Innovations in digital technology are driving the need for advanced networks and services such as 5G, and related network technologies like internet of things (IoT), radio convergence and massive multiple input multiple output (MIMO). The world is moving towards a new era of connectivity with emerging segments such as industrial IoT, enterprise networking and critical communications coming to the fore. It has become imperative to develop reliable and secure networks that are ready to cope with the future service demands. Implementing these networks of the future would require active participation from all stakeholders such as telecom service providers, original equipment manufacturers, system integrators, organisations and standards setting bodies, regulators and policymakers.

A fool-proof ecosystem is needed with various business models centred on infrastructure sharing (both active and passive), network scalability, storage capabilities and security, to support these networks of to­mo­­rrow. As networks evolve, the bandwidth and speed requirements will shoot up too. Meanwhile, there will be a surge in demand for extremely low latency networks. Further, base stations will have to become more intelligent to manage a huge amount of data collected at these stations.

These business models need to be commercially viable too. Operators need to show an appetite for investments as massive capex will be needed to make the networks future ready. Moreover, significant investment will have to be undertaken in the research and development of future networks. The government will play a key role in developing the digital ecosystem by making spectrum accessible to operators at competitive price points. Other stakeholders such as infrastructure providers will also be the key enablers in the deployment of emerging digital networks. The implementation of infrastructure and network sharing models will lead to a reduction in costs, resulting in greater investments in faster network roll-outs, as well as a reduction in the technology adoption time.

Transformational technologies

The emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), IoT, 5G, blockchain, 3D printing, cloud computing, augmented reality and virtual reality has disrupted the techno­logy domain. Some of these technologies are yet to become commercially viable, while others have already found applications in our businesses and day-to-day lives. In order to maximise the benefits of these technologies, it is essential to understand their functioning, implementation and the key challenges in their adoption.

The digital transformation of busine­sses involves moving beyond traditional pro­­ducts to a data-driven economy supported by new and emerging technologies. Th­ese technologies will be the building blocks for providing meaningful experiences and services, and ensuring privacy and user control. The power of data can be unleashed by the use of AI and big data analytics, cloud-native platforms and block­­chain ledgers, which would form an additional layer on the foundational infrastructure. All these transformations will be driven by ultra-broadband services. Toge­th­er, stakeholders across the industry should aim to sustain the momentum of this transformation, consistently deliver the highest quality experience and ensure that its benefits reach the entire country.

Further, operators should aggressively de­­ploy fibre. Affordable, ultra-broadband for all homes, micro-businesses, and small and medium enterprises is a key enabler of digital transformation. However, in order to achieve this, all operators need to be in­centivised to build deeper fibre networks.

Power of content

The launch of 4G services by Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited has increased fibre penetration in the country. The availability of cheaper data has led to a massive content explosion. For example, the daily views on YouTube have increased from 4 million in the pre-4G era to 25 million, as of June 2018. Moreover, the time spent on viewing content has doubled (with the maximum viewers being in the 18-30 years age bracket). This trend of data explosion is expected to continue in the coming years.

This brings us to the important question of monetising the growing volumes of video content. To this end, operators have come up with monetisation models like freemium and subscription-based models, among others. Bharti Airtel has partnered with content providers such as Amazon Prime and Netflix to offer more enhanced content to its users.

However, there are many challenges in content monetisation. The key issues pertain to the valuation of content and getting more consumers to pay for this content. Content delivery and creation is also challenging. Other issues revolve around habit formation, delivery of user-generated content and outsmarting the users in creating content.

There is a need to develop good and smartly packaged content, which is available to users at a fair price. Moreover, operators like Bharti Airtel are slowly and gradually introducing more local and regional content for users.

Open source technology

Open source technology has started gaining traction in recent times. It is free and available for everyone to download, which means that anybody can put content on open source platforms. BuzzFeed and Facebook can also be considered open sources. Given its potential, open source technology is finding several use cases across sectors. It requires innovation and the assistance of next-generation technologies such as IoT, AI and 5G.

That said, there are various challenges in the deployment of open source technology. Open source networks have to be programmable, elastic and configurable. Fur­ther, security is a big issue as open source platforms are available to all. The last and one of the most important challenges is funding and ownership. Nevertheless, an open source ecosystem is key to driving innovation in the industry.

Technologies of the future

There is an urgent need to identify ways to reduce the complexities and challenges rel­ated to network design and capabilities, and redefine connectivity. One of the key challenges for operators and network pro­v­i­ders today is the delivery of reliable services at low costs. They also want to ensure mi­ni­mum human intervention. This calls for the setting up of next-generation networks and management systems, which can fulfil the current as well as future technology re­qu­i­re­ments, while ensuring financial viability.

As the industry moves towards 5G, it would mean 100 times more devices and 1,000 times more bandwidth requirement in comparison to 4G. In such a scenario, technologies like massive MIMO will play an important role in network enhancement. According to Nivruti Rai, vice-president – data centre group, and country head, Intel India, “The key focus areas when looking at network enhancement are – virtualisation, densification and optimisation.” Vishant Vora, chief technology officer, Vodafone-Idea Limited, adds, “Over the years, the telecom sector has emerged from being an individual vertical to a new horizontal altogether. It has now become an integral part of various sectors.”

Operators need to rethink the way they build networks. The near-term vision entails connecting over 100 billion devices. This would mean massive digital transactions on the network. Thus, we need to have a highly distributed network. Further, a high level of flexibility and agility is needed in the networks. As Vora points out, while the past has been about providing standardised services, the future will be about providing differentiated services. When it comes to technology solutions for the network, the perspective needs to shift from complexity to simplicity.