Five takeaways from Light Reading’s Big Communications Event

Three days, 100 speakers, temperatures in the thirties and a couple of notable hangovers, but here’s what we took away from Light Reading’s Big Communications Event in Austin.

The edge is hitting centre stage

5G use cases dominated the headlines for years, but the edge was the big focus at this year’s Big Communications Event. The idea of the edge is nothing new, and it did get its fifteen minutes a few years back, but since then the conversation has wandered elsewhere. But now it’s back and bigger than ever.

For 5G and the big dream of immersive content to work, the network edge has to be a consideration. The distributed cloud, or a latency free world simply cannot exist without bringing the edge into the 21st century. This concept is now being fully embraced by the community.

Sprint’s Kevin Crull said the team was in the process of prioritising which sites needed upgrading, Dan Rodriguez of Intel highlighted immersive media cannot work without it, while the Open Networking Foundation has been pushing initiatives to build the ecosystem in this segment. The 5G dream will not become a reality without operators turning attention to network edge projects, but now does seem to be the right time.

The US is much more bullish than Europe

This might seem like an obvious one considering the bravado we have seen over the last few months from major operators, but the US is unbelievably more aggressive about 5G than Europe.

Not only have all the major operators put deadlines on their 5G ambitions, there does seem to be a cohesive plan to get there. If you thought it was nothing more than PR posturing most would have forgiven you, but the realities of 5G are much closer in the US than on the European continent.

The roadmaps have been outlined, and while there might be some marketing massaging with the numbers and the concepts, you have to give the US operators some credit; they are barrelling towards 5G at an incredible pace.

Carriers are fighting the norm

The norm in this context is the major vendors calling the shots in the industry, but the operators are fighting back. Almost every talk from the operators gave a small nod the status quo and their intentions to disrupt it. As it stands, a small number of huge vendors control the fate of the industry, it shouldn’t be considered a healthy ecosystem, but the operators are fighting back, attempting to wrestle control of the relationship into the buyside camp.

The disaggregation of software and hardware is an excellent example of this in practise. The major vendors are slowing the process down, they do have profit margins to protect after all, but the growing influence of open source and the emergence of operator’s backbones are trying to accelerate developments.

The aim is to have a much more balanced industry, with the influence more evenly distributed throughout the ecosystem, and operators managing a more healthy mix of vendors. The likes of Huawei, Nokia, Cisco or Intel should be a bit worried here. The days where operators would let major vendors control the flow of technology and manage their own supply chains are over. More transparency and less reliance on a small number of powerhouses is being demanded.

Progress just uncovers the cracks

Progress is being made, but it seems the closer we get to the digital economy the more problems we are finding.

Decoupling software from hardware is still stumbling, SDN is too complicated, procurement organizations are stuck in the analogue age, throttling practises could derail the content dream, there isn’t anywhere near enough fibre and business models are too focused on short-term objectives. These are just a few of the cracks which are starting to appear, but it is clear there is still a lot of work to be done before the digital dream is in full swing.

Austin is fun, but beware

Great food, friendly people, a wide selection of beers and tequila on tap; Austin has all the ingredients for a fun work trip, but take our word of warning… this is one of the worst places to have a hangover.

Compared to London, the city is exceptionally hot and incredibly humid at times. The walk to and from the convention centre with a hangover was one of the most painful experiences your correspondent has had in recent months. Austin is a brilliant city, but make sure you have time for a lie in the following morning.

Austin

Technology is only half of the digital economy story

What the world looks like in a decade is any bodies guess, but the success of the digital economy is so much more than simply getting technology to work seamlessly.

That was one of the messages which came out of the keynote sessions at the Big Communications Event in Austin. Yes, technology will fundamentally change the world, morphing the landscape into something which might be inconceivable to us today, but to ensure success companies will have to look at much more nuanced aspects as well, some of which are incredibly pressing.

“The need for bandwidth is continuing to grow, and while change isn’t new, the pace of adoption is,” said Phil Meeks of Spectrum Enterprise.

From a technology perspective, the communications sector has generally been pretty good as adapting to the new status quo, integrating new solutions in what would be considered an acceptable time frame. But as Meeks put it, when things go wrong the industry hasn’t been the poster child for superior customer experience.

When it comes to outages, complaints and relationship management, the telcos have been pretty useless. There have been improvements, but as more of our lives become digitally orientated, the more demanding and impatient we have become as consumers. An excellent example of this is hold times when calling call centres.

It’s an arduous task getting in touch with the right person. Some might suggest this is done on purpose on occasion, when trying to terminate a contract for example, though it is a challenge which has persisted. One question which Meeks asked is whether the industry is actually trying to tackle the right challenge. Instead of using technology to shorten calls times, why not ask the customer how they would like to communicate with the organisation? It is a simple question, but in an era where phones calls are becoming less common, the industry needs to meet the expectations of the consumer.

This is just one example of customer service and experience, but it does demonstrate the changing tides of society. Technology alone cannot answer this call, but being more customer centric is critical for success in the digital economy.

Another area which needs to change is the relationship between operators and their supply chain. Despite the world becoming more software-orientated, some might suggest procurement relationships between operators and suppliers are not evolving.

“Both parties will have to adapt to the new business model, but right now we are not seeing the supplier side change,” said Mirko Voltolini, President of Technology and Architecture at Colt. “The consumption based model is where we should be heading, as opposed to the one off licencing model which is around today.”

Evolving the way in which networks are managed and built is one part of the equation, but the procurement of services and products is arguably just as important. The current model is not suitable for the software-orientated world and some tough questions will need to be asked.

On the supplier side, progress has been slow. This is understandable, as these are organizations which have revenues to protect, though the pace of change will have to increase. The traditional vendors who hold onto the old-world business model are facing pressure from a new wave of suppliers entering the market, who are creating pricing and procurement models which are more acceptable to the digital economy.

These are only two examples, but it is an argument which remains solid. There is much more to the digital economy than technology.

Standardizing VR could be a disaster, but so could free reign

Virtual and augmented reality are two technologies which are promising a lot for the telecoms space, but standardizing the technology could lead to its downfall. Then again, free reign could be anarchy.

So here’s the theory from Jason Thibeault, Executive Director at the Streaming Video Alliance, speaking at one of the panel sessions at Big Communication Event in Austin. VR is a long-term investment and opportunity, but the space is moving incredibly quickly. When it comes to the development of content, or the technology to facilitate delivery, progress is being made meaning any standards would become redundant or possibly restrictive in a very short period of time.

To write rules today means the innovators of tomorrow have to follow them. On one side of the argument, guidelines and rules prevent divergence and the mess which can be created from a lack of interoperability, but this is still a technology in the exploratory phases of development. Fixing any focus down one path might prevent more effective solutions or alternative thinking from advancing, potentially negatively impacting the industry.

It is a complicated place to be. The technology industry has shown on several occasions that it is not responsible enough to be left to its own devices, and who is to say aggressive moves from one of the major players could not bring the space into disaster, but red-tape should be viewed as the enemy here. Big thinkers and innovators like to push the boundaries and explore the dark corners, which is exactly what is needed for VR right now. Can rule markers stand in the way of progress?

While this is a conundrum to ponder, another big question to consider is what is the opportunity is for the ecosystem. Here is where patience is needed, as the promised fortunes of VR are unlikely to be realised for decades. As it stands, basic content might be deliverable over current networks, but this experience is unlikely to be the immersive dream. Another question to ask is whether operators would allow the streaming of such data intensive content without throttling the user. We suspect not.

A lot has to change before the dream becomes reality, including network architecture, content development, consumer behaviour and manufacturing, but this is not a technology which is likely to fail if managed correctly. As Thibeault put it, VR is the next stage of storytelling.

Telcos fighting back against vendor strangle hold

The balance of power has been firmly in the hands of the vendors for years, but now we are witnessing the telcos aggressively pushing back and wrestling for control of their own fate.

This is not a battle which can be won over night, it is a war of attrition which will be fought quietly. There will of course be passive aggressive comments, you can expect bold statements and it wouldn’t be the telco space without hollow promises of evolution, but what we are now witnessing is the slumbering telcos emerge from the shadows.

Throughout the keynote sessions and pre-conference workshops at this year’s Big Communications Event in Austin the battle lines are being drawn. The Open Networking Foundation spoke about a reconstruction of the supply chain, AT&T’s Melissa Arnoldi talked up the telcos white box dream, Reliance Jio’s President Mathew Oommen boasted about in-house developments, while Telstra’s Jim Fagan cooed over the benefits of open source. All of these comments indicate the telcos are trying to wrestle back control of the industry.

This is the complicated situation the telco industry has evolved to. For years the operators have found themselves searching for innovation externally. The likes of Huawei, Intel or even Ericsson on occasion held the trump cards, dictating the terms of the relationship. This is still the case as it stands, but the telcos are seemingly not going to sit quietly and do what they are told anymore.

Open source projects are key here, as is the disaggregation of software and hardware, alongside a operational model which allows for innovation and experimentation in-house. This is not to say proprietary solutions will disappear, but they will have to settle into their own place. Another critical factor is the attitude of the operators. Slowly we are starting to see a backbone emerge, challenging the status quo, and wrestling the balance of power back into the buyside camp.

Of course it will not be the smoothest of roads. The separation of software and hardware is an excellent example of where we are likely to see some resistance. The status quo leans towards vendor lock-in, and subsequently guaranteed business for the vendor. The new world of disaggregation offers flexibility and empowerment for the operators, and an entirely new business model for the vendors. The question is who will embrace the change and who will resist. Samsung has been making encouraging comments, but how much substance there is remains to be seen.

A healthy industry is one where the balance of power is evenly distributed through the ecosystem. This is not the case in telecoms, but the right noises are certainly being made. Hopefully there will be action to back-up the claims and power-plays being made by the operators.

The edge defines experience, but can’t be done without open source – ONF

For years the industry has been focusing on the core network, but the tides are beginning to turn, with the edge taking centre stage. While this is a promising development, the economics are simply not supporting the ambition.

“Edge processing is vital,” said Timon Sloane, VP of Marketing & Ecosystem at ONF. “When we started talking about this it was a novel idea, but the industry is just catching on now. The subscriber edge is where experience is created.”

This focus on the edge of the network is a huge opportunity, but also presents a massive problem. The core network is easy. It is one place, easy to manage, but the edge consists of thousands of sites which are usually located within three miles of the customer. Most of the time these sites are windowless, concrete bunkers, with little or no lighting, representing 80% of operator CAPEX. Upgrading these sites is critical to the performance of the network, but is a time consuming and expensive job.

For Sloane and ONF, open source technology is the only way forward.

“Open source is not about free software,” said Sloane. “It is about a community, about not going off an trying to build it ourselves, but building it in a common way”

This is where the concept of economics comes into play. For the edge to work, and work effectively, the disaggregation of hardware and software is critical, as this will fuel the development of open source communities. On the hardware side, the idea of standardized equipment will allow operators to spend more freely on software which can build on and improve the experience for customers. Open source projects can be responsible for the foundation, while closed source technologies from vendors can be built on top.

The idea of disaggregation is of course scary to vendors, but it is needed. As it stands many solutions have proprietary software solutions embedded into the hardware, creating vendor lock-in situations, which limit the operators ability to spend efficiently, or create more customised environments to gain an advantage on competitors. Reversing this balance of power is a critical objective of the ONF, which it believes is central to the success of the telecoms industry.

The current vendor lock-in situation is a worrying one, as the progress of new technologies such as augmented reality or autonomous vehicles is dependent on the efficiency of the network edge. These applications need to run on the edge, as relying on the core would only create latency and a poor experience, and of course these sites need to be build and managed in a completely different way from the core.

Edge processing is different from the core. The sum of the edge is much more vast, where you need to interface with the customer, process information in real-time, deal with roaming, while simultaneously interacting with machine learning applications on the core. Ensuring these conditions can be effectively met is going to be a complex and expensive task.

For this edge-defined world to be a reality, Sloane believes open source is the only way forward. It standardises CAPEX for the commonalities in the network, allowing operators to focus on the last 20% which defines the experience and creates the advantage for an operator. There is resistance from the vendor community, as you would expect, but the nay-sayers, those who used to say disaggregation is not possible, are quietening down. The conversation is moving away from if open source is a viable opportunity, and towards when it can become a reality.