Can Mobile Extricate Itself from Nonsense?

With Mobile World Congress coming along there’s plenty of buzz in the mobile space, and more than a few announcements are likely at the show.  Some will probably mix SDN and NFV with mobile, maybe with each other, with the cloud, and possibly with the Internet of Whatever’s Next.  Maybe it’s time to do a little level-setting in advance of the show.

Mobile is hot because it’s profitable; ARPU is still growing for many operators in an industry where growth seems a thing of the past.  Nevertheless, mobile isn’t immune to the issues that have plagued operators overall, it’s just not as far along the curve of decline.  The mobile operators in my survey indicated that they believed that major steps would have to be taken to protect mobile profits by next year, which puts it about two to two-and-a-half years beyond wireline in terms of the inflection point.

One of the hot buttons with mobile is lowering the cost of IMS and EPC, the overlay technologies needed for advance mobile services.  However, the canny planners in my survey indicated that the real challenge with mobile wasn’t from the cost side but from the services side.  They point out that mobile social advertising, for example, could have been theirs to address had they been more agile.  True, of course.  The question at this point, and the source of any linkage between mobile and the other hot technologies, is how this gets done.

It’s fairly unlikely in my view that operators will be able to leverage what could be called “IMS applications” meaning those with a specific linkage to the IMS environment.  RCS and other such applications have simply not been able to compete with OTT services, and the problem is less one of agility than one of uniqueness and utility.  Why pay for something from an operator when you can get something like Google Apps/Docs for nothing, and have it work on any of your devices?

I remember back in the ISDN days, when CIMI had signed the NIST Cooperative Research and Development Agreement and I was involved in carrier ISDN service planning.  Operators would come running into a meeting, excited, and shout “I’ve discovered a new ISDN application!  It’s called…file transfer!”  Well, I tried to explain that was already being done, without much success.  The point is that you can’t, as an operator, jump into “new” mobile services that are just versions of stuff that OTTs already create.  IMS could be a factor in such services but so far narrow thinking on everyone’s part has prevented any useful vision of how that could happen.

So we have a lot of focus on costs instead, and this aligns with the SDN and NFV stuff.  There is little question that SDN could be used to create a different model of EPC, and little question that elements of both IMS and EPC could be hosted by NFV.  We already have claims in both these areas, most of which are pretty much unadulterated hype.  The big issue is that if you replicate every element of EPC using hosted technology or simply substitute one kind of tunnel for another using SDN or something else, you’re not moving the ball much.  You really need a complete metro makeover, something that unites all the services into a common structure, including CDN, mobile, wireline, cloud…you get the picture.  Need it, won’t get it.

We have the same kind of lowball mindset in network evolution that we have in mobile service evolution.  It’s easier to plant an NFV or SDN flag on a product that isn’t rightfully either of the two than to actually do something constructive.  That’s why I don’t bother to go to trade shows anymore; they’re just mindless attractive billboards.

Virtualization should bring about a whole new model of networking—from the service level down to transport, from logic to management.  In fact, it has to do that or it won’t change things enough to bring about the kind of flood of new benefits, new revenues, new spending that everyone seems to want.  You don’t define the next generation of Internet by arguing that more things will be on it, you define it by defining the framework that lets it be so much more valuable for what it does, not for what it carries that people can’t help but invest in it.

A study just reported that Euro telcos will have to drive massive cost cuts to remain sustainable businesses.  That’s not true; what they need is to drive massive changes on the revenue/services side.  Cost management helps hedge fund investors but not the telcos or their customers, unless it can be paired with reasonable service upsides.  A business that survives by continual cost-cutting vanishes to a point.

What could be done about this?  Well, I have a suggestion that’s not been tried before.  Right now, telcos in the US and Europe both face a common problem, which is that they can’t collaborate on technology without risking anti-trust action.  That forces them to take initiatives designed to promote their own collective health out into a standards activity that will end up being run by vendors because there are more of them than there are telcos.  Suppose regulators were to allow pure carrier standards activities, something like a “CableLabs”, that would drive collective technology changes to facilitate growth in revenues?

We have a broken industry, and it’s because we have a broken process.  We are incapable of funding innovation either from the buyers’ or sellers’ side, and largely because we’ve created business structures and regulatory policies that have anchored us in practices of the past while the consumer and OTT competitors have moved on.  Fixing the problem won’t be easy, but it will darn sure be easier to do now than it will be five years from now.

We, the “networking public” can do something too.  Stop reading garbage, believing junk claims.  Demand better, because if that’s not done then it’s impossible to sustain the industry momentum needed to make our revolutions real.

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