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

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.