As everything from WAN to RAN goes virtual, some things never will. After a whirlwind week on the road for Broadband World Forum in Berlin, a full roster of meetings and a quick three day huddle at Cloudstreet headquarters in Helsinki, I am more convinced than ever. Of course nothing will ever replace the face-to-face, the handshake or that quaint but un-necessary exchanging of business cards, but sometimes we forget how important is our physical presence in an increasingly virtualized world.
Coming from our little corner of BBWF – a new track called the Network Slicing Summit was a great case in point. Our Founder and CEO Mika Skarp was set to speak on day 1, presenting his talk “Making Money with Network Slicing”, and as I looked down through the list of other presenters, my jaw dropped. I would be quite surprised if there has ever been such a concentration of slicing heads in one place at one time. Well of course it’s the obvious benefit of a networking event, but for my own part to finally be in the same room with so many with whom I’ve spoken, conferred and chatted it felt truly like a homecoming.
These things don’t happen by accident of course, so before I jump into this exhibitor’s notebook post on the event itself, I want to send some heartfelt props to everyone from Informa, KNect365, Light Reading and of course, the Broadband World Forum for having us and believing in a Network Slicing Summit. I want to give a special thanks to Conference content producer Chris Silberberg. Chris is an excellent content producer, but he’s also an Ancient Historian. Well, he’s not ancient, actually a recent grad, but if the next generation of telecom heads are like him, we’re going some place great. Before we even became sponsors of the event Chris had approached us to talk through the topic and take suggestions from us on the themes. I have to say that was the first time that has happened. Generally conference agendas just land in your inbox. This is EXACTLY how to do it.
Of course no network slicing summit worth its salt wouldn’t include our own Founder-In-Chief, Mika Skarp. I am still looking around for the whole talk, but here’s a quick recap from Light Reading producer Pierre-Henri Landriau capturing Mika’s “Thin Edge of the Wedge” Unpacking the Business Drivers for Network Slicing:
A quick note to readers: If you weren’t there, but would like to get a copy of Mika’s presentation, (described by one senior platform strategy executive at BT as “Superb”), please3 don’t hesitate to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Building a Network Slicing Community
For the next several days and in and out of so many fascinating conversations and meetings, one word kept coming to mind. Community. And whether talking about the Network Slicing opportunity from a technological, business or cultural perspective there is no question but I that I feel like we are all beginning to speak the same language. It’s important to remember that Network Slicing, although our bread butter is still relatively new. The concept of virtualizing end-to-end mobile networks for innumerable unique customer segments is the stuff of dreams and all the more exciting since the value proposition, business models and use cases are still wet clay in our collective hands.
The enormous opportunity of that very fact was driven home for me by Light Reading Editor-in-Chief Ray Le Maistre, who insisted that that along with Great coffee, nothing can replace the real, physical, roll up your sleeves collaboration that massive virtualization demands. In an environment that will be virtually un-recognizable 5 years from now, it’s more important than ever before. If you haven’t had a chance to read his recent three part piece, piecing together the 5G puzzle, here’s a strong recommend.
I had the pleasure of a quick chat with Ray between sessions at one of the livelier stages in Berlin, the Open Telco panels that he was moderating. It being Octoberfest, T-Mobile’s very cool biergartan-themed stand provided the backdrop, and the two of us elected for some of Germany’s finest over filter drip. Presuming as I do, but particularly at these events, that I am the least smart person in the room, I asked for his take on all things 5G, enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) and of course Network Slicing. Most happy to oblige, he painted broad strokes but with his particular talent for irreverent nuance. I hadn’t the benefit of first reading the articles above, but suffice to say that all my poo-poing of late about 5G being more hype than substance was dashed in a flash. While he agreed that it may not be the best way to market gear, and especially the software defined kind, he made a strong case for the “all of the above” strategy described in his ‘puzzle’ piece, where he directly called out things like Network Slicing as a by-product of the core components; an enabler yes, but at this stage itself in need of enabling.
I had to hear more. I asked him what he thought the holdup was, since after all, we’re already doing it. While he agreed that there may have been some network slicing money left on the table in 2018, a charge that panelists in the Summit wouldn’t admit, he underscored the fact that for many carriers (typically conservative as they are), there’s more interest in getting it right than getting there first. Add to that the fact that for some there are major showstoppers. Case in point, he cited one Deutsche Telecom executive on his previous panel who said he had no interest in Network Slicing whatsoever because opening up the network to slices would invite black market resale of capacity, and a sea of fly-by-night MVNOs.
“Can it be?”, I said. “a fly in the ointment for network slicing?”. Ray laughed it off with something to the effect that “some carriers are just more conservative than others”. And as he made his way back to the stage, I scrambled for some quick fixes to the objection. Couldn’t Network Slicing solve the problem?
I put the question to Mika and his answer was typically succinct. “Not really”, he said “It’s like WiFi in a coffee shop and there’s nothing to stop people from selling capacity.” Of course, and how obvious, but what does that mean for network slicing, and so I asked a follow up, “is the Deutsche Telekom executive quite right then to resist? “ “Definitely not” said Mika. “The demand for capacity is the driver, and maximum utilization is the carrier goal. Who cares if who resells your capacity?” I was immediately reminded of this well explored topic in Mika’s two-part article on Connectivity-as-a-Service from a while back the case is quite clear. Of course, the fact is that it’s already happening, and would only happen more in a sliced network.
In places like India where limited capacity, enormous demand and a great deal of between-the-cracks, entrepreneurship is the way, WiFi and cell hotspots get sold, re-sold or rented to all comers. For buyers unable to afford a pre-paid plan, never mind a monthly subscription, this makes perfect sense, but it also makes sense for the carrier, since it only drives utilization. Simply put, the idea that someone re-selling your capacity is bad, but providing it for free is ok is also a considerable mis-apprehension. Particularly as Mika points in his post, so called ‘free’ coffee shop WiFi isn’t really free, but rather bundled into your cup of coffee. Carriers shouldn’t care any more about Network Sliced-enabling black market resale, than they do “free” public WiFi wherever you might get it. It only drives connectivity, digitization and use. On the flipside Network Slicing provides an enormous amount of flexibility to deliver “fit-for-purpose” services, whatever they might be in a very granular way.
While there were too many great and interesting conversational threads to report upon here, the experience of walking the floor with an open heart and mind, and many questions yielded and then some. From my conversation with Franz-Anton Vermast, Strategy Advisor and Ambassador for the Amsterdam Smart City, to learning of the Open Networking Foundation whose 5G architectures immediately drew my attention, our collective sunny ways were inspiring. Here’s a core network architecture that baffled me at first but the demo cleared things up and demonstrated a perfect fit with our end of the slicing equation, the first and last mile UE to Air Interface.
Source: Open Networking Foundation
Vermast’s talk (I still don’t know how he managed to get it all into the 20 minute slot), covered the waterfront of Amsterdam’s initiatives. Of course they are all about sustainability and reducing CO2, but go much further. Take the city’s growing homeless population for example. Vermast shared with me a story about a homeless man who every month, when his government assistance cheque comes in, books himself into a 5 star hotel and spends the whole load in the lap of luxury. Then he’s back out on the street, where he wants to be. He relayed to Vermast a request that’s been voiced by many in his community. Even though they are homeless, they all have mobile phones. The problem is there is no place to charge them. Putting their money where their mouth is Amsterdam is adding USB charging stations to street furniture and other infrastructure across the city. What a great initiative!
Though the advantages of our virtually connected offices are many; sparing jet fuel and overhead and allowing us to cover just about every time zone the world around, nothing beats being present in our communities. It speaks both to our commitment to the mission, but most importantly our clear intent which is always best expressed in the flesh.