By Mika Skarp
Telecom history is a success story born of global co-operation. From the very outset there was a collective understanding that if different countries and territories could be connected to one another the value of those connections would be all the greater, particularly the larger the distance. This had critical implications during the cold war. Many may remember the famous hotline between D.C and Moscow in an effort to avert nuclear disaster, and the same point-to-point communications now in place between Pyongyang and Seoul. Meanwhile we saw plenty of examples of closed networks like E1, T1 and J1 and of course CDMA and GSM where that wouldn’t allow text messages to be sent between them. Fast forward nearly two decades and these restrictive, even competing communication systems have been put to bed in place of what is essentially and all-IP based infrastructure, only with different air interfaces.
But as the standards converge and approach universality, and as the pace of technology development quickens, the elephant in the room becomes the standards process itself, which is notoriously burdensome and slow. To draw out the issue we can see the stark contrast between new WiFi standards that come out now every year, while 3GPP’s new Radio standards follow a roughly ten year cycle. This is frustrating, especially for IT industry folks who are expected to double network performance every 18 months. As we enter this critical new age of digitization and the Internet of Action the question becomes quite clear; is it possible to maintain global interoperability and speed up mobile network development at the same time? And further, are we crazy to hope that through this next wave of converging devices, connectivity and experiences the worlds of telecom and tech giants finally come into sync?
That’s certainly the hope of organizations like the Telecom Infra Project, a Facebook spearheaded initiative that seeks, in their words to “disaggregate the traditional network deployment approach” by bringing together operators, suppliers, developers and start-ups to drive common use-case, focused objectives. We’ve had the honor and pleasure of being part of the TIP community as contributing members of the End-to-End Network Slicing working group. Last week our collaboration hit center stage at the TIP Summit in London, a two day event that appears like any traditional conference or tradeshow. The difference here is that the exhibition area isn’t flying company flags, but rather the year’s TIP projects. More technology than slogan the hands-on event enjoys a supremely engaged audience of some 1600 telco tech savvy attendees. The projects run across access, backhaul, core, and management focused on everything from Open RAN, Cellular and Optical to mmWave, Edge Computing and even the People & Processes powering it all. Each project may combine any variety of technology contributors but always has at least one carrier champion.
In our group, championed by BT, and in partnership with EXFO, we provided a live demonstration of End-to-End, Application-Aware Network Slicing. Our demo ran for the full two days, and while I’ve seen my share of busy shows, this was on a different plan. We even had a queue of people waiting to get a glimpse of our demo at points through the show. This not only drove home the sense that Network Slicing’s time has come, but the general feeling that the industry itself is poised for a major rethink. While there’s one TIP, there’s a clear demand for more if this approach, less driven by technology and more by Use Cases that identify a problem and just solve it. This kind of iterative, even agile approach to developing applicable solutions will only serve to accelerate cycles, where truly new products and services and can reach the market every couple years, rather than every decade. Though the standards bodies like 3GPP and IEEE aren’t going anywhere, any time soon, there is no question but that we can, through organizations like TIP and other Use Case PoCs venues deliver real value through new network functions and products while significantly reducing cost and time to market.
TIP has clearly proven that it has a role to play and it is also shown that we don’t need to stay in the 20 year logjam release cycle we’ve seen for our entire careers. Even if it happens slowly, the industry will, and indeed must move toward the IT development cycle and business model, invite disruption, give licence to fail and as TIP and Facebook say, “Stay focused & Keep Shipping”. If you are interested getting a` close look at the works we are doing and some of the most promising use cases and business models now in play, we invite you to visit us at the Broadband World Forum, Network Slicing Summit in Berlin.