The 2011 volcanic eruptions in Iceland led to a complete shutdown of travel across Europe for an entire week. But it was hardly a barrier. The entire world witnessed the fiery yet majestic scenes as drones relayed real-time images which sent viewers into a tizzy. On the other hand, KLM Airlines resorted to Twitter to communicate with customers as call centres were unable to take the heightened load. Post-crisis, the company returned to usual ways of business operations. But six months later, the CEO realized how efficiently they had adapted to the crisis and learned new ways of communicating that offered much value. The company then decided to invest in Twitter as a part of customer service and leveraged the platform for much more. In both of these examples, more data, more ubiquitous data, and faster data is created, which is delivered by more modern, more capable networks. In today’s environment, the response to the pandemic is telling the same story of data ubiquity and digital preparedness, at our businesses, in our own homes and within our communities.
Digital Preparedness Plays an Important Role During Extreme Disruption
Response to the pandemic has sped up the adoption of digital technology and adoption of advanced networks by several years, and many of these changes are here to stay for long.
2020 witnessed the boom of mobile apps for COVID-19 and the adoption of technologies like AI/ML and Big Data for contact tracing and remote patient care. In their efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic, countries have deployed digital technologies to facilitate planning, surveillance, testing, contact tracing, quarantine, and clinical management. This has flattened their COVID-19 incidence curves and maintained low mortality rates. In 2021, service providers will implement leading innovations, such as IoT, augmented reality, and stringent data security measures, in telehealth solutions.
From empowering contact tracing and telemedicine to supporting virtual learning and e-business, digital technology advancements have been a lifesaver to mankind during the crisis.
These new digital technologies need a robust network ecosystem to ride on.
Are Our Current Networks Ready for This Digital Disruption?
Technology companies, big and small, have been phenomenal in creating the innovations to develop applications and services for supporting use cases like telemedicine, virtual care platforms, video conferencing and virtual learning.
But all of these applications are dependent on robust network connections.
Going forward, these applications will grow substantially
- By 2026, the telemedicine market is expected to reach a $175.7 billion threshold
- The global video conferencing market is projected to reach $ 10.92 billion by 2027
- The number of connected devices will be 3X the global population by 2023
These are some of the big shifts that can be expected in near future. This would not only mean high bandwidth and low latency but also demand flexibility and agility to respond to variable customer demand. In short – networks would need to be more open, programmable.
The need for openness and programmability means that our legacy networks need to be refreshed and built-in new ways.
In 2021 and Beyond – Openness Is Key to Delivering the Needed Bandwidth for Taming Digital Disruption
Legacy telecom infrastructure has largely operated on tightly integrated, proprietary software and hardware. These are primarily hardware-centric with software driving specific applications. Traditionally, telcos had many challenges to address – constrained vendor choice, high CapEx and OpEx and very limited flexibility. At present, they are solving the conundrum of scale and bandwidth, which comes with high cost. Additionally, they also have to deal with exponentially increasing data traffic, mounting network complexity, the sheer number of newer devices. These are major problems and with the existing architectures, telcos will be unable to solve this. They need an entirely new network architecture with an open and disaggregate network. The new networks must be interoperable, have the potential to reduce complexity and deliver high coverage.
So what are the next steps for telcos?
The answer is – Transition off of legacy networks to more open, more interoperable, and more software-centric virtual platforms.
The end goal – A robust interoperable network ecosystem that can handle complexity and maintain a high quality of services while keeping costs low
To achieve these goals, telcos will have to evolve their present radio access networks to the next level of openness and intelligence. Until now, despite the advantages, the deployment of open networking has been measured. Operators had their own reasons like low confidence in multi-vendor interoperability and lack of stability and reliability considering the hyper-dynamic nature of mobile networks. But 2020 changed things. It brought acceptance for open networks in a big way Now telcos accept the notion that the digital networks will have to evolve to handle newer use cases cited above. And move to open technologies will be a major part of this evolution.
The next thing on the telcos’ list would be replacing monolithic telecom equipment with networking components they can mix and match. This could make their networks more cost-effective. Though some big telcos are taking firm steps towards this:
- Rakuten has built the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized, cloud-native mobile network, utilizing a multi-vendor approach.
- Deutsche Telekom, Orange, and Telefónica are developing an open RAN ecosystem.
- Vodafone recently rolled out new 4G services across the North-West region in 30 locations using O-RAN software from Parallel Wireless.
The rising demand for open networks from telcos has instigated enterprises to devise open, disaggregated networking solutions:
- Nokia recently announced the adoption of O-RAN interfaces in its AirScale portfolio.
- STL recently invested and partnered with ASOCS to deliver full-stack 5G solutions to enterprises and telcos.
- Airspan recently partnered with Altiostar Networks to leverage their combined vRAN and intelligent radio solutions to accelerate the commercialisation of O-RAN 4G and 5G platforms.
- Ericsson is involved in several large-scale 5G RAN deployments in major economies including Germany, Oman, and the UK
A Great Start, but a Long Way to Go
Isn’t it a great start? Going forward the market for O-RAN hardware and software will account for ~10% of the total RAN market and exceed $5bn in cumulative revenue during the next five years.
The next big step will be implementation. Seamless O-RAN deployment will be driven by proper solution planning and design, supply chain management, shipping logistics, component testing, RF optimization and drive testing. Radio access products must be tested extensively before deployment. TIP and O-RAN alliances are extending implementation and deployment support by expediting system integration, testing, and verification processes to create approved blueprints and reference designs. Everybody involved in the value chain understands the significance of having open platforms.
Open networks will be the key to leveraging digital technologies like 5G and FTTH which are going mainstream. It is now the turn of operators to embrace more open networks and drive vendor ecosystems accordingly.
By – Christopher W. Rice, CEO – Access Solutions, STL