What will the mobile network of the future look like? The question looks like a technical challenge, one that might require knowledge of the latest sophisticated networking trends, radio frequency research and development, and device designs.
In fact, the question cannot be addressed through studying the trajectory of recent technical innovations, but rather in understanding what mobile operators and service providers will require from their networks in order to remain relevant and profitable businesses. Once you have outlined what the mobile network needs to do—the capabilities it needs to have in order to enable operators’ business strategies—then you can start the discussion about the underlying technology.
Right now, there’s no doubt traditional service revenues are being diluted. Take mobile messaging as an example. Once, all the value within mobile messaging would have been captured by on-network SMS and voice mail, but now that is dispersed across IM, group chat, social media and Internet-based messaging services. As services have moved to IP platforms, the revenue mix for operators has moved as well, and mobile data packages now make up a greater proportion of operator revenues. Yet in balance sheets across the world, data revenues are not replacing core revenue erosion.
The road ahead for the profitable operator is to enhance its customers’ experiences and then extract benefit from that added value—either in terms of increased customer loyalty and engagement, or by working with external content and application providers to share the uplifted service revenues that result from delivering premium experiences. Examples of this could be ensuring a consumer is best-connected to suit what she is trying to achieve on the network, or providing prioritized quality of service for a set of users or a content partner (regulation allowing).
So what does the network of the future need to be able to “do”? It must be able to perform the following critical functions:
- Deliver the expected level of service to all its customers
- Differentiate between applications and service flows appropriately
- Understand the context that its users are in and adapt in real time
- Correlate user, service and end-to-end network conditions from the device back to the content or service that the user is accessing, all instantaneously.
The problem for operators is that they don’t have a blank sheet of paper. Their networks were not designed with this super-responsive, customer-centric, value-enhancing vision in mind. Right now, an operator cannot simply boost capacity to certain key elements when demand spikes. An operator struggles to know if a customer is frustrated because he is in a congested cell, or is in a cell with good capacity but at the edge of the cell deep in a building. Right now, if a user moves from LTE to Wi-Fi, the video he’s watching doesn’t go with him.
So what do operators do now to prepare for this network of the future? Change is underway, and this is why the latest industry buzz around concepts such as SDN, NFV, SON and the intelligent network has grown in volume the past 12 months.
These terms can be deconstructed as follows: They lower capital expenditure and operational cost while simultaneously increasing flexibility. The aim of the SDN, or software-defined network, is to separate the control of the network from the physical infrastructure. Routers and switches can be run from a centralized controller. Accordingly, the switch itself becomes “dumber”—a forwarding entity—and commoditized, enabling operators to build networks that can scale much more easily and cheaply at the transport level. In addition, the operator can make configuration and routing decisions much more quickly and flexibly to balance and manage traffic flows.
The road ahead for the profitable operator is to enhance its customers’ experiences and then extract benefit from that added value.
NFV, network function virtualization, is about taking network functions and creating them as virtual instances on standard IT platforms. That means instead of having dedicated resources in specific locations with static available capacities, operators can flexibly allocate more or fewer resources (e.g., a policy node, a charging gateway, an application server or a base station’s baseband processing resource) where and when they need to.
The use of SON, self-optimizing network, technologies is instrumental to delivering a truly intelligent network that can proactively understand and respond to real-time user experiences. SON technologies enable a network to optimize itself automatically by analyzing user, session and performance data.
Consider the frustrated user who is at the cell edge and cannot play a video. Because the intelligent network has already recognized the session throughput is suboptimal, it has authenticated the user on a Wi-Fi network while maintaining the session. Or if not available, it has, on the fly, invoked transcoding of the target video on a cloud-based application that allows it to deliver the video at a much lower bit rate.
Result? The user is happy. The content provider is happy. And by taking advantage of flexible and dynamic decision making and resource allocation, the operator of the intelligent network is able to differentiate itself based on perceived and actual quality.
So, to answer the question, what does the mobile network of the future look like? It must be intelligent both at the core and at the edge, and flexible and dynamic enough in its resource allocation to respond to consumer demand in real time. The sometimes baffling array of mobile network technology acronyms—NFV, SDN, SON and so on—can then be rearranged to become enablers of the core business case: to deliver enhanced end-user experiences and benefit from the added value. Without that business case driving the vision, investment in technology will be ultimately fruitless.