Speaking Engagements & Private Workshops - Get Dean Bubley to present or chair your event

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To discuss Dean Bubley's appearance at a specific event, contact information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com

Friday, September 22, 2017

Thoughts on in-building wireless - and an upcoming client webinar

I've been pondering some of the side-effects and necessary enablers of the accelerating wireless evolution path we're seeing. As well as spectrum issues I've covered a lot recently, deploying indoor infrastructure is going to be another one of them. 

It is not a new assertion that indoor networks are important for enterprise. The frustrations of poor indoor cellular coverage are universal, while businesses of all types need to provide employees and guests with high-quality Wi-Fi.

(I'll cover trends in home Wi-Fi in a later post, while I've already written about industrial facilities in a number of previous ones, such as here, as the issues are as much about spectrum as about infrastructure and planning.)

Various solutions abound for providing good signal indoors – distributed antenna systems (DAS), small cells, or even just deployment of lower-frequency bands in outdoor networks, with better penetration through walls. Yet costs remain considerable, especially as usage increases near-exponentially. Upgrading or retro-fitting existing installations often requires hard economic decisions, given that most such investments are not directly “monetised”. Suitable expertise, foresight, planning tools and ongoing monitoring/reporting are important.

The future, however, will accelerate the role of in-building/on-site wireless connectivity – in both predictable and unpredictable fashion. If we consider what a building might look like in the year 2030, say – and how it may be used and occupied – we can start to see the challenges and opportunities.

As well as today’s well-known and well-described uses of wireless (smartphones and laptops on Wi-Fi and cellular networks), we can expect to see a huge number of new uses emerge. This means that today’s implementations will require future-proofing, to support the unknowns of tomorrow. For example, consider the implications of: 

  • IoT deployments for smart buildings, such as a proliferation of sensors for heating, security, or the operation of elevators. These may require better coverage in unusual places – in ceiling voids, lift-shafts, basements and so on. Bandwidth and latency requirements will vary hugely, from life-critical but low-data fire/carbon monoxide sensors, to networked video cameras, or once-an-hour reporting from water tanks.
  • Moving devices such as robots or automated trolleys, delivering products around the building. While some will be fully-autonomous, others will need constant wireless connectivity and control.
  • 5G networks will be deployed from around 2020, with further evolutions in following years. These may be extremely demanding on in-building coverage solutions, especially as some networks are likely to use frequencies above 6GHz – perhaps even as high as 80GHz. Extensive use of MIMO and beam-forming may also add complexity to indoor implementations. (A new variant of WiFi known as WiGig also uses 60GHz frequencies)
  • Likely huge growth in narrowband wireless, connecting low-powered (but maybe very dense) networks of sensors or other endpoints. These may use 3GPP technologies such as NB-IoT, or other options such as LoRa and SigFox.

All of these trends imply very different traffic patterns. It is not realistic just to extrapolate from current usage – robots may go to places in buildings where humans do not, for example. Mobility requirements may evolve – and so will regulations.

It is not just new classes of device and application which will need to be supported by well-designed coverage infrastructure, but also new classes of service provider that need to access them.
  • The advent of new unlicensed or shared-spectrum models of frequency allocation (eg CBRS in the US, or MuLTEfire) may mean the arrival of new operator types – dedicated IoT solutions providers that “bring their own wireless”; enterprises acting as their own local on-site MNOs; various models of “neutral host” and so on.
  • Private enterprise cellular networks are starting to become more widespread. Some governments are allocating spectrum for industries like utilities or smart-cities, while equipment vendors are offering optimised enterprise-grade cellular infrastructure.
  • Potential future regulations for emergency-services wireless connections. Police and fire authorities are increasingly using broadband mobile, both for humans and remote-sensing devices.
  • Distributed-mesh service providers, that operate as decentralised networks with micropayments, or as community initiatives. Some may use blockchain-type arrangements for shared-ownership or membership fees.
One of the unknowns is about the convergence (or divergence) of different network types. On one hand, cellular networks are embracing Wi-Fi for offload, or for multi-network aggregation, especially as they worry that returning flat-rate data plans may stress their networks. On the other, some networks are looking at running 4G/5G in unlicensed spectrum instead of (or in addition to) Wi-Fi. Yet more service providers are adopting a “Wi-Fi first” approach, reverting to MVNO models for cellular where needed. Future permutations will likely be more complex still. All will (ideally) need to be well-suppported by indoor wireless infrastructure.

For property developers and owners, the quality of indoor networks is increasingly key in determining valuations and rental occupancy. Already seen in hotels, and office new builds, it will be important for today’s new constructions and refurbishments to support adequate flexibility and headroom for the next decade or more.

This takes on further emphasis if you consider the trend towards “buildings-as-a-service”, exemplified by organisations such as WeWork. These new classes of facility often incorporate wireless connectivity both as a billable service element, but also to enable their owners to manage the properties effectively, in terms of energy-efficiency and security. Other forms of monetisation and data-analytics around wireless location-sensing/tracking are also becoming more important.

Lastly, in-building challenges will be driven by the specific location and industry, which themselves may change in nature over the next decade. New building materials, construction practices and regulations will impact wireless in unpredictable ways – more metallic insulation perhaps, but also perhaps robot or pre-fabricated construction allowing wireless systems to be installed more easily. Individual industry verticals will have their own shifts – what will retail stores look like, and how will customers behave, in the era of home deliveries by drone, but more on-premise “experiences”, perhaps with AR/VR systems? What workplaces of the future look like, in an era of self-driving vehicles? Industrial facilities will become increasingly automated, with the largest uses of wireless connections being machines rather than humans. Hotels and airports will see shifts in data connectivity needs from employees and visitors, as application usage shifts.

Small cells look certain to play a more important role in future, and Wi-Fi is going to remain the most important indoor technology for many users and businesses (ignore the fantasists who think it's at risk from 4G / 5G - see my earlier post here).

There are no easy answers here – even if you construct good scenarios for the future, undoubtedly we will be surprised by events. But some form of upfront discipline in designing and building indoor wireless solutions is ever more critical, given the unknowns. The more future-proofing is possible, the lower the potential risk of being caught out.
On October 5th, at 3pm BST / 4pm CET / 10am EDT, I will be presenting on some of these topics on a webinar for client iBwave. A link to the event is here

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Reinventing Telcos - a preview of my ITU World panel session

Reposted from an article I wrote for the ITU's blog (link)

On the 27th of September, I’m moderating a panel discussion at the ITU World 2017 conference in Busan, South Korea, on the theme of “The transformation of telecom operators: reinventing telcos.

This is a topic we’ve heard discussed for at least the last 10 years in various forms, yet we still seem to be at or near the starting point. The panel will look at what can we do differently, to change the dynamics. In particular, it will focus on the internal organisation and processes of the telecom industry, both within and between telcos. Other conference sessions will consider new services, industry verticals, and the customer perspective.

Across the globe, traditional CSPs are trying to adapt their cultures and operational models, in the face of ever-increasing competition and substitution from new players. As well as other rival service providers such as cable operators, telcos now face challenges from Internet-based peers, niche specialist SPs (for example in IoT), and even enterprises and governments building their own networks. On the horizon, new technologies such as AI threaten to change the landscape even more. The nature of what it means to be a “service provider” is changing.

This goes beyond just implementing next-generation networks, whether fixed or wireless. While these are necessary, they are not sufficient for true reinvention – and they also require enormous new investment. The real question is what options exist for operators to best-allocate scarce resources (money, skills and time) to maximize the value from such investments in infrastructure. There is also a risk that emphasis on the “hard challenges” of raising finance, acquiring spectrum or sites, and building networks, means less focus on the “softer” problems of culture change, service design, organisation, customer-centricity and partnership.

This in turn poses problems for regulators, especially at national levels. Usually driven by domestic politics and local economic situations, they somehow need to ensure a strategically-important sector remains healthy, while also recognising the huge global-scale advances from many technologies and services that transcend national or regional boundaries.

It is not realistic for every country to have three or four competing local providers of social networks, IoT management tools or future AI platforms. Citizens and businesses expect similar functions to work internationally and immediately, with rapid incremental improvements. Unlike networks, innovation in services and applications often favours fast-evolving proprietary platforms, rather than committee-led interoperable services like the PSTN.

Telcos – and their regulators – have until recently been poorly-suited to this new world, although some are making interesting attempts to “turn the super-tanker”.

The session will touch on four or five key areas:
  • Innovation: What is the best way for telcos to innovate, given regulatory & cultural constraints? Arms-length subsidiaries? Huge retraining programmes? Business units targeted on verticals / technologies? How much freedom should product units have, for example should they be forced to use the company-wide core network & NFV platforms, or should they be able to go “off piste” and act independently? Are “platforms plays” viable in telecoms, or just unrealistic wishful-thinking?
  • Regulation: What should regulators be doing, to simultaneously encourage new entrants/innovators, but also allow telcos to make enough returns to take long-term investment views? And how can regulators deal with the overlaps, competition and tensions between very distinct groups, such as traditional infrastructure-oriented telcos and Internet-based “web-scale” platforms? One group has huge capex and strict regulatory constraints, the other huge R&D and greater risk of failure: how can one set of rules span both, where they intersect?
  • Industry coordination: How do the current pan-industry structures (eg bodies like ITU & GSMA & 3GPP) need to change? Can they be made faster, more willing to take risks, faster to acknowledge errors, bring in non-traditional stakeholders?
  • Technology catalysts: Are 5G & NFV really “transformational” enablers of re-invention? Or will prolonged hybrid/transition phases from older tech mean there can’t be fast shifts? How should telcos deploy technologies such as AI, blockchain or IoT internally, as part of their reinvention?
One other thing should frame the debate: language – how we describe the problems, or wider communications environment. Words, analogies and narrative arcs are psychologically important – they shape the way we perceive problems, and can either enhance or misdirect our responses. We should recognise the unhelpfulness of terms like:
  • Digital”: Morse Code was digital in 1843. Telecom networks have used digital technology for decades, as have most businesses. It’s about steady progress and evolution, not a “digitalisation” step change.
  • OTT”: usually said in a negative tone, I believe this prejudiced description of Internet services has hugely harmed the telecoms industry over the last decade. For example, it obscures the fact that larger Internet companies do more deep technology than telcos: they make network equipment and chips, build infrastructure and conduct billions of dollars of R&D.
  • Level playing field”: telco executives, regulators and lobbyists use this phrase with abandon. Yet the analogy is meaningless, when everyone is playing different sports entirely.
The narrative needs to change substantially. My ITU Telecom World 2017 session aims to reset the debate, and catalyse thoughtful (but rapid!) future action by operators, regulators and industry bodies alike.

If you are seeking a moderator or speaker for a telecoms strategy or policy event, please contact information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Huawei Connect: IT services, Enterprise Cellular, video analytics, AI and more

I spent most of last week in Shanghai, attending Huawei's Connect conference and trade show. It was a good chance to get a deep-dive into the company's enterprise activities, as well as get my head around China's broader trends and influences around the technology sector.

I normally engage with Huawei through its analyst relations function, but this trip was organised by a different team. The company apparently considers me a "KOL" ("key opinion leader"), which is a rather diffuse bucket used for a mix of outspoken independent analysts, public-facing academics, video/social bloggers and assorted others. I'm not sure I set out to lead opinions, but I'm certainly happy to voice my own.

(Unlike the analyst events I usually attend, the KOL group isn't really made up of direct competitors, so there's a more collegiate atmosphere - and a very lively WeChat group, partly with logistics about meeting times/locations but also sharing photos or thoughts about the event).

Connect is mostly driven by Huawei's enterprise business unit, which is growing fast (about $6bn revenues in 2016, up 47% [link]), and focuses on cloud and big "infrastructure-led" IT and networking projects. So sectors like smart cities, advanced manufacturing, oil and gas IoT, systems for transport sectors like rail and ports and so on. There's a heavy emphasis on IoT platforms and networks, cloud and storage, video/image surveillance analysis and a lot of AI. 

It clearly intends to be a very significant player in its chosen sectors, using its existing high IT profile in China, plus its global telecom footprint, as a springboard for other international ICT theatres. Unlike Europe, North America and India, China has few global-scale IT companies, especially in systems integration or outsourcing. The closest to a "Chinese version of IBM" is probably ChinaSoft, which has a deep partnership with Huawei anyway, and in which Huawei owns a significant shareholding.

Thinking more about technology-sector comparables, very few have a similar blend of infrastructure/network/telecom expertise, systems integration/services scale and cloud capabilities. Given Ericsson's recent announcements of pulling back on direct enterprise-related initiatives to focus on CSPs and its Cisco partnership as channels (a strategic error, I feel), it's only really Nokia and maybe NEC that have the scope to push the same big-infrastructure enterprise "ICT" vision, although even it doesn't have the full-scale IT services business that Huawei does. Perhaps there's yet more scope for consolidation between traditional IT companies and networks. (Ericsson+IBM? Nokia+HP? NEC+Tata? Who knows....)

One other thing stood out about the event: there was very little spoken about telco networks, Huawei's main business, or the synergies between that business unit and its faster-growing enterprise sibling. 

There was much more about robots and face-recognition than network-slicing and NFV. The main mention of IMS that I saw was in the context of critical communications for public safety, eg push-to-talk. The X-Labs group assessing possible future 5G use-cases was talking about connected drones, or cloud-integrated video-enabled helmets for the blind. There was a "carrier" section in the vertical-industries show hall, but that seemed mostly focused on cloud solutions for telcos.

Conspicuously, there was almost no reference to delivery models for network or IoT capabilities for enterprises. There was no assumption that everything would be provided "as a service", or in particular, delivered by a CSP. There was tacit recognition that some organisations want to own their own infrastructure / private clouds, some may go to a specialist integrator (eg an automation/IoT specialist like Honeywell or GE), and some might use an arm of a telco. For example, T-Systems, Deutsche Telekom's IT unit, was there talking about a Huawei-based storage cloud, deployed for CERN, the leading nuclear and particular research institution on the Swiss/French border.

Huawei also offers its own cloud services, but is quite self-effacing about it, only wishing to become "one of the top 5 clouds" (presumably along with Amazon, Google, IBM and maybe Microsoft - which it also partners) and saying that "1% is enough for us". I don't think Jeff Bezos is going to have too many sleepless nights, although Alibaba, Cisco and Oracle may have different opinions on the top tier's members, the former especially in China itself.

In terms of specific takeouts on my normal coverage areas, a few things stood out:
  • Enterprise Cellular: This was everywhere at the event, under the brand eLTE. This is a sort of pre-cursor to a MuLTEfire / CBRS model of non-carrier cellular networks. There's a quite large eLTE ecosystem, especially around public-safety networks but also manufacturing, transport and other verticals. There was a demo of a robot connected with private cellular. There are 3 variants:
    • An unlicensed LTE-U version that doesn't need a licensed "anchor" like LAA, so can be deployed by any organisation
    • A licensed-band version, where organisations (such as law-enforcement or utilities) can manage to get dedicated spectrum by one means or another
    • A narrowband version, which is essentiially NB-IoT in unlicensed bands such as ISM spectrum (which in China, is in the 500MHz range, or 900MHz in the US)
    • All of these were targeted at industry verticals. There wasn't any mention of other use-cases like neutral-host providers, hybrid MNO/MVNOs, mesh networks, or consumer-oriented plays. 
    • There wasn't any explicit mention of shared-spectrum models like CBRS, but it seems to fit under the second category.
    • This all fits nicely with the recent work I've done on private/enterprise cellular. It will be an ongoing theme as it is clearly "happening", including presentations at a few upcoming regulatory conferences, and another workshop with Caroline Gabriel in London on Dec 1 (link)

  •  IoT networks: There was a huge emphasis on NB-IoT around the event, as well as broadband 4.5G/5G options for drones, connected vehicles and more demanding applications. I didn't see an mention of LoRA, SigFox, or even LTE-M or Cat1 though, but WiFi and ZigBee cropped up on various slides. Some interesting examples of NB-IoT deployments, notably for cities, or specific OEM-led integrations such as China's booming shared-bicycle sector.
  • Video and facial networks/analytics: This was a huge theme, as it bridges Huawei's key domains of mobile broadband, cloud services and AI. A major focus is "safe cities", especially using networked video cameras to manage traffic, enforce public safety - and track/spot individual people, whether that is missing children, criminals, or attendees at a trade show. (I joked on Twitter that Huawei had probably been tracking people around the event itself - only for the next slide to reveal that it had been doing exactly that). Missing from most of the material was much mention of privacy - which appears to be less of a concern in China than it would be in much of Europe. That said, we may be fighting a losing battle on that front, as this week's Economist cover & feature articles on face-recognition point out (link).
  • AI: Beyond video-analysis, a central thrust of the event was around machine-learning, graph analysis, image-recognition and other forms of AI.  I didn't get a chance to go into too much depth on this, but it's pretty clear this is central to Huawei's cloud ambitions, and probably will link into carrier-domain services like smart-home / personal voice assistants as well as "big data" corporate applications
  • We also had a briefing with the handset unit, which discussed the new Kirin AI-oriented chip which includes a neural processing element, as well as CPU, GPU and DSP. This should enable better and more power-efficient local classification of images, without the need to send all data to the cloud. This fits into my ongoing debate on whether 5G's low-latency business case might be undermined by more edge-processing. (link)
  • WiFi: Although not as big an emphasis as 4G/5G, Huawei nevertheless had a fair bit of WiFi on display, particularly for large-scale deployments in cities or large public venues like sports stadia. It also had an interesting hybrid WiFi / IoT networking unit, which for now focuses on Bluetooth, RFID and ZigBee but I guess could incorporate NB-IoT (or its eLTE variant), or even LoRa if a client wanted.
  • UC/UCaaS: Although not a major focus of the event (itself quite telling) there was a fair bit of unified communications, conferencing and even cPaaS around the show. There was a Broadsoft-style UC platform for operators, and various tools for multi-party meetings. It's not obvious that Huawei is aiming to be a Twilio / Tokbox-style platform provider though, although it does have APIs (including WebRTC) for embedding communications in apps and websites. I didn't see any signs of a Slack/Spark/HipChat rival. Notably, Huawei is partnering Microsoft on Office365, so may not launch its own full UcaaS direct-to-enterprise product. 
  • I liked one partner booth in particular "Call Cloud", which uses a crowd-style / sharing economy approach to sourcing customer-service reps, with in-app video. It apparently has 7 million (!) people signed up as potential providers of informal information or support.

Overall, an interesting few days for me, exploring a side to Huawei I hadn't seen before. It's always hard to get a full perspective from a single-vendor event, but it struck me as one of the only real, fully-encompassing examples I've seen of an acronym I normally dislike - ICT. That said, some more candour about positioning vs. competitors would have been welcome. We all know who they are - so descriptions of differentiation would have been useful, even if rose-tinted.

It's also brought home to me how important it is to have a captive market to drive scale, which can then improve adoption rates (and prices) elsewhere. Amazon does it with AWS - its own huge retail business is an "anchor tenant" which helps create traffic volumes that then became reinforced by third parties' cloud usage. Huawei appears to do something similar with domestic government and enterprise business - millions of CCTV cameras, or large-scale city networks, or local IoT uses are helping it exploit pre-existing scale and experience, and then apply elsewhere. There is also a sensible approach to partnering, for example around IoT, with the likes of GE collaborating on distinct parts of the market.

One final comment: the layout of the trade show was excellent. One hall was organised per-vertical, with sections on Manufacturing, Public Safety, Oil & Gas, Finance etc. The other hall was per-technology, with sections on Cloud, eLTE, WiFi, NB-IoT, Developers and so on. I wish other events were similarly well-structured.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Publications & Upcoming Events

This is an "administrative" post, covering my recent and upcoming publications & events. Please get in touch if you'd like any more details about booking me for speaking/workshops, or for considering published output - information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com.


I speak at, or attend, about 30 public events per year, plus a number of private workshops, executive off-sites and online webinars. Recent notable events have included:
  • Keynote on Futurism at Ofcom's spectrum workshop day (link)
  • Presenting at TMForum's Action Week (on blockchain - link)
  • Keynote on new wireless & spectrum models at WiFi Now in Washington DC (link)
  • Chairing Total Telecom's Connected Britain event
  • My own workshops, run jointly with Caroline Gabriel, on Enterprise/Private Cellular Networks, and AI + Blockchain for the Telecoms Industry (link)
The next few months are looking pretty hectic for events I'm speaking at, attending or moderating. My schedule always a bit of a work-in-progress, and some things may change a bit, so please get in touch with me if you want to arrange meetings/briefings, or need a speaker for other events. 
  • 3 Sep, London, London Futurists: Agenda for the Future (link)
    • Presentation: "Anti-Forecasting"
  • 4-7 Sep, Shanghai, Huawei Connect (link)
    • Attending as an analyst
  • 18-19 Sep, Bangkok: PTC Spectrum Futures (link)
    • Presentation: "A Futuristic View of Spectrum: Where Are We Going?"
    • CBRS Workshop
  • 25-27 Sep, Busan, S Korea: ITU Telecom World (link)
    • Panel Moderator: Reinventing Telcos
  • 3-5 Oct  Orlando, US: Astricon (link)
    • Keynote on "What the Future Holds for Asterisk - And What's Overhyped"
  • 5 Oct (TBA), Webinar: IBwave (link to follow)
    • Presenting on Convergence & Evolution in Indoor Wireless
  • 11-12 Oct, Brussels: IICom Annual Conference (link)
    • Presenting on "Innovation in connectivity technologies - embracing heterogeneity"
  • 23-24 Oct, Phoenix, US: Broadsoft Connections (link)
    •  Attending as an analyst
  • 25-26 Oct, San Francisco: GE Minds & Machines (link)
    • Attending as an analyst
  • 31 Oct - 1 Nov, London: Total Telecom Congress (link)
    • Speaking "Optimising Spectrum Regulation in the 5G era"
    • Chairing Day 2
  • 02 Nov, The Hague, Netherlands: WiFi Now Europe (link)
    • Keynote + Panel
  • 14-15 Nov, Lisbon: TADSummit (link)
    • Presenting on Enterprise & Industrial IoT mobile networks
  • 28-29 Nov, Bangkok: WiFi Now APAC (link)
    • Keynote + Panel
  • 30 Nov, London: Great Telco Debate (link)
    •  Speaker, topic TBA
  • 01 Dec, London DB + CG Private Cellular Workshop #2 (link to follow)
    • 1-day workshop on Enterprise / Private mobile networks
    • Contact: information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com for details


For my written output, I work through three main channels:
  • This blog and cross-posts on my LinkedIn & Medium. Recent topics have included:
    • Blockchain/ICOs (link and link)
    • Mobile connection bonding & SD-WAN (link)
    • Net Neutrality (link)
    • Sensors (link)
    • Amazon / Edge-Computing (link)
    • Data-over-Sound (link)
    • UCaaS (link)
    • Spectrum Sharing / Enterprise Cellular (link)
  • STL's Future of The Network research stream, which I run as associate director. My own recently-contributed reports include: 
    • Facebook's Telecom Infra Project (link)
    • Edge Computing (link)
    • VoLTE (link)
    • 5G Spectrum (link)
    • eSIM (link)
    • Other reports in the stream written by others have covered 4G in Asia, NFV and other topics. 
    • My next reports will look at LPWAN, cRAN/vRAN, and WiFi's strategic implications for Telcos.
  • Disruptive Analysis branded reports & papers, which include both open-market reports such as last year's eSIM study (link), and client-commissioned papers - some of which are internal and kept under NDA. Recent public documents include
    • Blockchain for Telcos, written for Juniper Networks (link)
    • Integrating IoT & Video Comms, written for Dialogic (link)
    • Data-over-Sound, written for Chirp (link)
    • IoT + Voice/Messaging Comms, written for Metaswitch (link
    • Upcoming paper on consumer communications privacy

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Blockchain for telecoms and networks: the emergence of ICOs & token-based platforms

There's a new trend I'm currently seeing emerge: ICOs (Initial Coin Offerings) for network/Internet-related businesses and communities. These use blockchain-based "tokens" (or coins) as a way to build decentralised marketplaces, for Internet connectivity or other communications capabilities like phone calls. Most have visions for long-term disruption of existing models, although they tend to start from more humble niches.

ICOs both establish a "currency" for these future markets, and provide funding for organisations responsible for their creation and maintenance. At least five network-related ICOs have been announced already, and more seem likely to follow in due course. (Disclosure: I'm an advisor to one of these five - more details below).

Note: If you've found this post through a link from a mainstream ICO/Bitcoin site or link, a quick introduction: I'm primarily a mobile and telecoms analyst. I study and advise on technology and business-model trends relating to network evolution and communications applications. I cover areas like 5G, IoT-oriented networks, voice & video communications, regulatory policy, the future role of telecom operators, and the impact of "futures" innovations like AI / ML, blockchain and drones on telecoms. Most of my clients are telcos or network equipment/software vendors. I'm not a fintech or blockchain generalist.

Note 2: I am also not an investment advisor of any sort. I'm not making recommendations here.

I've been covering the role of blockchains and distributed ledgers in telecoms and networks for well over a year now. I've spoken at events run by TMForum, IIT, Comptel and others about the telecom-sector use-cases (and complexities), and ran a recent public workshop in London alongside Caroline Gabriel (link). I recently participated in a webinar for Juniper Networks (link) and have a forthcoming white-paper in preparation for Juniper as well.

My general stance is "pragmatic optimism": Blockchain technology has many possible touch-points with the telecoms industry, from data-integrity management to back-office systems to billing - but maturity will take time. Some of the utopian "it'll change the world" and "telcos are obsolete" rhetoric is overblown. Distributed ledgers will have many uses and opportunities in telecoms/networking - but are unlikely to overturn or radically-disrupt industry structures, at least on a 5-10 year view.

Most of the uses I've seen discussed until recently have been around private (permissioned) blockchains, intended to improve processes and security within or between telcos and their suppliers. Another set have been around new services/capabilities to be delivered by telcos - for example, using smart contracts to enforce SLAs (service-level agreements), or for identity-management in IoT networks.

The ICO trend is different - this is about public blockchain-based functions that anyone can participate in - hence the "offering". The idea is to create common, distributed, dynamic ways of storing (and pricing) network-related value - especially for Internet access, but also voice communications and potentially other capabilities. 

Actually, telecoms is lagging here: there's been a much broader rush towards ICOs across many sectors over the past year. This website (link) lists hundreds, while this article from the Economist is a useful intro (link). It should also be acknowledged that they have attracted not-always-favourable attention from financial regulators, as there is limited official oversight and most are launched as "crowdsales" on the back of a white paper and some PR, rather than a regulated prospectus and well-monitored issuance on a specific stock exchange. There are some questionable-quality ICOs and a few dubious individuals involved, it seems. Nevertheless, they are a popular way for blockchain-based initiatives to get funding and early traction - and some will undoubtedly becomes stars, even if others flame-out like supernovae.

In a way, a system for exchanging telecoms capacity or data quotas already exists - it's possible to send prepay account "top-ups" between people or companies today, although those are usually in monetary form (ie PAYG credit), rather than being denominated in minutes or MB. That is unsurprising, given the diversity of different pricing models and network operators - it would be hard for me to gift a GB of data to a friend on a different network, but I can send them a £5 / $5 / €5 credit and let them buy the data themselves. There are also other ways to share network capacity, such as FON's WiFi community.

The various ICOs are attempting to "tokenise" aspects of networks and communications, allowing different models of monetisation, with pricing driven by an external market rather than telcos' / ISPs' internal marketing functions. Some link to an existing cryptocurrency and blockchain like Ethereum, while others are trying to create something new.

The ones I've discovered that are clearly related to telecoms/networks include:
  • DENT Wireless (The website is here & white paper is here): This aims to act as a clearinghouse for mobile data quotas / allocations, between users, between MNOs, or for roaming "local breakout" via visited networks, using its tokens as a common currency. Its ICO, based on Ethereum, was in July. It is aiming to build up enough members as a "buying consortium" to exert pressure on operators to cooperate. It's got some interesting execs and advisors, notably including Rainer Deutschmann who has been instrumental in getting Reliance Jio off the ground in India. One of the use-cases is "donating GB of data to Africa" as a way to improve Internet access in emerging markets. One interesting angle is a tie-up with sponsored-data software company Aquto, which works with AT&T and others. My longterm doubts about the general sponsored-data model continue (the concept of "1-800 apps" is palpable nonsense), but this could be a possible workable use-case. The key differentiator appears to be its willingness (& knowledge) of partnering with operators rather than trying to displace them. Given the wide variations of mobile data pricing (& conditions) by operator, country and tariff - especially postpaid vs prepaid - I'm not sure there's an easy common denominator, though. The inbound roaming scenario may be very tough as well, especially as it may need users to manually select networks, which they may be locked-out from doing on subsidised/customised handsets.
  • AirFox (The website is here & the white paper is here): This platform attempts to draw a link between mobile prepay credits, advertising, user-data and potentially micro-loans in future. It extends the current model of gifting or sending "recharges" to many international mobile operators' prepay customers, by shifting from normal payments to a cryptocurrency bought in a marketplace or earned by viewing ads. The model of "watch these ads and get free calls/credit/data" is not a new one (eg Blyk in the UK between 2007-09), but this is the first decentralised and tokenised one I've seen, linked to a global recharge network. It relies on a customised browser and also a dedicated ad-viewer/recharge app. The browser blocks native ads and replaces them with its own (and can also fingerprint the user by looking at other apps installed). Users can thus earn Ethereum-based "AirTokens" or alternatively they can buy them at market rate, to exchange for prepay credit / recharges. It's not obvious to me how AirFox proposes to "bulk buy" data from operators without wholesale/MVNO deals - in most cases I suspect it'll have to use the usual recharge channels. Its aspiration to "replace the current mobile ecosystem (applications, sites, advertisers, data purchases) with a more efficient new decentralized AirFox mobile ecosystem" seems unrealistic given that most mobile users prefer native apps (or web-pages rendered in apps). Nevertheless, the existing model of sending real ("fiat") money or top-ups seems to work, so there's a basis for an ad-supported model, although its existing stats imply a revenue of 1/17th of a US cent per ad. The ICO / crowdsale launches on August 29th.
  • Ammbr (The website is here & the white paper is here): [Note - I am an advisor - see below]. This is an attempt to blend custom mesh-network silicon and hardware units, with a blockchain and token-based model for identity and a marketplace. While AirFox and DENT focus on sharing credits/quotas for normal personal mobile access, Ammbr wants to share the access network itself, and ultimately encourage build-out of extra coverage and capacity. Its network units (initially WiFi but with other radios in future) support decentralised micropayments, allowing the node owners to earn tokens and essentially act as their own local ISPs with very little friction or setup cost. While these will obviously need backhaul from normal telcos (fixed and/or mobile), once sufficient density is reached, meshes may reduce the total number of wide-area connections needed. An initial use-case is likely to be in developing countries, where micro-loans and other local (and often informal) sharing-model businesses have grown. The hardware-based model is obviously ambitious, but also means future potential to support multiple radios (imagine a CBRS-type shared spectrum or LPWAN module), and could also potentially host distributed edge-computing or NFV capabilities. There are both opportunities and various complexities and possible pitfalls I can imagine, plus there are alternative options for community/rural connectivity (I'm writing a piece on Facebook's Telco Infra Project & OpenCellular for my STL Partners research stream at present [link]). One aspect that's interesting, but which I'm not able to comment on authoritatively, is the unique blockchain model, based on Proof of Elapsed Time / Velocity, which differs from Bitcoin & Ethereum's Proof of Work. In Ammbr is it linked to a custom silicon processor, with claims of much better power consumption than other approaches. The ICO is upcoming in September.
  • EncryptoTel: (Web page is here and white paper is here. This is very different from the other network-type ICOs, as it's more about (business) voice communications than data access. It is a version of an enterprise cloud PBX / UCaaS platform, with encryption, privacy protections and (anonymous) cryptocurrency payments. It allows both on-net VoIP calls (using standard SIP endpoints or dialler apps) and integration with the public phone network, as well as (in future) interconnecting with various messaging applications. It will offer both monthly subscriptions and a pay-as-you-go model. The white paper references video calls, but it does not appear to offer full-fledged UC functions. The roadmap describes a progressive roadmap of development and deployment, with full commercial launch expected in Summer 2018. The ICO occurred in May 2017.
  • Mysterium (Web page is here and white paper is here) is a distributed VPN and data-encryption platform - essentially a higher-performing, blockchain-based version of Tor. It uses an Ethereum-based token system of micropayments. In its earliest phases it retains some central control, with the intention of removing this further down the roadmap. It will compete with commercial VPN products. Its ICO started at the end of May 2017.
[Note: some white papers get updated, so the URL might change with the version number - check the main websites for the latest versions] 

There are also various other ICOs relating to cloud-computing, storage and other related areas, such as Filecoin and Internxt. Another company called Crypviser (link) is developing a secure messaging app and also references secure voice calls in its white paper, although with few details.

So - will any of these, or future, ICOs lead to commercial, scalable networking or communications platforms? It's too early to tell. While the white papers typically given enough "vision" and a tentative roadmap, it's likely that most or all of these projects will encounter challenges and pitfalls, and may end up pivoting as events unfold (and customers'/users' behaviour develops).

One of the risks is that tokenisation itself may limit the possible business and pricing models - for example, how can any of them offer hybrid centralised/decentralised services, if that's what the market seems to want? Can they support sponsored/free models, or allow more granular differentiation? What happens if they contravene other services' T's & C's? How is customer support provided for decentralised capabilities? It is also unlikely that any such proprietary mechanisms or payment instruments will become globally dominant, so there will need to be paths to standardisation - as well as deal with the beady eyes of regulators if they become successful.

Nevertheless, this is an interestingly different direction-of-travel for telecoms/network blockchain, as it sits separately to the main thrust of work around private/permissioned use-cases I'm seeing from some vendors, various operators, bodies like TMForum etc. I still think that some of the back-office applications for blockchain in the telecoms sector have more short-to-medium term opportunity, but it's possible we could see a break-out here by a new entrant of the type discussed in this post. I'll definitely be keeping a watching eye on all of these. 

Please drop me a message at information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com if you want to discuss this more, or want a telecom/blockchain speaker or analyst for an event or workshop.

Footnote on Ammbr: Close contacts may have noticed I recently added an advisory role to my LinkedIn profile, for an organisation called Ammbr, mentioned above. At present, I'm just working on a consultative basis, but unlike most of my other advisory clients, it's not purely "behind the scenes" with execs in private under-NDA workshops, but has a public aspect to it as well. It's got a genuinely interesting combination of technologies (mesh, blockchain, custom silicon, potentially private cellular etc), some talented people, and while that means a lot of moving parts to fit together, there are some intriguing possibilities I'm glad to be able to help refine and prioritise.

Internally, my role is as a telecoms-sector expert and (to nobody's surprise) a general curmudgeon pointing out any risks, technical or commercial "gotchas", competition/substitution threats and anything that seems like wishful thinking. I should point out that this is a small part of my overall activities, I'm not "endorsing" it as such, and my normal
Disruptive Analysis work on all areas of analysis & futurism is continuing. It's also not going to bias my views on other wireless technologies or business models, many of which are more-developed and which I'm also enthused about (eg private cellular). Drop me a message if you want to discuss this further (or want to discuss other consulting or advisory roles).

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Mobile Multi-Connection & SD-WAN is coming

I’ve written before (link) about the impact of SD-WAN on fixed (enterprise) operators, where it is having significant effects on the market for MPLS VPNs, allowing businesses to bond together / arbitrage between normal Internet connection(s), small-capacity MPLS links and perhaps an LTE modem in the same box. Now, similar things are being seen in the mobile world. This is the "multi-network" threat I've discussed before (link).

Sometimes provided through a normal CSP, and sometimes managed independently, SD-WAN has had a profound impact on MPLS pricing in some corporate sectors. It has partly been driven by an increasing % of branch-site data traffic going into the HQ network and straight out again to the web or a cloud service. That “tromboning” is expensive, especially if it is using premium MPLS capacity.

The key enabler has been the software used to combine multiple connections – either to bond them together, send traffic via differential connections based on type or speed, add security and cloud-management functions, or offer arbitrage capabilities of varying sorts. It has also disrupted network operators hoping to offer NFV- and SDN-services alongside access: if only a fraction of the traffic goes through that operator’s core, while the rest breaks-out straight to the Internet, or via a different carrier, it’s difficult to add valuable functionality with network software.

But thus far, the main impact has been on business fixed-data connections, especially MPLS which can be 30-40x the cost of a “vanilla” ISP broadband line, for comparable throughput speeds. Many network providers have now grudgingly launched SD-WAN services of their own – the “if you can’t beat them, then join them” strategy aiming to keep customer relevance, and push their own cloud-connect products. Typically they’ve partnered with SD-WAN providers like VeloCloud, while vendors such as Cisco have made acquisitions.

I’ve been wondering for a while if we’d see the principle extended to mobile devices or users – whether it’s likely to get multiple mobile connections, or a mix of mobile / fixed, to create similar problems for either business or consumer devices. It fits well with my broader belief of “arbitrage everywhere” (link).

Up to a point, WiFi on smartphones and other devices already does this multi-connection vision, but most implementations have been either/or cellular and WiFi, not both together. Either the user, the OS, or one of the various cellular hand-off standards has done the switching.

This is now starting to change. We are seeing early examples of mobile / WiFi / fixed combinations, where connections from multiple SPs and MNOs are being bonded, or where traffic is intelligently switched-between multiple “live” connections. (This is separate from things like eSIM- or multi-IMSI enabled mobile devices or services like Google Fi, which can connect to different networks, but only one at a time).

The early stages of mobile bonding / SD-WAN are mostly appearing in enterprise or IoT scenarios. The onboard WiFi in a growing number of passenger trains is often based on units combining multiple LTE radios. (And perhaps satellite). These can use multiple operators’ SIMs in order to maximise both coverage and throughput along the track. I’ve seen similar devices used for in-vehicle connections for law enforcement, and for some fixed-IoT implementations such as road-tolling or traffic-flow monitors.

At a trade show recently I saw the suitcase-sized unit below. It has 12 LTE radios and SIMs, plus a switch, so it can potentially combine 3 or 4 connections to each network operator. It’s used in locations like construction sites, to create a “virtual fibre” connection for the project office and workers, where normal fixed infrastructure is not available. Usually, the output is via WiFi or fixed-ethernet, but it can also potentially support site-wide LPWAN (or conceivably even a local private unlicensed/shared-band LTE network). 

It apparently costs about $6000 or so, although the vendor prefers to offer it as a service, with the various backhaul SIMs / data plans, rather than on a BYO basis. Apparently other similar systems are made by other firms – and I can certainly imagine less-rugged or fewer-radio versions having a much lower price point.

But what really caught my eye recently is a little-discussed announcement from Apple about the new iOS11. It supports “TCP Multipath”. (this link is a good description & the full Applie slide-deck from WWDC is here). This should enable it to use multiple simultaneous connections – notably cellular and WiFi, although I guess that conceivably a future device could even support two cellular radios (perhaps in an iPad with enough space and battery capacity). 

That on its own could yield some interesting results, especially as iOS already allows applications to distinguish between network connections (“only download video in high quality over WiFi”, etc).It also turns out that Apple has been privately using Multipath TCP for 4 years, for Siri - with, it claims, a 5x drop in network connection failure rates.

The iOS11 APIs offer various options for developers to combine WiFi and cellular (see slide 37 onward here). But I’m also wondering what future generations of developer controls over such multipath connectivity might enable. It could allow novel approaches to security, performance optimisation on a per-application or per-flow basis, offload and on-load, and perhaps integration with other similar devices, or home WiFi multi-AP solutions that are becoming popular. Where multiple devices cooperate, many other possibilities start to emerge.

What we may well see in future is multi-device, multi-access, P2P meshes. Imagine a family at home, with each member having a subscription and data-plan with a different mobile network. Either via some sort of gateway, or perhaps using WiFi or Bluetooth directly between devices, they can effectively share each others’ connections (and the fixed broadband), while simultaneously using their own “native” cellular data. Potentially, they can share phone numbers / identities this way as well. An advanced connection-management tool can optimise for throughput, latency or just simply coverage anywhere in the house or garden. 

This could have a number of profound implications. It would lead to much greater substitution between different networks and plans. It would indirectly improve network coverage, especially indoors. It could either increase or decrease demand for small cells (are they still needed, if phones can act as multi-network relays? Or perhaps operators try to keep people “on net” and give them away for free?). From a regulatory or law-enforcement standpoint it means serious challenges around identifying individual users. It could mean that non-neutral network policies could be “gamed”, as could pricing plans.

Now I’ll fully admit that I’m extrapolating quite a bit from a seemingly simple enhancement of iOS. (I’m also not sure how this would work with Android devices). But to me, this looks analogous to another Apple move last year – adding CallKit to iOS, which allowed other voice applications to become “first-class citizens” on iPhones, with multiple diallers and telephony experiences sharing call-logs and home-screen answerability.

Potentially, multipath in iOS allows other networks to become (effectively) first-class citizens as well as the “native” MNO connection controlled from the SIM.

I’m expecting other examples of mobile connection-bonding and arbitrage to emerge in the coming months and years. The lessons from SD-WAN in the fixed domain should be re-examined by carriers through a wireless lens: expect more arbitrage in future.