usual sponsor-driven snorefests, although there was clearly a strong "lobbying" flavour to some of the questions, with people taking advantage of access to the regulator in an open forum.

One thing that struck me about both this event, and another event I attended recently at Tech-UK's Spectrum Policy Forum (link) is a growing frustration in the regularory community. Some people now view spectrum purely as a "mobile" thing, without simultaneously mentioning broadcast, government, WiFi, LPWAN, industrial, satellite, fixed-access and all the other users of the airwaves.

The mobile industry tends to be very good at pitching for more and more slices of spectrum, ideally provided on an exclusive basis with long licence terms (in exchange for quite a lot of cash in terms of fees, to be fair). It has a far bigger and more cohesive lobbying and publicity engine than the broad set of other spectrum stakeholders.

My own view - and, it seems, many regulators' - is that given the finite amount of spectrum, there is ever less rationale for exclusivity. Various forms of sharing and private networks are rising up the agenda. My recent piece on Industrial IoT and sharing [link] has garnered a lot of good feedback, while the National Infrastructure Commission's Dec'16 report [link] recommended that "Government and Ofcom should review how unlicensed, lightly licensed spectrum, spectrum sharing and similar approaches can be utilised for higher frequencies to maximise access to the radio spectrum".

In other words, spectrum-sharing - of various types - is moving up the regulatory agenda very fast in the UK. I think onsite industrial IoT coverage, via private cellular or licenced-band WiFi deployments, is the easiest to conceptualise and "sell", but there are plenty of other angles too.

But as well as the challenges of IIoT, I covered a lot of other topics in my presentation (slides are embedded below the list - apologies that the bullets aren't in the same sequence):
  • The impact of AI will be felt on both network "supply" side (eg more efficiently-optimised networks, churn management etc) and "demand" (smarter use of wireless connectivity, least-cost routing and so forth). I wrote a post on this a while back (link)
  • Whether the emphasis on mobile uses of spectrum, and the 3GPP/GSMA "national MNO" view of the world could lead to a "monoculture" of cellular connectivity. As in agriculture, the superficial efficiency/yield needs to be considered in the context of risks. Might there be long-term benefits in "network diversity", and should regulators look to protect it, the same way environmental rules protect biodiversity?
  • On a similar environmental theme, I considered habitats that are primarily "mono-platform" and fragile to external events (eg coral reefs) vs. "multi-platform" ecosystems which are more resilient (eg rainforests). Obviously this doesn't translate precisely to wireless networks, but the metaphor seems apt. I'm not a biologist, but a quick word with someone who does study ecosystems afterwards suggested my analogy is worth further exploration.
  • "Arbitrage Everywhere": future networks - and by extension both spectrum and telecom competition rules - should anticipate devices and applications using multiple connections / service providers, and picking and choosing/bonding connectivity from several options. This is already seen in the fixed world for enterprise with SD-WAN, and should be expected in wireless too. This means that "partial competition" (eg from WiFi, LPWAN, satellite, private cellular) should be considered as well as like-for-like rival infrastructure from other national MNOs.
  • Redefining the nature of a "service" - what do we actually mean, when we frame our regulation of "service providers"? Many more organisations are offering connectivity services, while many other models of delivering a "capability" are emerging. WiFi can be a service, owned by a venue, given away for free, provided as an amenity, self-provisioned by a user and so forth. ITU's definition of a service ("a set of functions offered to a user by an organisation") seems to be too narrow given the rise of developers, embedded connectivity in IoT, private networks and more.
  • I discussed the relative timing of various industry trends - and the fact that various look like swinging "pendulums". For instance we see a back-and-forth between centralised vs. distributed control, standards vs. proprietary technologies, local vs. national vs. global and so on. I noted that the timing of the various pendulums' swings are not all in sync - and therefore the actual outcome for the wireless sector is really complex to predict. Various external trends (eg open source, Moore's Law, AI, geopolitics, specific companies) can act as weights on the pendulums.
  • I noted that many different and new organisations may own/operate/embed wireless connectivity in future. Aircraft engine manufacturers use satellite telemetry and download sensor data via WiFi to optimise their analytics for selling "power by the hour". IoT platforms & MVNOs for specific sectors are springing up (eg Cubic Telecom for automotive). Theoretically, Elon Musk could use SpaceX to launch his own satellites - and provide vertically-integrated connectivity to Tesla cars. Google has numerous wireless initiatives, from Fi to WiFi to white spaces to its Loon balloon project. The Governor of California has suggested launching the state's own earth-sensing satellites, if the current administration cuts federal funding for environmental monitoring. Then there are public-safety LTE networks, WiFi everywhere, new mesh concepts, private LoRa deployments and so on.
  • In the Q&A, I also discussed 5G bands, NFV, network-slicing and more. I noted that 5G is being driven initially by fixed-access and 28GHz in the US & S Korea, not the three "mainstream" uses of critical IoT, ultra-mobile broadband and massive IoT. This is outside the "official" bands being pushed by Ofcom as "pioneer" options, and slowly being explored internationally for the ITU WRC event in 3 years' time. This was explored in another post of mine (link). I also expressed doubts that NFV-led network-slicing will deliver all the agility required for creating vertical-specific networks - even if it allows "super-MVNOs", will the host network provide enough fine-grained control and liability-bearing SLAs?

Overall, my session seemed to be very well-received. Hopefully I've prodded some parts of the industry. I'd like to see a wider recognition of the changes to some of our fundamental assumptions that will occur over the next decade and beyond. 

A key point is that 5G, delivered by traditional MNOs as a subscription service, is exciting and important - but it must not be allowed to totally dominate discussions around spectrum. Governments and regulators must push for "network diversity" of technologies, stakeholders and business/operational models - including private networks for businesses. Short-term focus on "efficiency" of a monoculture approach may mask wider ecosystem-level risks. 

A key theme is the need for flexibility and agility in wireless networks and related regulation - many of the more radical changes will occur at timespans of 1-5 years, which is much shorter than the investment and planning horizon for a lot of the industry. Whether we need more malleable licences, better secondary marketplaces for spectrum, new forms of sharing (eg using blockchain as a basis for a distributed database of allocations), or a rethink on how competition is measured, there are plenty of options.

Spectrum policy is several steps away from the actual world of consumer and business needs for wireless networks. But it's for that reason it's worth thinking deeply, about the long chain of implications of seemingly small decisions or baked-in business models that are created now.

If you'd like to have a similar presentation and discussion at your own event, or at a private workshop, please contact me via information AT disruptive-analysis dot com

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