Operators across the globe as well as in India are looking for greater control over an increasingly complex network environment. The focus is primarily on technological innovations across multiple network dimensions – radio, core, transport, optics, software, as well as network integration and orchestration. Consequently, the development of more scalable, software-defined and programmable networks is emerging as a key technology trend on the telco side.
In the Indian market, deployments are taking place on the virtualisation side, and operators are looking at significantly reducing the cost per bit by adopting new technologies such as network function virtualisation (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN). Further, next-generation technologies such as 5G and artificial intelligence (AI) are expected to bring in efficiencies into the network. Operators are prioritising the deployment of robust technologies to prepare their networks to support the scale and demand of services in the future. A look at the key technology trends in the telecom space…
Massive MIMO significantly improves spectral efficiency by expanding the existing network capacity by five to seven times. It has the ability to serve multiple users and devices while maintaining fast data rates and consistency in performance. According to Radhey Shyam Sarda, chief technology officer (CTO), Huawei, “Massive MIMO addresses the exponential growth in data traffic at hotspot locations without adding new sites or spectrum. It helps operators in increasing spectrum efficiency and reducing the cost per bit. Massive MIMO leverages the 4G network to create massive capacity using the existing spectrum resources.”
In the Indian context, massive MIMO can prove to be a key enabler for realising the digital goals of the government. Domestic telecom operators are currently deploying massive MIMO technology on their existing 4G networks. In 2018, Bharti Airtel deployed the technology at various stadiums where cricket matches were being played during the Indian Premier League. Airtel further announced that it will expand its use of massive MIMO in all major business hubs and residential complexes across several states. Vodafone India has also been conducting trials of the technology on its existing network, with a special focus on improving latency. Idea Cellular too conducted trials for massive MIMO technology in various cities. Meanwhile, Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited (RJIL) collaborated with Samsung, its only commercial vendor across India, to enhance its existing 4G networks to offer 5G-like services.
Voice over LTE (VoLTE) saw increasing deployments from all major carriers. The biggest advantage of handling voice calls over a 4G network is that its greater bandwidth allows for high quality voice calls. It ensures greater voice clarity, fewer call drops and faster call connectivity compared to 2G/3G networks. Moreover, with good 4G connectivity, the battery life of handsets improves as the phone does not have to switch from the 2G/3G network every time a call is made and then back to the 4G network when the user starts using an app or browses the web. A key limitation, however, is that both the parties involved in the call need to have VoLTE connectivity. Further, the pricing of these calls is an issue.
VoLTE will be the next big trend that could significantly improve the voice call experience, once the roll-out is wide enough and users sign up in large numbers. It is expected to emerge as the technology of choice for the masses in the future.
SDN and NFV
SDN and NFV are transforming telecom networking globally by helping operators reduce their hardware and software requirements significantly, and achieve a higher value through cloud-based networks. These technologies are aimed at decoupling software from hardware, such that service providers no longer have to rely on expensive proprietary hardware platforms.
SDN and NFV are relevant for the Indian market too, where operators are struggling to get returns on their investments in spectrum owing to pricing pressures and low ARPUs. Using these technologies, Indian operators can reduce costs, accelerate service deployment, maximise resource utilisation, reduce network complexities, enhance scalability, and offer on-demand and differentiated services.
“Telecom service providers are slowly but surely realising the benefits of moving away from hardware-centric, expensive and difficult-to-deploy equipment. Telcos should use a virtualised network, which disaggregates software and hardware components to bring down the cost, making it easy to deploy and manage networks in remote areas. Further, this type of infrastructure enables the unification of all Gs, be it 2G, 3G, 4G or 5G. This approach makes the network much more agile and flexible,” says Rajesh Mishra, co-founder, president and CTO, Parallel Wireless.
“Operators are looking at a phased approach for NFV and SDN deployment. They are keen to roll out these technologies in anticipation of 5G, as cloud infrastructure is a must for the adoption of these solutions. NFV and SDN give the benefit of time-to-market, as these solutions provide flexibility and agility to an operator while reducing total cost of ownership. The pace of deployment of these solutions is relatively better now than it was a year ago.” adds Randeep Raina, CTO, Nokia India. Further, the software-defined wide area network (SDWAN) is fast emerging as a popular SDN application for WAN connections, which are used for connecting enterprise networks such as branch offices and data centres over large distances. SDN and NFV will be key components in the 5G era.
Open source will emerge as a mega trend that will impact the telecom industry in a big way. It will be a key factor in telcos’ transition to the cloud and digital platforms. There will emerge a scenario where telcos will work together to bring about standardisation in software, and open source will ensure a seamless interplay between network operators and vendors.
In recent years, a large global community has emerged around open source software with companies now providing robust support services. This also ensures reduced risk of vendor lock-in for telcos as compared to the lock-in in the case of proprietary software licence investments. Another key benefit of open source software is better security, as there is a higher likelihood of bugs being detected by a large community.
Currently, only a few telcos in India are leveraging open source software, that too in a limited way, to redefine the return on investment metrics. Going forward, this trend will catch on, benefitting Indian telcos as they will be able to reap the benefits of an entire community involved in innovations as opposed to solutions from just one vendor.
The year saw telcos starting to explore blockchain technology, particularly in areas such as data and content monetisation. Airtel is currently at the trial stage of blockchain deployment, while Vodafone, in partnership with IBM, is already at the proof of concept (PoC) stage. Reliance Jio too is using its start-up accelerator JioGenNext to bring blockchain-related start-ups on board. Jio has also set up an engineering team that would develop new use cases and applications of blockchain technology. Going forward, telcos can create a media platform using blockchain technology to directly connect with content creators.
Meanwhile, in its consultation paper released earlier in the year, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) emphasised the role of blockchain in the mobile number portability (MNP) process. It stated that if a recipient operator shares its blockchain details with the donor operator and the MNP service provider, it could reduce delays in the MNP process and make it more secure.
AI is being increasingly explored by leading global telcos to generate cognitive insights by mining the mountains of data collected by them. It is also being used to automate back-end business processes, which frees up staff, thereby increasing productivity and lowering costs.
In India, the concept of AI is still evolving, but there is a growing interest among operators in exploring this. In October 2018, Airtel announced an “acquihire” deal with AuthMe ID Services, a Bengaluru-based start-up focused on AI-based solutions. With this partnership, Airtel aims to offer its customers innovative digital products based on AI. Earlier, in May 2018, Jio launched an AI-based brand engagement platform with features such as video call centres, video catalogues and virtual showrooms.
Over the next few years, AI is expected to see an increase in use cases as telcos explore and adopt new-age concepts of NFV, SDN and cloud. AI will also emerge as a powerful tool for aiding predictive maintenance of networks, helping telcos switch from reactive to proactive mode. Higher adoption of AI is likely to be witnessed once 5G is introduced. In fact, there is a growing industry belief that AI-fuelled automation will be the only way for operators to offer future network services.
Low-power wide area network (LPWAN) is a wireless WAN technology that interconnects low-bandwidth, battery-powered devices with low bit rates over long ranges. Designed for machine-to-machine communications, it provides connectivity for devices and applications that require low mobility and a low level of data transfer, and is therefore critical for the development of internet of things (IoT). LPWAN offers several benefits such as low power consumption (it operates on small, inexpensive batteries lasting up to 10 years) and is suitable for long operating ranges (of over 2 km radius in urban settings).
Currently, LPWAN is at a nascent stage and has not yet been deployed widely across the globe. Once commercialised, the technology could assist in establishing smart cities around the world. It could also help improve the driving experience by utilising sensors, networking capabilities and processors fixed in vehicles.
Convergence of wireless and wireline networks is now a reality. Traditional wireline players are foraying into the wireless space, bringing their expertise in fibre connectivity. Many operators are now focusing on driving fibre deeper into their networks to enable centralised or cloud RAN (C-RAN) architectures and large-scale small cell deployments that bring the fibre hop-off point closer to subscribers. “Convergence of technologies is emerging as a key theme. Earlier, fixed line was competing with wireless, but now it is complementing it,” adds Nokia’s Raina.
5G has created a buzz in the industry, given its immense potential in improving network speeds and connectivity, and supporting new-age technologies such as IoT, AI and virtual reality. 5G is expected to offer network speeds of up to 10 Gbps and 1,000 times increased bandwidth per unit area compared to 4G. It is also expected to reduce the round-trip delay time (latency) from 50 milliseconds to less than 1 millisecond and ensure network availability of 99.999 per cent. In addition, 5G will expand the universe of connected devices by supporting up to 100 times more connected devices than in the current networks.
Telecom operators around the world have accelerated their efforts to launch 5G services, with several of them initiating network trials to set up the desired ecosystem prior to commercial launch of the technology. The Indian market too has taken early steps to create an ecosystem that is conducive to 5G deployment. Operators are discussing and exploring use cases. However, there is still a long way to go, especially with regard to the development of backhaul networks to support the technology. “The potential of 5G is not only about expecting Indian network operators to deliver a faster speed than 4G; it is a combination of evolving technologies. There are many other ongoing technological discussions in the wireless world. Managing the complexities posed by IoT is one such example. It will take a while for 5G to become a generally accepted standard in the marketplace, especially with developing countries like India that are still dependent on 4G,” says Navin Vohra, vice president, service provider, Asia Pacific, CommScope. Going forward, fiberisation of the existing infrastructure and availability of reasonably priced spectrum will be critical to the deployment of 5G networks.
While telcos have already warmed up to software and virtualisation technologies in 2018, they are set to embrace automation and virtualised cloud platforms in a big way in 2019. This will allow them to launch new services within months instead of years, which, in turn, helping them to withstand competition and stay ahead of the technology curve.
Meanwhile, telcos will continue their journey towards commercialising 5G. It is slated to be a game changer, transcending telecom boundaries and connecting anything and everything at faster speeds.
Akanksha Mahajan Marwah