The Future of Wireless: where’s the network?

Inside the arrow: making the network connection.

I spent a day at the Cambridge Wireless Future of Wireless Conference, held at the home of the future of football – Arsenal’s Emirates stadium. The tagline for the conference was something along the lines of “Wireless is dead, Long live wireless”. Is wireless dead? No. New tagline please.

So… to the keynotes. Tim Whitley, Director of Research at BT, spoke a bit about how the operator is looking to keep up to date with demands, and said that it had benefited in unexpected ways from advances in wireless networks. He aid that he was confident that the core BT network would be able to cope with the capacity demands placed upon it by increasing numbers of connected devices. He’s confident because by using advanced modulation techniques – bundling together 15 x 200Gbps (16-QAM) sub channels  – familiar to many radio engineers BT recently successfully trialled 3Tbps optical connectivity across live optical links on its existing fibre.

“It’s possible the core network will need 150Tbps. The good news is that we can respond to that growth… there is going to be no capacity crunch,” he added.

Then in a slide on the IoT ecosystem Whitley showed the connectivity between domains of devices, application platforms, analytics engines and so on, with some arrows between them all. He joked that as a network operator he had just reduced the last 30 years of his working life to some arrows. And for most of the readers of this blog, it is indeed what is inside those arrows that concerns us (more of that later).

Futurist David Wood said that the wireless industry faced disruption from a number of steam rollers – and he was brave enough to identify connected glasses, artificial intelligence, AR and VR, along with the need for enhanced security, as those disruptive forces. The important thing is that organisations threatened by these steamrollers use those forces to their benefit – just as Amazon did when it adapted from selling only physical books to add in eBooks and the Kindle. Again, Wood didn’t mention the network. “I’m not a networks guy,” he said, when asked what he wanted to see from 5G.

“The way we interact with our devices has become a source of parody and shame,”

Another Tim – designer Tim Rundle of Conran & Partners, said that true disruption to the wireless industry will come not from a human desire to be more and more connected, but to be able to disconnect.

Our relationships with our devices are getting out of control, and we sense that, Rundle said. “The way we interact with our devices has become a source of parody and shame,” he added, citing the common shame we feel when we spend time in a social situation looking at a screen instead of talking to our friends or family. He added to that “shame” the sense that notifications and alerts place us under increasing stress to be available and to respond.

Yet if technology is giving us problems, it can also save us from itself. Smart products that learn about us, where we are, what we are doing, can intercede to reduce the “noise” around us, can perform a sort of digital detox, Rundle said. “There’s an opportunity to design products that perform more processes, data processing and analytics to free us from our digital addictions,” he said.

WHERE’S THE NETWORK?

And here again there’s a big role for Whitely’s arrows – the actual network. Because if Rundle sees a future of a lot of connected devices performing in a way that is informed by an intelligent understanding of the user and her context in the world, then where is that processing going to take place? And as it takes place, and decides not to deliver a notification or voicemail until later, or strip out a prompt to complete an update, then that requires connectivity between the device and a local, semi-local or centralised compute, storage and security capability. And that connectivity is the Arrow.

Inside the arrow is the network, managing service flows and delivering different connectivity classes as near as possible to real time, in an unblocked way, to billions of endpoints and “subscribers” in the appropriate way.

Perhaps it was taken for granted but what the morning discussion lacked was the connection to the “connection” itself. It needed someone to draw the line between the new disruptive end user interaction space (glasses, AI, AR, VR and the IOT) and the service platforms that will inform and underpin them.

And it’s not as if thinking about this is something the network sector itself has lacked of late: recent development and investment has been into the key enablers of networks that could cost efficiently service these new use cases – NFV, SDN, edge cloud computing and so on.

Granted, there was that one talk from BT’s Whitley on how new photonics and fast copper technologies will deliver the core capacities required to shift the bits around. Whitely also mentioned the requirement for a change in the home networking environment, to move those gigabits around inside the home. But at a conference subtitled “Wireless is dead, Long Live Wireless”, we did not hear much about what these signs of wireless mortis are, nor indeed, if it needs reviving, what will revive it.

That is, until we got to the track sessions.

The one I sat in on was called Reinventing the Network Infrastructure industry. Cavium’s VP Wireless, Raj Singh, took us through the technologies that are set to change the face of. As Cavium is a chip company, it needs to look 3-7 years ahead to make its plans, Singh said. (“Silicon doesn’t turn on a dime”. What he sees is that the current 2G/3G/4G RANs and associated core networks, plus WiFi, cannot scale for the future – the Het Net will require a scaleable, common architecture. The requirement for very low latencies will also change the topology of networks (more edge cloud/computing), as will very high throughputs (security/encryption processing). Singh said that virtualisation technologies entering this segment would have a profound affect. C-RAN had “relatively few” drawbacks he said, and needn’t even be delivered over CPRI. Cavium has been working on a partially centralised CRAN, delivering connectivity over Ethernet across multiple hops.  So what does Singh see as this reinvention? A common architecture, with C-RAN, MEC and virtualised functions all under control of SDN controllers: these is how Singh sees the reinvention going.

InterDigital’s Alan Carlton described an even broader change coming along. He said Information Centric Networking (ICN) is the “inevitable destination” for the wireless industry. The technologies that will take us there in the meantime are SDN and NFV – with Carlton describing the POINT project that describes a sort of ICN within the network, served by ICBN-IP gateways for traffic coming in and out of the ICN-inside layer. He also touched on the XHAUL project, which he described as a project to simplify and unify backhaul and fronthaul architecture under common SDN control.

What was also interesting from Carlton was his urging not to fixate too much on new radio interfaces, but to think of the next generation as a fundamental change in networking. “Don’t get distracted by the RAT/air interface debate. The bigger bang will be on the network side. We’re in this for the long haul,” he said.

So what is inside that arrow as wireless tries to reinvent itself? Well, nothing too surprising perhaps: NFV, SDN, 5G, IoT, C-RAN, all of that. Perhaps also some transformation of the IP network itself, which you can see not just as reinventing wireless but “fixing the internet”.

Is this enough to stave off the steamrollers of disruption, to flip that energy back on itself and reinvent wireless? You know what – it better be. Because this is undoubtedly the direction in which we are heading. Now… I’m off to disconnect for a while.

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