Exploring the Operators’ Views on Transformation Drivers and Time-Line

In past blogs, I’ve said that there were three dominant drivers for transformational change in networking.  One is carrier cloud (which of course has its own drivers), one is 5G, and the last is IoT.  Given that the industry is fast-paced, it’s a good time to look at where we stand on each, based on the project information I’ve seen from the network operators.

This is particularly important given that traditionally cited drivers like SDN and NFV are clearly a moving finish line according to surveys.  Light Reading published a summary of a survey that said, in essence, that operators were pushing back their expected realization of virtualization plans.  Yes, because technology change without business drivers is just a science project.  So, what are the real drivers doing?  In some cases, a lot and in others not much.

Carrier cloud is a bit of a catch-all driver, but it is the meaningful consequence of all the carrier interest in transformation.  The net-net of this driver is that it represents a goal of shifting the carrier business model to owning experiences and delivering them on the network, rather than owing just the network and letting others provide the experience.  NFV, operator entry into cloud computing, and content and advertising ventures could all create specific carrier cloud opportunities.

In my view, based on operator inputs, I think carrier cloud as a driver is suffering from a large dose of the vagues.  To say that you want to transform to, or lead in, carrier cloud is like saying you want your profits to go up.  The goal is inarguable but the realization of it is difficult because there’s no specific defined pathway you can expect to follow.  Carrier cloud activity is dominantly linked to lab and market research projects that are still largely in the hoped-for stage.

What might get carrier cloud out of the fuzziness that plagues it now is IoT.  Smart operators have been gradually coming to realize that the media vision of IoT as “billions of new devices on the Internet generating billions of new cellular service bills” (as one cynical operator staff type puts it) is a pipe dream.  That realization killed off the one obvious IoT business model but didn’t suggest anything more rational.  Fortunately, Amazon has come along (joined by Microsoft and Google) in presenting IoT as an application of event-based cloud computing—in the form of functional or “lambda” programming.

Event-driven systems, as I’ve said, pose a dilemma for cloud providers.  On the one hand, events are likely widely distributed, so they might be a very logical source of new cloud demand.  On the other hand, they demand a short control loop for at least the early stages of their processing.  That’s why Amazon introduced its Greengrass on-premises hosting option for the Amazon event-centric Lambda service.  Carriers have convenient real estate to host event processing near the source.

The problem for both IoT as a driver and for carrier cloud as something IoT could drive, is that operators are still hesitant about getting into process hosting, particularly in the form of a generalized cloud service.  Remember that carriers have been generally unsuccessful in cloud computing ventures.  The Amazon example might seem a clear direction to mimic, but not if it’s an example of cloud computing.  Thus, carriers would have to see IoT as a set of functions aimed at facilitating M2M or something.  They may not see it as a cellular-billing opportunity any longer, but they still don’t have the process perspective.

The “Why?” of that is best answered by relating the question of a Tier One.  “What do we deploy?”  Operators have a major problem planning things that don’t have any hard-deployable elements.  This is the sort of thing they’ve traditionally turned to vendors to provide. If IoT is about event processing and function hosting, then will somebody please sell me the stuff?  If you can point it out, tell me what it takes to run, price it, etc. then I can figure out whether I can make a business case.  The notion of formulating an IoT event-and-process strategy from scratch, then going out and assembling the pieces, is pretty well out of the carrier comfort zone.

The good news is that smart staff types in at least the major Tier One operators are accepting event-and-function reality for the first time, and in no small part because of the initiatives of the cloud providers.  They are looking at some packages (including GE Digital’s Predix) and some middleware and hosting options.  I think we may see some movement in this space by late in 2018.

Surprisingly, the carrier cloud impact of IoT planning might come along before the real IoT application.  One reason is that NFV’s “favorite” application, virtual CPE, is logically targeted at business sites, and these are also the targets for event processing.  A “function” in IoT terms isn’t the same as an NFV virtual function, but there are many similarities at the hosting level, and it would be possible to present IoT event-function hosting as an NFV application (were any vendors fully rational in this space, at least).  Vendors and operator planners eager to find a reason to deploy some servers in edge offices might find the IoT process hosting mission an attractive add-on to the vCPE hosting opportunity.

The final driver to be explored is 5G, and it’s the hardest of the three to get any handle on.  On the one hand, mobile operators are at least titularly committed to 5G at an almost unprecedented rate.  On the other hand, hardly any of them think that the specifications are even fully baked, and when you ask them what their 5G drivers are, you often get vague responses.

In fact, there are only two solid drivers for 5G at this point, one technological and one marketing.  On the technological side, many operators think that 5G is an opportunity for them to create fiber tail-connections to make fiber-to-the-node truly useful.  It’s a bonus that these nodal 5G cells could also provide better mobile coverage.  On the marketing side, it’s competition.  “More G’s win,” according to one operator.

If the only value in 5G is “more G’s” then it’s likely any deployment would be designed to have minimal impact on the network overall, simply to avoid introducing new costs.  A 5G tail connection doesn’t necessarily need a lot of the novel 5G features either, so it’s safe to say that 5G is still in a very early deliberation-and-planning stage.  Operators think that’s the case too; most stay they can “see the value” of things like network slicing, but they can’t put a number on it.  This reminds me of the state of NFV a couple years ago.

The bad news here is that none of the transformational drivers in networking show any sign of driving major changes in infrastructure in the near term.  The good news is that there does seem to be recognition that at least IoT and some aspects of 5G could drive value, and my personal view is that vendors or operators who want action before 2020 will need to somehow promote the edge-hosting model of event-driven IoT to get it.