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Technology 2.0: The future of networks in 6 steps

By 2015 there will be one intelligent open network platform. It will also be ‘green’ and 50% cheaper. A guest article by Marcus Weldon, Alcatel-Lucent’s CTO.

This is an exciting time in telecommunications, where a confluence of factors is driving a period of change and innovation unlike any we have witnessed in the last few decades. If broadband and the internet were the phenomena of the 1990s and wireless broadband and smart devices the hot trend in the 2000s, the 2010-2020 decade will be the decade of the network, but a very different kind of network.

By 2015, I think there will 6 fundamental changes or shifts occurring:

1. There will be one network: Wireless and Wireline networks will have converged to form a single, high performance, cost-optimized aggregation and core IP network, with either wireless or wired edges. In fact, even the distinction between the wireless and wired edge connectivity will be blurred as devices embed Ethernet ports, Wifi and LTE modems.

So you will no longer even think about connectivity; the device and network will connect you to whatever network best suits your application and mobility needs at each instant in time. In many ways, the new wireless network architecture, best characterized by the recent lightRadioâ„¢ innovation (see this Telco 2.0 Best Practice Live! video - you’ll need to register), is a prime example of this trend: the ‘wired’ IP, optical and access networks are used to connect small wireless radios.

Furthermore, increasingly the network will connect the radios to a central pool of control and processing elements situated back in the operator switching and data centers, allowing optimal sharing and re-use between wireless cells and access points, thereby achieving up to a 50% Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) savings over today’s architectures.

2. The network will be intelligent: As Moore’s law continues its seemingly inexorable progression, the cost of processing and the associated memory and storage will have decreased to the point where the economics of embedding application-level functionality in the network makes sense. This will allow much more efficient use of network resources, and a concomitant improvement in the user Quality of Experience (QoE). We are already seeing this trend with the move towards sophisticated application-aware traffic management for optimized applications delivery and with embedded caching functionality in network elements for optimized video delivery anywhere, anytime to any device.

3. The network will be open and sustainable: The days of ‘walled garden’ versus ‘over the top’ applications are over. The traditional service provider applications (voice, data and TV/video) are opening up to allow third-party and ‘web’ application developers to leverage these capabilities and ‘mash them up’ with other web services to create previously unimaginable new applications.

Furthermore, around this paradigm shift new business models are emerging that will allow sustainable network growth and a ‘win-win-win’ scenario - better economics for the network providers, superior application-level functionality and a compelling new experience for the end user. We are already seeing this trend with the emergence of applications such as gaming and on-line video delivery leveraging the quality of service (QoS) parameters in the network to deliver the desired user experience. Moreover, the momentum building around the Wholesale Applications Community (WAC) - an alliance of service providers and equipment and device vendors aimed at defining a common set of Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to allow developers access to network capabilities in a consistent, unified way - is further evidence of this new trend.

4. The network will be a platform: Increasingly, applications will run in the network not over it. Think of a PC today: there is a processor, some memory and storage (a hard drive), and Ethernet ports, all connected by an internal communications network (e.g. the PCI and memory busses). Applications run ‘in’ the PC (on the processor) and they leverage the other elements over the local communications busses.

Now, if we consider that with the emergence of Cloud computing, processing and storage are separated into pools of resources connected together by Ethernet ports on local area networks in data centers, which in turn are connected together over the wider telecommunications network, the parallels are clear and we can think of the applications increasingly running in the network. If we then look to the embedded processing trend discussed earlier, then the interdependence of the two - application and network - cannot be disputed.

5. The end device(s) will be unified: With the remarkable evolution - or perhaps more accurately ‘revolution’ - in devices that has occurred over the past few years starting from feature phones, to keypad-based smartphones to touchscreen smartphones, to tablets to gaming consoles like the new WiiU and the Kinect extension to the Xbox, it has begun to seem as if the device ecosystem was going to be infinitely diverse, making the reality of true app and service ubiquity - anywhere, anytime, on any device - forever a distant dream.

However, there are clear trends that are emerging that suggest that this process is beginning to reverse, with a convergence of mobile device OS’s (iOS and Android becoming the ‘big two’), and with mounting evidence that tablets will replace many of the devices that were posited to be important (home control, gaming and media control consoles, video players, GPS devices, netbooks, and even PC’s and laptops), so that the only essential devices in the future will be the phone (for portability), the TV (for communal and big screen viewing) and the tablet (for everything else).

Moreover, with the emergence of HTML5 and webkits as the basis of a powerful new client framework with sophisticated graphics capabilities that will run on any ‘web-enabled’ device in the future, there is a very real possibility that we are actually merging from the complex, divergent device ‘morass’ into a unified device future of relative simplicity. This will fuel another significant new wave of application development and usage, as the same look and feel will be attainable on all devices and, with the Cloud supporting synching of the apps and content between devices, the user experience will be continuous and consistent wherever, and on ‘whatever’.

6. The network will be green: If we look to the more than 30x growth in capacity that is predicted to occur as smart devices and tablets proliferate over the coming years, and person-to-person communications are usurped (in volume) by Machine-to-Machine communications, we must optimize the energy cost per bit in order that the environmental impact of building these networks is minimized and the operational cost of running them does not become prohibitive.

As a reference point, based on published data, the two largest telecom operators in the US accounted for 0.6% of the national energy consumption in 2008, which is significant in itself, but becomes even more so when a 30x increase in network capacity is required to meet user demand. As a result, we are seeing a real focus on the energy costs of networks. Importantly, this is a problem that transcends a single vendor or a single operator and is the reason that we founded the GreenTouchâ„¢ consortium to tackle this massive problem via an open collaboration across the telecommunications industry.

So, all in all, I hope you will agree that this is a time of unprecedented challenges and opportunities in telecommunications and that by 2015 the seismic shift should be well underway. It is going to be quite a ride!

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