Wired, wireless, worldwide: what’s next for networks?
How can networks, the underlying infrastructure behind all connectivity, be developed and expanded to provide high quality, rich content and services at high speeds and with high reliability – whilst also being affordable to the 49% of the world that is still offline?
This was the question at the heart of the opening session of ITU Digital World 2021, which explored a range of technologies and solutions from fibre to satellite, fixed wireless, backhaul, 5G, automation in the network, infrastructure sharing and new regulatory approaches.
Welcoming participants to share their views on “the digital infrastructure and the future developments of networks, and the evolution towards a hyper-connected and super-smart society,” Phan Tam, Deputy Minister of Information and Communications for event co-host, Viet Nam, called for cooperation throughout the ICT industry to take advantage of new technologies and reach the underserved more quickly.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fundamental importance of ICTs, connectivity and “brought to life the value of the networks that might otherwise have been forgotten,” according to session moderator Vaishali Rastogi, Global Head, Technology, Media and Telecommunications at Boston Consulting Group. “If this pandemic had happened in 2000, only 0.2% of the workforce would have been able to work remotely. Less than 1% would have had real broadband connectivity. Networks have been the critical glue enabling us to work from home and drive education.”
Meeting the affordability challenge
With half of all households not having access to high speed connectivity, what technologies and solutions are needed to drive more digital inclusion – and more affordable connectivity?
From the perspective of Africa, where 30% of the continent is unconnected, Jocelyn Karakula, CTIO, Orange Middle East and Africa, highlighted two key factors: corporate social responsibility (CSR) engagement, and energy efficient technologies, including better batteries, adapting solar panels, and the use of AI algorithms to predict energy demands and better manage power systems. Technologies such as Open RAN (radio access network) offering remote deployment can be very promising in remote and rural regions provided the challenges of cost effectiveness and energy efficiency are met.
Improving backhaul capabilities to meet the need for capacity is key, combining low band microwave backhaul and the use of low earth orbit (LEO) satellites. Full integrators who understand the landscape – both in the industry and geographically – will have a critical role to play in bringing in different technologies to increase capacity in difficult terrains and enable sustainable digital inclusion.
“AI will be key: we cannot manage on a legacy mode such complex and enhanced modern networks,” he said, pointing out that in Africa, the challenge will be continuing to live with four generations of mobile tech – with individual spectrum requirements and investment costs – in parallel. 4G and 5G will develop slowly as long as smart phones remain unaffordable for low income populations, he added: “Technology will enable lower prices in production and manufacturing in order to promote and develop this penetration rate, and have very significant impact on connectivity.”
Wireless, fibre and satellite alternatives
For Mikael Rylander, Technology Leadership Officer at Nokia, fibre to the home (FTTH) is the broadband technology of choice where high speed and massive coverage are required. It is future-proof, delivering speeds of 10 and 25 gigabits per second and now moving towards 50 or even 100. It has low opex, very low power consumption and can be used for residential and enterprise customers, but also for 5G small cell sites, functioning as a stepping stone for other technologies. Operators can also continue to “squeeze copper” with new technology, but the majority of telocs have FTTH at the heart of their strategies and it is the mainstream technology for broadband in developing markets.
Will the next generation of fibre networks bring new business models enabling fibre to move beyond urban or developed areas? According to Rylander, even in traditional markets, “New business ideas are emerging around the sharing economy, which could potentially lower the barrier for investment, as investment could be shared and applied for pieces of the network.”
Neha Satak, Chief Executive Officer at Astrome, stated that “Wireless is the way to go to close the gap faster…in developed and developing countries, the majority of areas which are unconnected are still within 15 kilometres of a place where fibre is available.” Using both millimetre wave wireless backhaul and unlicenced backhaul can balance out throughput and distance. WiFi mesh solutions offer robust and affordable networks through the combination of low and high frequency wireless technologies.
Satellites have long been a cost-effective way to reach places and people terrestrial networks cannot, but the current dramatic evolution in technology in both space and ground segments is increasing use cases. Aarti Holla-Maini, Secretary General, EMEA Satellite Operators Association, highlighted the role of satellites in providing backhaul, community WiFi solutions and 5G backhaul, with terrestrial operators investing more and more in satellites in response to the need for seamless connectivity experiences across many 5G verticals.
“Evolution in technology and work on standards will make it much easier to integrate satellite into the network of networks. The legacy divisions between mobile, fixed and satellite are dissolving. The optimum solution for future connectivity lies in a combination of technologies pooling different strengths to collectively deliver higher resilience and greater availability for many more users”, she said.
Satak agreed that the satellite industry is poised to become a part of the technologies portfolio, with telcos venturing into space directly or indirectly in developed and developing countries alike. The current price of broadband plans does not make it an affordable option in many emerging markets, with innovation in LEOs key to bringing down costs.
Fixed wireless access can be a valuable addition to driving digital inclusion, added Rylander. It is principally deployed to cope with capacity demand where there is no fibre in urban areas, but is increasingly being tested with millimetre waves in rural areas as technology progresses.
Automation in the network
For Miro Salem, Global Head of AI and Autonomous Networks, Rakuten Mobile, Inc., if we want to solve the challenge (and opportunity) of digital inclusion through automation in the networks, we can – “but ultimately we live in world driven by economics. Autonomous networks create the economics for us to be able to solve these problems in areas where we could not have done this before. So the fundamental shift to happen is the economics by which networks operate.” By changing the design principles upon which we build autonomous networks, we can significantly reduce the cost of wireless network access and share the privilege of connectivity more fairly: “If you change the economics, you get automation, autonomous networks and solutions – and you get everybody the access we all have.”
Specialized hardware in the network is a thing of the past as commodity servers take over even the most traditional legacy functions, agreed Konstantinos Masselos, President, Hellenic Telecommunications & Post Commission. Network function virtualization is removing the high cost and complex infrastructure installation which have traditionally been the main barriers to newcomers in the industry. The accelerating softwarization trend will bring competition – and put pressure on telcos resisting lean operational models, unable or unwilling to adapt.
“Our next generation networks require dense and heavy fibre deployment, but this can be offset by careful resource sharing and planning together with lowering the cost of core network operations as they become a software defined commodity. It is not easy for the industry to move from one paradigm to another, but telecom operators will adapt to the new software-oriented model,” over time he added.
Choosing your tools: a portfolio of complementary technologies
No one single solution or approach, the panel agreed, will solve the challenge of increasing access. In the words of Salem, “It is about using the right tool or combination of tools in the right place to solve a problem. All tools have advantages and disadvantages – what is important is deciding which tool to use where within this portfolio.” Increasing convergence between technologies increases capacity, but adds complexity, he pointed out.
There will always be a trade-off between cost of maintenance, speed, scalability, latency, time to install, customer equipment costs and ensuring the solution is future-proof. No single technical solution is good enough to apply in any given case or country. “High quality and affordable connectivity needs hybrid technology solutions,” said Masselos, taking in account special features of each area such as geography, seasonality and population distribution, and using the right mixture of technology to optimize deployment and maintenance costs – and therefore affordability.
Key technologies include FTTH for high speed, reliability, and low energy consumption solutions in densely populated areas; fixed wireless access for 5G and easier deployment to suburban and rural areas; and LEO and other satellites with low latency as a good option for rural areas – and increasingly beyond. Fibre is essential for all of these technologies – and for 5G mobile networks, too.
5G business cases
But where are the 5G business cases? For Rylander, markets in Western Europe, Asia and the USA are making progress driven by new partnerships with enterprise firms to rescale organizations and establish how to infuse 5G into the B2B environment. The new operating system and architecture will enable provisioning and performance innovation at scale not seen before. Current use cases include mobility, manufacturing and remote maintenance (particularly valuable during the height of the pandemic where travel was severely curtailed), with real, tangible revenue opportunities emerging in arenas such as university campuses, smart factories, robotics, air- and seaports.
Reconsidering regulatory approaches
Masselos pointed out that we have not yet seen the full potential of 5G, which will continue to evolve towards 5.5G with even higher speeds, lower latencies and increased reliability. The integration of AI and 5G will take use from the internet of everything to the intelligent internet of everything – and our priorities should include ensuring high quality human capacity, IP and a supportive regulatory environment to develop business models and innovation as 6G research begins.
In Africa, Orange’s Karakula reminded the panel, “We are facing a capex wall with massive investment in 4G which must be compatible with 5G and with the cost of 5G licences to manage in parallel with no revenue. Network sharing will be a must.” He called for regulators to champion network and spectrum sharing rather than seeing it as decrease in competition or potential loss of revenue. Multiple technologies must be allowed to co-exist within long term spectrum provisions; regulators should also allow for open access to international cables to allow for high capacity broadband provision, in particular in landlocked countries.
Autonomous networks can dramatically reduce the requirements for skill sets locally and help close the digital divide. Automation already brings additional capacity to existing networks, but for Salem, “the transformation we will see in the world will come from autonomous networks. We have bridged the gap between data, AI and autonomous networks, and there is incredible potential for what networks can be capable of once we implement evolutional algorithms.” The big transformation happening in software is the future of all networks.
Summing up the session, ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao welcomed the focus on the complementary combination of technologies and resource sharing, and in particular on the affordability of connectivity. He stressed the need for better use of existing capacity, including network sharing, satellites and submarine cables, as well as making full use of legacy investments in earlier generation fixed and mobile networks. Asking “How can we use current existing capacities to to offer services whilst still encouraging investment to extend this infrastructure and connect those not yet connected?” he called for IoT solutions and applications from SMEs in particular to drive network usage and provide revenue, as well as a balance of resource sharing and competition amongst operators. The pandemic has highlighted the need for more broadband capacity in developed countries as well as developing markets; the challenge remains an economic one. Investment in new technology and improved infrastructure is paramount to the growth of the connected world.