We’re starting yet another trade show in what’s always been the “trade show season” of the fall; this time it’s 4G World. The timing may be trite in a calendar sense but it’s fitting in a market sense because we’re certainly on the cusp of some major changes in wireless. The changes may in fact be driving the bigger and broader changes we talk about a lot—cloud and SDN.
One thing that’s clear from the show even now is that we have the same forces at work in wireless broadband as we had in wireline broadband, just wielded by different players. OTT players were the big push behind the service-model changes of the past. For wireless it’s the handset/appliance players obviously. If you look at the commercials for smartphones you see people doing everything but talking, which pretty well sums up the way phones are heading. The biggest focus is on video, and that of course encourages users to consume it, which makes video the biggest force in disintermediation in wireless, just as it was in wireline.
One effect of this that I can already see in survey results this fall is a considerably greater level of interest in small cells and agile radio networks. Another is improved integration of Wifi and 4G. Both are aimed at increasing the total capacity pool available in a given geography so that video traffic doesn’t stall the network. NSN has been one of the leaders in this space (Alcatel-Lucent the other) and the small-cell trend and NSN’s ability to address it have given NSN the largest improvement in strategic influence of any network vendor except Huawei, and the largest overall for Tier One operators.
Zillions of little cells increase capacity by providing more feed points (backhaul) per unit geography and by improving frequency re-use plans. They can be tuned to match consumer movement; per-cell using tunable multi-beam antennas and at the macro level by balancing the capacity allocated to different cells. They also increase the cost of the network, of course. Still, just a year ago, there were few operators seriously planning for agile RAN strategies and today we have 100% commitment by Tier Ones and nearly that for Tier Two providers.
Another impact of the mobile explosion is a shift in the cloud focus. I’d noted in past blogs that while operators recognized content, mobile, and cloud in that order as their monetization priorities, they were executing faster on the cloud and slowest in mobile. There are signs that’s changing now, as operators recognize that mobile broadband services are perfect cloud applications. A mobile user has an almost transactional need for information if you exclude content delivery; make a request and get an answer. This model is perfect for a RESTful interface and awful for traditional IMS sessions; too much signaling per unit of service delivery.
Signaling is the other side of the picture, of course. Not only are services themselves risks to signaling traffic, handsets tend to use more signaling for keep-alive functions—the so-called “dormancy protocol” that’s been evolving as handset vendors try to reduce power consumption during idle periods without losing connectivity. We think that Alcatel-Lucent’s decision to cloud-host IMS is a critical one because we think that some elastic-cloud vision of IMS is critical in addressing the signaling problems of the network. Note that this also shows up in the operators’ Network Functions Virtualization priorities.
In the SDN world, mobile is focusing attention on the applications of SDN technology to backhaul and even to mobility, which in our view are related. One of the challenges of the LTE designer is that the focus of planning has been on “Internet offload” and suddenly applications that look very Internet-like are the revenue source you’re targeting! We have to think about how mobile content delivery and mobile cloud services are supported—is it EPC or are they offloaded? If the latter, to what? If the former, how do we contain costs? I think that the biggest metro infrastructure question operators have today is how to design an “EPC” that doesn’t present such a cost premium as to make it useless for these cloud-and-content apps.
Clearly vendors will see this particular trend as an opportunity, which it is. Mobile services already present between 20 and 100 times as many metro endpoints as consumer voice and broadband services in wireline form, and with small cells rushing on I expect you’ll see some areas with a thousand times as many cell connections as central offices. This kind of change will generate big bucks, and the questions are first how carriers will balance between the layers and second how vendors will present their offerings. The marriage of SDN and optics could revolutionize metro at the very time when mobile is crying for revolution.