Technology roadmap: 2018

09 March 2018 | Editorial


What are the technology trends carriers will be responding to in 2018? From the rise in packaged capacity to software-defined networking, right down to the increased uptake of Communications Platforms-as-a-Service, we take a look at the emerging technologies likely to be at the forefront over the coming year

In a turbulent telecoms market, where hype is evolving at a furious rate, what is the reality for carriers as we settle into 2018? What will be the most notable technology trends for the international wholesale community?

Industry analyst Chris Lewis, of Lewis Insight, believes now is a pivotal time for carriers as the wider industry is forced to reassess respective roles and value. “Wholesale is still the dark secret of the telecoms industry,” he says. “Few acknowledge its real importance, but shifts to B2B2X (business-to-business-to-x) business models and the telco’s relative role in the emerging economy can only strengthen the wholesale hand.” 

His point is that as communications services become more packaged as part of digital services, whether that’s Netflix or new innovations based on connected devices, the wholesale opportunity starts to become more interesting because of how capacity is packaged, and the criticality of bandwidth and service reliability to support the flows of data. Carriers just need to be more proactive in commanding their share of the action. 

“Businesses might buy the primary connection themselves, but if you take the case of organisations doing remote monitoring, those connections will be bundled as part of insurance or healthcare services – i.e. they will be bought in bulk, from a wholesaler. It may even get to a point where telcos will want to redefine their wholesale versus retail operations, moving away from the current scenario where so often wholesale is a largely unmentioned part of the business.”

One priority must be to make the joins in networks more seamless and more efficient. “This is about better connecting the islands, e.g. data centres, that form the backbone of the internet, company networks, smart cities, and so on,” Lewis says. The move towards more joined-up networks can already be seen in the more seamless blending of fixed and mobile networks, he notes. “We’re starting to see a more holistic organisation and system for managing all of this. Mobile is becoming just another form of access.”

As the lines blur between services, and the focus continues to shift to the customer innovations that are enabled as a result, Daniel Kurgan, CEO of BICS, expects 2018 to be the year that Communications Platforms-as-a-Service (CPaaS) propositions take off, bringing new innovation to the way that even the more basic telecoms services are packaged and provisioned. “Adopting CPaaS will allow developers to easily and cost-effectively integrate real-time communications services into their offering, using the existing infrastructure and expertise of the provider,” he says. 

“We’ll see the benefits initially in customer care, with businesses from airlines and healthcare providers, to banks and retailers, adopting CPaaS to enhance customer engagement, using cloud-managed voice, video calling or SMS. Without the need for extensive and expensive hardware purchases and back-end system development, businesses can go to market faster than ever with new services, to the benefit of consumer and enterprise.”

BICS claims to have identified this trend a couple of years ago, and recently completed the acquisition of CPaaS company TeleSign as a significant play towards the opportunity.

Eric Cevis, president of Verizon Partner Solutions, agrees that networks need to become more flexible and fluid, to enable the kinds of service innovations customers are hungering for. “We’ve seeing a major shift in thinking around the importance of the network and infrastructure ownership,” he says. “As a result, service providers will experience an increased deployment of open-access networking and hosting structure.”

Certainly, established carriers need a way of injecting greater agility into the way they operate, manage and make money from their activities. 

To aid them in this pursuit, TM Forum recently announced the launch of its Open Digital Architecture (ODA) programme, designed to accelerate the transformation of telcos’ IT systems, drawing on the latest technology and best practice - on the basis that slower-moving carriers could learn from less encumbered market entrants, for instance.

“Take Reliance Jio,” says Barry Graham, TM Forum’s agile programme director, referring to the Indian mobile network operator. “Unencumbered by legacy, it adopted many cloud techniques to deploy its systems from the outset, enabling the company to grow and scale at a faster rate than previous providers,” he says.

Software

Traditional players have realised they need to change gear in response to this. Graham points to Telekom Malaysia, which has created a ‘two-speed architecture’, allowing it to innovate outside of its legacy investments. It means the operator can be much more agile in systems that interact with customers - without having to make complex changes to the underlying infrastructure and service management systems that are far more complex to change. It’s this kind of layered, multi-speed approach that TM Forum is advocating with ODA.

Saudi Telecom Company (STC) has launched Jawwy, a virtual service provider focussed on young, digital savvy customers, by adopting the same sort of strategy. “By leaving some legacy systems completely behind, STC has been able to create new customer-facing systems that offer a completely fresh experience, but still draw on the investment in the underlying infrastructure,” Graham explains. TM Forum’s Open APIs provide a standardised way of letting different customer-facing systems access the services of common underlying platforms, such as a provisioning system. It means multiple channels can share common services.

For Martin Morgan, VP of marketing, Openet, TM Forum’s ODA will be pivotal in helping carriers fast-forward to where they know they need to be. “Carriers understand they need to change, and that the adoption of new technologies is key to their evolution and transformation to become digital providers,” he notes. “Unfortunately, vendors have been slow to adopt new technologies to support this transformation, leaving the carrier community locked-in to lengthy and expensive transformation projects that rarely deliver on their very premise.”

The drive towards ‘softwareisation’ is another trend expected to continue in 2018, as operators strive for impoved agilty, greater flexibility and economy in service provision. 

“2017 was the year this really started to take off and we saw the beginnings of some real-world solutions and use cases that actually brought tangible operational benefits for backbone providers,” says Mattias Fridstrom, chief evangelist at Telia Carrier, which owns and operates one of the world’s most extensive fibre backbones. “In 2018, we can expect to see a further uptake of SDN (software-defined networking) adoption in backbone networks as we move towards an environment where it becomes a common component of core network infrastructure,” adds Fridstrom.

Cevis of Verizon Partner Solutions agrees. “With SDN deployments now live around the globe, companies are beginning to explore what they can really do with the security, agility and flexibility of virtualised network services,” he says. “The next big thing in this space will be application-aware networking – the objective being to manage the performance, capabilities and security of applications to make the most of the existing bandwidth.”

Edge vs. Core

Inevitably, the ‘edge vs. core’ battle will continue to play out in 2018 too, says Telia Carrier’s Fridstrom: “An increasing amount of traffic will be managed at the edge of the network, and much of it will stay there. At the same time, the network core will assume even greater importance if the full potential of edge computing is to be realised. 

“It is really only when vast amounts of data at the edge are combined with the formidable data-crunching resources in a well-placed core data centre that the full potential is realised,” he explains, suggesting that there will be an ongoing need for new data centres both in centralised core locations and more remotely at the edge. 

Mark Lewis, EVP of products & development at Interoute, agrees that this ‘second wave of IT infrastructure integration’ will ramp up in 2018. “Edge computing will be enabled by enhanced software-defined application-aware networking,” he says. “The same infrastructure that bridges the local edge to central cloud worlds will also integrate and consolidate on-premise networking and IT functions, swallowing a whole lot of local workloads along the way and making any other local IT infrastructure largely redundant,” he says.

In the mobile sphere, 5G will become increasingly central to carriers’ plans. “5G will undoubtedly be one of the main themes of 2018,” Telia Carrier’s Fridstrom says. “While we won’t see that many commercial 5G services launched during the year, it will still be the main area of focus for the majority of communication providers. Tests and trials will be completed and compared, new service possibilities discussed and everyone will make sure they are as ready as they can be for the imminent move towards a live 5G service environment.”

With 5G looming, IoT opportunities will ramp up too. “During the year, we will really see a lot more devices connected and even more data collected and analysed,” Fridstom predicts. He adds that debate will continue around the best technology for collecting data (e.g. SIM card-based or not), but notes that the widely held belief is that both will have a natural place within the IoT ecosystem.

Hand-in-hand with IoT comes intelligent use of data, from the ability crunch and react to large volumes of incoming information in real time, to the ability to learn from patterns in that data to enable predictive, pre-emptive decisions and actions. It is no coincidence that artificial intelligence and machine learning featured prominently at Mobile World Congress this February. AI will not only be an important aspect of outward-facing IoT propositions such as smart city innovation (e.g. more intelligent traffic management and infrastructure maintenance); it is also becoming a strategic focus for carriers managing their own assets and services, as well as customer care.

“Over the last year or so, we have witnessed a surge in the adoption of AI platforms to drive customer engagement and enable service providers to deal with the high volumes of inbound requests,” says Doron Youngerwood, product manager for AI at Amdocs. “Machine learning and automation have become essential due to the speed, scale, or complexity of the customer data that needs to be processed. Based on this intelligence, operators can anticipate issues that are likely to lead to complaints and pre-emptively engage with those customers before they pick up the phone to contact the call centre. AI can save operators time and money - reducing inbounds to call centres by around 15%.”

While this may appear more relevant for retail operators dealing with high volumes of consumers, carriers can’t ignore the rising preoccupation with more intelligent approaches to service management. AI is likely to be key to managing network security in future, as well as maintaining service availability at a time when applications’ tolerance of network latency and downtime is declining sharply.

Carl Grivner, CEO at Colt Technology, concludes that the consumerisation of the B2B experience will continue apace, even within wholesale - with the focus soon evolving from customer experience to customer intelligence. “The increasingly-demanding consumer makes no strict distinction between different channels of communication, but expects a smooth, convenient user experience,” he says, and carriers have a fundamental role to play in ensuring that.