Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Tom Canning, VP of IoT at Canonical makes the case for open source software as the future of telecoms networks.
We live in a time of immediacy and excess. No more so than with our relationships with the phones in our pockets. Unlimited data packages, media streaming, and calls over the air waves wherever you happen to be. As a result, mobile operators face unprecedented levels of pressure to deliver more data, faster connectivity, better coverage, and more functionality every month.
To put even greater weight on the shoulders of telecoms providers, a new phenomenon is taking centre stage – that of business intelligence. End users are now less likely to be the ones consuming information, but the individual products or machines that make up the Internet of Things (IoT).
IDC predicts that by 2025, 60 per cent of the world’s data will be generated by enterprises and not consumers – double that of 2017. In other words, the infrastructure behind smart devices. Autonomous cars, smart cities, sensor networks, and connected industrial equipment all require extensive bandwidth to function. Operators need to rethink how the connected network is architected. They must support the faster transfer of data, greater density, and dramatically reduced latency. And they must add this functionality and flexibility whilst simultaneously driving down the costs of deploying, sustaining, and managing network infrastructure.
A new way of thinking
For decades, the telecoms industry was dominated by proprietary businesses and operating models. As market pressures evolved, however, providers were forced to find new, innovative solutions. It has resulted in telcos embracing open-source principles in recent years – an approach that transformed the computer industry from transactions to supercomputing, smartwatches and wearables, and then to a wireless network infrastructure supporting each one. The lesson has come just in time, with the dawn of 5G promising faster speeds and more reliable connections for internet-enabled devices across a diverse set of locations.
The success of 5G rests on software-defined networking (SDN), whose main concept is to decouple the infrastructure of wireless networks from expensive, closed hardware and shift it to an intelligent software layer running on top of commodity hardware. 5G and open source, therefore, have become an attractive combination for telecoms, with major operators worldwide pioneering new technologies and use cases.
Open source software in particular is key to 5G and the IoT developments, because the software can power the automation of mission-critical functions required to support the high speeds and low latency of 5G, as well as the huge number of endpoints in IoT. In short, it is the democratisation of wireless network infrastructure that will allow telcos to stay relevant in the world of 5G and connected devices.
Spotlighting the innovators
Several initiatives are already in motion, which seek to break the propriety stranglehold of telcos players and deliver SDN to the wireless network. They include both major operators and wireless infrastructure vendors, while disruptive challengers and startups are making an impact, too.
The operator community, as well as businesses, are actively engaged in collaborative alliances to help drive the uptake of open source. These include, but are not limited to, the O-RAN Alliance, which includes members such as AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Intel, Verizon, and SK Telecom, and the Open vRAN initiative, which is backed by Cisco. The MyriadRF open source initiative, meanwhile, was founded by Lime Microsystems in 2012, with the purpose of democratising wireless innovation. It has grown to include a vast array of contributors, from hobbyists and wireless enthusiasts to professional engineers and large equipment manufacturers.
Vodafone is one such partner. The company had a goal of extending coverage and adding additional services to its 4G corporate network. Working with Lime Microsystems’ CrowdCell – a network-in-a-box solution that runs on top of commodity hardware – Vodafone was able to deliver to IT managers a new SDR-based, high capacity network ideally suited to IoT applications. IoT is the area in which you need regular intelligence within the network, to gather data and predict outcomes in real-time. An SDR network is perfectly optimised for this.
Looking to the future
As 5G begins to roll out across the enterprise, the need for more affordable, capable and agile networks is imperative. SDN holds the key, with its increased intelligence directly on top of commodity hardware. The future of mobile connectivity, therefore, is software-defined. As an approach, it also promotes third-party app development and greater community involvement, which allows operators to add value and differentiate from the competition beyond the traditional measures of coverage and subscription costs.
Open source is the answer to future proofing network infrastructure, with its collaborative and diverse heritage the perfect partner for innovations across 5G and IoT. An open, software-defined model will help operators meet the growing need for faster, more flexible, and more secure systems. It’s a case of adapt and survive.
Tom Canning is VP of IoT at Canonical Group, the developer of the open source OS Ubuntu. Prior to joining Canonical in 2017, Canning held a number of senior positions in the UK and the US., including at HP, Cisco and, most recently, Spigit. He is based in London and holds an electrical engineering degree from the University of Ottawa.