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Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Facebook Workplace: Just collaboration, or parking its tanks on UCaaS & cPaaS lawns?

Facebook has finally launched its enterprise collaboration offering, changing its name to Workplace, from the original beta-tested Facebook at Work (link). It certainly isn't a full UCaaS product - but it wouldn't surprise me if it heads (somewhat) in that direction over time, or adds in integration or PaaS capabilities that allow it to compete indirectly in future.

It's aggressively priced, and mostly targetted at the Slack-style market for timeline- and messaging-centric collaboration, also known as WCC (workstream collaboration & communication). It's got a free trial, it's free for educational users, and for businesses it costs just $1-3 per month depending on size of deployment. (For comparison, Facebook's global consumer ARPU is around 4, mainly from advertising, although this is much higher in North America - link).

Clearly, it's majoring on large similarity in user-experience to its social networking platform, which is familiar to a large % of humanity. Likes, reactions, groups and so on are all replicated.

It also has some communications capabilities already - FB's Live video-streaming service is built into the main Workplace service, while it has a separate "companion" app (Work Chat - link) for IM and voice/video. I strongly suspect it is based on WebRTC, as its consumer equivalent is one of the biggest users of the technology today. Work Chat also has file/image-sharing and (not all entirely professional) stickers, which are basically glorified emoji. 

Interestingly, the iOS appstore page for Chat - which says it's already at Version 48 - has a screenshot focusing on voice rather than video, although that may just be because it hasn't updated it yet (there's an old website link to At Work rather than Workplace too).

Some other things I've noticed:

  • It references trial user companies (for internal deployment) include telcos Telenor and Telekom Austria
  • Its partners / distributors include a division of Phillipines telco PLDT
  • Unsurprisingly, there's a big pitch on security, privacy and data-ownership for companies that may be suspicious of FB's record.
  • There's a big pitch for non-desk workers such as those in restaurants, on ships or industrial facilities (who are mostly likely to be mobile-first / mobile only, and which are often well outside the traditional UC/UCaaS universe). 
  • It's apparently air-gapped from the consumer Facebook platform - although given WhatsApp's recent history, some may speculate how long that lasts.
  • There's a way to create multi-company groups for federation, and presumably closed groups for suppliers/customers/partners.
  • Various 3rd-party providers of identity for single sign-on support (including G Suite and MS Azure).
In common with Slack and some other UC and WCC-type offers, it suggests that use of messaging and workstreams may reduce the need for voice/video realtime communications as well as email. Its FAQ says that "Companies find that they can eliminate or drastically reduce their need for internal collaboration tools such as their intranet, telephony systems, video conferencing and distribution lists."

That is quite telling for me: "reduce their need" implies that Facebook doesn't immediately see its role as replacing old phone systems or UC (or UCaaS), or that it intends to jump into the conferencing space. Perhaps I'm inferring too much, but I suspect it means:
  • Facebook isn't interested in becoming a business phone system or normal UCaaS platform, especially with PSTN interconnect. In any case, it is unclear that businesses would accept it any time soon - it's taking Microsoft a long time to move on from IM/UC to telephony.
  • The apparent enthusiasm of various telco partners could just indicate prudent curiosity - or could indicate a future alignment with network-based telephony and numbering, especially given Facebook's love of phone number-based 2-factor authentication.
  • Also at present, Workplace isn't being set up as a mechanism for B2C communications, as many thought it might. In many ways, that's more a role for consumer Facebook (& consumer FB identities) and perhaps WhatsApp for chatbots. Businesses have to pay for various services around their pages already.
  • However, it would be very unsurprising if Workplace became more of an integration platform in future. I can easily imagine it - or partners - building ways to link it to other telephony, conferencing or CRM/call-centre systems or cloud providers. 
  • Workplace could potentially become a hub for Slack-style "collaboration as a platform", also being done in various ways by Cisco Spark, Symphony, Broadsoft Tempo, Unify Circuit and many others.
  • Given Facebook's enthusiasm for live video-streaming, video-calling and other communications abilities (especially in-app on mobile) it would not surprise me to see a cPaaS play or acquisition at some point. I suspect it wouldn't aim to compete with Twilio directly, or some other UC-style rivals such as Nexmo/Vonage, but either Cisco/Tropo or Tokbox could be closer to the firing line. (Actually, Tokbox would be an interesting M&A target, if Telefonica decides it can't leverage it more than it does today).
  • I expect that a major push will be made later around "events" which seems to be mostly missing from the current release, and which is a huge draw on the consumer service. Renaming it to "meetings" or "appointments" would make a lot of sense, and absorb much more communications traffic in consequence.
  • Facebook has perhaps the best way to categorising personal "context" of any company. Its status updates have a great set of tags of location, doing/feeling activities, tagged colleagues/friends and so forth. It has the potential to leverage this in Workplace to create a really interesting platform for Contextual Communications.

Overall, I think that Facebook Workplace looks like a much more subtle and oblique entry to enterprise communications than some people expected. It's not aiming to replace UC/UCaaS outright, but instead to gradually divert (steal?) a growing slice of the overall employee-to-employee (or cross-company) communications pie. This is very different to the way that the traditional enterprise comms companies like Cisco or Avaya or various cloud-based providers are going, where they typically aim to be at the centre of a firm's communications, radiating outward from phone or conferencing. Instead, Workplace seems to be a play for adjacency, siphoning off use from email and Slack and peripheral (often unloved) UC features, at a low price point.

If companies can get over their privacy-wariness from Facebook's consumer reputation, it has quite a lot of potential. I also suspect it could be seen as attractive as a channel play by some telcos' enterprise business units, especially where they have minimal mobile footprint today. It would probably sit alongside other UCaaS offers rather than replace them. Thus far, it's a bit unclear what Microsoft plans to do with LinkedIn, but that's also in the same universe.

But Workplace also represents a starting-point for some really interesting future cPaaS and integration plays. Facebook's familiar UI - and its vast realm of heritage and skill in design and UX - could be a gamechanger. It is rightly eschewing "boring old business phone systems" for now - but should be able to help create a variety of new voice and video experiences in subsequent enhancements, if it proves the basics, gains scale quickly, and mitigates residual concern about security and privacy.

If we call the message/timeline concept WCC, maybe this will end up being called wPaaS?

Friday, September 16, 2016

TelcoFuturism - the impact of Quantum Technology

The other day, I was invited to the Cambridge Wireless conference on quantum computing and communications (link). Fascinating and brain-melting domain, that has profound implications for many other areas of technology (and telecom). Even though I have a physics degree, I can't claim to be able to keep up with all the maths and concepts that are discussed - but I took away a few real-world implications of what seems to be occurring.

Quantum technology is a pretty broad area, that relates to the weird properties exhibited by individual atoms or photons (light). If you've heard of Schrodinger's Cat, then you'll know how strange some of the concepts can be - especially a "qubit" (quantum bit) that can simultaneously be a 1 or 0, or "entanglement" where pairs of particles remain spookily connected at a distance.

These properties can be used to create computers, communications systems, sensors, clocks and various other applications. In a way, quantum tech is a "foundational" idea similar to semiconductors (which are themselves based on quantum mechanical principles): there will be many, many applications. 

Terminology alert: often people in this sector compare quantum computers versus "classical" alternatives. 

Some quick highlights and comments:
  • It's early days. Although there are some existing quantum solutions, they are not "universal" computers, but tailored for particular use-cases. Cooler stuff is 5-10 years away depending on your level of optimism (and stealth)

  • There were a lot of telecom people in the room - although that's partly a function of Cambridge Wireless's community (link). 
  • Many of the opportunities (& threats) from quantum are "several layers up". For example, we should be able to make more accurate clocks, which means better timestamping, which means more accurate transactions or positioning, which means better ways to create networks... It's pretty hard to extrapolate through all the layers to work out what the "real world" impacts might be, as there are variables & uncertainties & practicalities at each stage. Same thing for quantum improving AI systems.
  • There will be a lot of hybrid quantum/classical systems - including being integrated on the same chip.
  • Some crypto & PKI systems are going to be compromised by quantum-enabled decryption. It makes mincemeat of some algorithms, but others are much more "quantum-proof". There might be a "Y2Q" problem digging out where the old and vulnerable ones might be, buried inside other systems and software. This might be a "big deal", but there was also debate among experts about whether some of the risks claimed might actually be scaremongering or limited in scope. I think there will be a big ramp-up in "quantum compliance consulting" though - if enough people can understand it.
  • Quantum tech also enables totally-secure* networks to be built, using quantum key distribution (QKD). There's a bunch of tests and prototypes working around the world. At the moment these are mostly fibre-based, although some are using free-space optics. (*I'm not a cryptanalyst. Or a quantum wizard. My understanding is that secure here means non-interceptible or perfect interception-detection, but as always with security there are other weak links in the chain when humans are involved).
  • We're not getting some sort of magical massmarket "quantum broadband" any time soon, fibre or (definitely) mobile. There might be quantum-related components in networks for timing or security, but the actual physics of shipping-around of bits through air and fibre isn't likely to change.
  • One caveat - if I understand correctly (and it's possible I don't) some quantum applications might make it more appropriate either to use dedicated individual fibres, or to use frequency multiplexing (separate colours essentially) rather than networks with other forms of multiplexing. One of my "to do's" is to get my head around what quantum-level transport really means for the way we build IP networks - and whether it's only ultra-secure point-to-point connections that are impacted, rather than general "routed" ones. At the moment it seems the main use is parallel QKD streams to secure the main "media" stream. I've found some stuff on early concepts of quantum routing (link) and quantum-aware SDN (link) but if anyone has a view on the commercial impact of this, I'm all ears. 

  • A lot of the current work on quantum computing seems oriented towards creating better ways to do machine learning - essentially the ability to absorb many, many different things "in parallel" rather than sequentially. Beyond AI/ML, many important tasks involve optimisation or pattern-recognition - quantum solutions should help. This has applications across the board, from finance to healthcare to telecoms, although there weren't many suggested use-cases in BSS/OSS or network design at the event. I suspect there could be a variety of interesting options & will think more about this over coming months. (Let me know if you'd like to discuss it)

  • There's lots of complexity in getting quantum engineering to work for computing - components often need to be cryogenically cooled, there's all manner of software design and error-correction and control issues, maybe some engineering of microwave systems to link bits together and so on. This is Big Science. It's not going to be in the iPhone 9. (Although some of the sensing and clock stuff seems to be "smaller")

  • There's some cool stuff being done around quanutum-based accelerometers, gravity sensors etc. One of the biggest drivers is the desire to create a GPS-type positioning system that doesn't rely on signals from satellites - which can be jammed, blocked or even destroyed. Currently GPS is turning into a bit of a "single point of failure" for the entire planet - especially including cellular networks and devices and financial transactions which need times-stamps.

  • Someone else has beaten me to the term QCaaS (link) so I'll have to settle with QDN "Quantum Defined Networking". You heard it here first....
  • There are various implied links with IoT (sensors) and blockchain (crypto). I'll keep an eye on those for future work.
Overall, a fascinating topic - and one which the UK government, academia and industry is pumping a ton of cash into. It's perhaps not as sexy as some other futurist obsessions like AI, genetic engineering or blockchain - but it's potentially just as transformative, not least by helping accelerate the progress of all of the others.

For the telecoms industry, there's relatively little to be worried about yet - although getting older network and IT systems' crypto checked over seems important given the timelines to replace legacy equipment. Given the rising desire to exploit PKI and identity in telecoms and IoT as a long-term business, the 10-year horizon for "sci-fi" possibilities is a bit uncomfortable, especially if new breakthroughs are made. And that's before second-guessing how much extra progress has been made by intelligence communities, and how fast Messrs Snowden and Assange get to hear about it. 

We might see quantum tech appearing first in clocks used in networks, or specific optimisation problems solved with early computers from the likes of D-Wave. In my mind there's a few options around NFV/SDN and network-planning that might be a fit, for instance. There's also some cool possible opportunity around super-secure communications and non-GPS navigation. But good news if you're a serious telco quantum doom-monger, don't worry about the prospect of Netflix quantum-entangling videos direct to peoples' TVs and smartphones just yet.

If you're interested in learning more about Disruptive Analysis' work on "TelcoFuturism" please get in touch at information AT disruptive-analysis dot com. My introduction to the concept is here (link) and I've also written about AI/machine learning (link) and Blockchain (link). I gave my first keynote presentation on TelcoFuturism a few months ago (link) and will be progressively ramping this up - get in touch if you need a speaker.

Friday, September 09, 2016

An eSIM & IoT thought experiment

Imagine a cellular-connected interactive teddy-bear.

It has a button for a child to speak to their parents, perhaps a video-camera inside an eye, and maybe some basic sensors for movement, temperature or GPS. Conceivably, it could connect via social-networks to other toys. Ideally it needs to be mobile, as it'll be used in the car, or at kindergarten, or on holiday - not just at home.

The cellular radio is embedded deep inside the bear, along with a SIM card. The toy has to be soft - and there can't be any small removable parts like a SIM tray and conventional card, as they could be a choking-hazard.

So it makes sense to use an embedded, soldered in SIM - which also gets around the problems of fluff and fibres blocking a normal SIM-tray. And because the bears are shipped around the world from a single factory, the concept of eSIM and remote-provisioning seems to make a lot of sense as well.

Seems like an ideal eSIM use-case, doesn't it? A classic example of consumer mobile-enabled IoT?

(There are already various smart/connected WiFi or Bluetooth bears - see this link or this link for example. Others are being planned - link EDIT: apparently the day I published this was "National Teddy Bear Day" link . A complete coincidence, but very amusing! )

But now think a little more closely about the user-journey, the design and sale process, the economics, and the new value-chain that needs to support the mBear's creation, distribution and use.

Where does the bear get purchased? Presumably, nobody's going to go to a phone store to buy a soft toy. They'll get it in a toy shop, or perhaps online. As it's a tactile, soft product, a lot of people will want to touch it first, compare it with other unconnected bears, decide if the extra cost of the electronics is worth a perhaps-lower grade of stitching and fur. 

How many toy-shop sales assistants are likely to be able to describe the benefits of a connected bear? How many will be able to advise on how to get it connected, what happens after the initial data-included period ends, or talk knowledgeably about service plans?

The bear, of course, has no display. So any configuration and setup will need to be done from a PC or mobile app, or in-store (good luck with that, at 9am on Xmas morning). Is there some sort of "connectivity app-store", where you can choose which network you want the bear on? Can you add it to a parent's existing multi-device cellular plan, or a family plan? Can you set up an entirely new subscription if your normal operator doesn't support eSIM and remote provisioning? How do you register your ID for countries which require it? Your ID or the child's? Do you need to connect the bear to WiFi first, or use Bluetooth from your phone, in order to boot-strap the mobile provisioning? Can the eyeball-cam scan a QR code from your phone, perhaps? 

How exactly does the provisioning work, and is it the same process used by the mToaster the parents also got given as an Xmas gift? Actually, who's responsible for the bear's connectivity if it was given to the child as a gift by a relative? (Who perhaps bought the bear overseas). What does the "user licence" say and who agrees to it? What security issues might arise? [See this link, for a non-cellular connected bear]

Are there different data/voice-plans for the bear? Does it offer postpay and prepay? Are they available on all carriers or just one? How is this displayed in the store? Does it support roaming, when the family goes on holiday? At what price, and how is this notified? If the "call" button is permanently on because the child is sitting on the toy, what happpens next?

What about returns? If the arm falls off the bear a week after Xmas, and the eSIM has already been activated, what happens when the customer returns it to the store? How is the number/SIM ported to a new bear, perhaps of a different design? What happens if the child's playroom is in the basement and there's no coverage? Can the network be switched? Can the customer get a refund? Who pays and how?

There are also questions about the design and manufacture process. Who decides to make the bear? A normal plush-toy company? A mobile device maker? (iBear?) Someone who sets up a Kickstarter campaign and then contracts a manufacturer? How do they select a module & design the rest of the system (eg battery)? What extra cost does this add? Are there enough operators supporting remote provisioning and eSIM? Is a standard-SIM version needed, or perhaps one that's WiFi-only and tethered to a nearby phone or in-car cellular radio? Does the toy's packaging need to be different as it's now a cellular device? How is it classified by shipping companies - as a toy, or a "phone"? What certifications are needed at what point in the process? What import/export duties apply?

You get the picture. It's all much harder than the initial picture suggests - partly because of the cost of the cellular radio irrespective of SIM type, but also because of real-world user journey and practicalities of eSIM. There are plenty of other issues I haven't mentioned here.

For some eSIM use-cases such as connected cars, and perhaps tablets and mi-fi type products, there's an existing channel and business model. Remote provisioning can simplify this, take costs out, add the ability to switch networks and so on. 

But for many other new categories of IoT, both consumer and B2B, there are huge complexities that will need to be worked through. There will likely be several years of clunkiness, false starts and unanticipated problems. These may not be insuperable - but they may well prove costly to solve. 

The problems will also likely vary by device category and target audience - imagine re-writing this post about a fridge, a VR headset, a bicycle lock, a drone or an industrial oil-pump. eSIM in smartphones is much harder still. Just standardising the remote-provisioning part of eSIM does not solve the myriad of other issues that "connecting" IoT devices with a cellular radio entails. In many cases, it will be simpler just to stick with WiFi or Bluetooth, especially for toys mostly used when parents (and their phones) are around.

Such issues are why I'm forecasting a slow start to eSIM, and patchy adoption in new IoT categories. (And also why lack of eSIM in the iPhone 7 was not a surprise). It will gradually be sorted out - by 2021 there could be 1 billion eSIM-enabled devices - but it certainly won't be a game-changing shift overnight.

These posts highlights some of the issues and concepts that are covered in the new Disruptive Analysis eSIM Market Status & Forecast report (link). Please get in touch at information at disruptive-analysis dot com, if you are interested in the report, strategy workshops, or speaking engagements. I'll also be chairing a conference session on eSIM & eUICC at the Smart Security conference in Marseilles on Sep 28th (link)

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

5G: Will it be Sliced... or Hacked?

I've been giving a lot of thought recently to 5G - the technology, major use-cases, likely business models, timelines and implications for adjacent sectors such as IoT.

5G fits into both my own TelcoFuturism analyst/advisory work on the intersections of multiple technologies in telecoms, and also my secondary role working with STL Partners as Associate Director and lead analyst of its Future of the Network research programme (link). 

A philosophical split is emerging among operators and vendors:
  •  "One network to rule them all" idealists
  • "Make it functional ASAP & add other stuff later" pragmatists
There are various nuances, middle-ground thinkers and shades of grey, but in general the former tend to be companies driven by the core and services domains, and the latter have a radio/access bias.

The core-network group tends to view things through the lens of NFV, and with a 2020 target date. It sees a world that spans diverse 5G use-cases from smartphones to sensors to vehicle-to-vehicle communications, taking in police cars and replacing FTTH and WiFi along the way. It wants to use sophisticated MANO (management and orchestration) layers and next-gen OSS to create network "slices", supposedly from "end to end". Such slices would, in theory, be optimised for different business models, or verticals, or virtual networks - leaning heavily on policy-management, differentiated QoS and assorted other big service-layer machinery. Mobile edge-computing would, ideally, extend the operator's cloud infrastructure into a distributed, Amazon-beating "fog". Often, terms like "HetNet" will be added in, with the notion that 5G can absorb (and assimilate) WiFi, LPWAM, corporate networks and anything else into a unified service-based fabric.

The other group is driven by more pragmatic concerns - "better faster cheaper" upgrades to 4G in a 2018-19 timeframe (and 2017 trials), replacing DSL in rural areas where fibre is too expensive but cable is growing, more spectral efficiency to squeeze more usage out of frequency allocations, lower-cost mobile broadband for emerging markets, better cell-edge coverage, and (ideally) lower power consumption for the RAN. Perhaps unsurpringly, they focus more on the nuts and bolts of radio propagation in different bands, different modulation mechanisms, frame structures needed to optimise latencies - as well as practicalities such as small-cell backhaul. Business model discussions are secondary - or at least decoupled - although obviously there is a large IoT element again. The core network may well remain the same for some time, and 5G access will not necessarily imply NFV/SDN deployment as a pre-requisite. (I've spoken with CTOs who are quite happy without virtualisation any time soon).

In my view, it is the latter group which better understand the "hard" technology compromises that need to be made, as well as the timing considerations around deployment, spectrum availability - and the implied competition from diverse substitute technologies like SigFox, gigabit-speed cable, near-ubiquitous WiFi and even next-gen satellite (assuming no more SpaceX Falcons have unfortunate "anomalies"). A key concern is how to squeeze the ultra-low latency capabilities into a network architecture that also supports low-cost, mass IoT deployment.

Conversely, the other camp is often guilty of wishful-thinking. "Let's control flying public-safety robots with millisecond latency & QoS via MEC nodes & 6GHz+ licensed-band 5G from totally virtualised & sliced service creation & activation platforms". This would probably work as the basis of a 2023 Michael Bay movie, but faces quite a few obstacles as a near-term mobile operator strategy. [Note: this concept is only a very mild exaggeration of some of the things I've had suggested to me by 5G zealots].

There are various practical and technical issues that limit the sci-fi visions coming true, but I want to just note a couple of them here:
  • It is far from clear that there will be enough ultra-performance end-points to justify having the millisecond-latency tail wag the 5G dog. I'd guesstimate a realistic 100 mllion-or so device target, out of a universe of 10-20bn connections. Unless the related ARPU is huge (and margin after all the costly QoS/slicing gubbins is added in), it's not justifiable if it delays the wider market or adds extra complexity. Given that 100m would also likely be thin-sliced further with vertical-specific requirements (cars, emergency, medical, drones, machinery etc.) the scale argument looks even weaker.
  • A significant brake on NFV at the moment is the availability of well-trained professionals and developers. As one telco exec put it to me recently "we don't have the resources to make the architects' dreams come true". And this is for current NFV uses and architectures. Now consider the multi-way interdependencies between NFV + 5G + verticals + Cloud/MEC. The chances of telcos and their vendors building large and capable "5G slice" teams rapidly are very small. What would a "5G Slice development kit" look like? How exactly would an IoT specialist create a 5G-enabled robot anti-collision system for a manufacturing plant with arc-welders generating radio interference, for example? (And let's leave aside for now the question of what 5G NFV slices look like to regulators concerned about neutrality....)
In other words, I think that the "slice" concept is being over-hyped. It sounds great in principle, but it's being driven by the same core-network folk who've been trying to sell "differentiated QoS" in mobile for 15+ years. It took 7+ years to even get zero value-add VoLTE phone calls to work well on 4G with QoS, when that service had been specced and defined to within an inch of its life by committee. The convenient IoT/NFV/5G developer SDK and corresponding QoSPaaS isn't appearing any time soon.

That said, I'm sure that there will be some basic forms of network-slicing that appear - perhaps for the public-safety networks that are moving to 4G/5G whether it's truly ready or not. But the vision of 10, 100 or 1000 differentiated 5G slices all working as a nicely-oiled and orchestrated machine is for the birds.

Instead, I think the right metaphor is hacking not slicing. I don't mean hack in the malware/blackhat-in-a-basement sense, but in terms of taking one bit of technology and tuning/customising it and creating derivatives to serve specific purposes.

We already see this with 4G. There's a mainstream version of LTE (and LTE-A and enhancements), but there's also PS-LTE for public safety, NB-IoT for low-end IoT, and LTE-U/LAA/MuLTEfire for unlicensed spectrum. Those are essentially "hacks" - they're quite different in important ways. They benefit from the LTE mother-spec's scale effects and maturity - and probably would not have evolved as standalone concepts without it. In a way, the original railway GSM-R version of GSM was a similar hack.

I think 5G will need something similar. As well as the so-called "New Radio", there is also work being down on a nextgen core - but there may well also have to be spin-off variants and hacks as well. This could allows the mainstream technology to avoid some possibly-intractable compromises, and could also be a way to bring in vertical specialists that currently think the mobile industry doesn't "get" their requirements - as per my recent post that telecoms can't just be left to the telcos (link). 

As usual, the biggest risk to the mobile industry is strategic over-reach. If it persists in trying to define 5G as an all-encompassing monolithic architecture, with the hope of replacing all fixed and private networks, it will fail. The risk is that if it tries to create a jack-of-all-trades, it will likely end up as master-of-none. 5G has huge potential - but also needs a dose of pragmatism, given that it is running alongside a variety of adjacent technologies that look like potential disruptors.

Ignore the sneers that SigFox is just 2016-era WiMAX
and look at the ever-present use of 3rd-party WiFi as a signpost - and the emergence of WiGig. Look too at the threat that SD-WAN is having against MPLS and NFV-powered NaaS in fixed-line enterprise networks (link) - an illustration of the power of software in subverting telco-standardised business models. This time around, non-3GPP wireless is "serious" - especially where it leans on IEEE and ethernet.

In its fullest version, the "slice" concept is far too grandiose and classically 1990s-era telco-esque. Hacking is much more Internet/IETF-style "rough consensus and running code". It will win.

A forthcoming report on the Roadmap for 5G will be published as part of STL Partners' research stream on the Future of the Network soon. Please contact STL or myself (information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com) for more details, or for inquiries about custom advisory work and speaking engagements on 5G, NFV, LPWAN and related themes.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn's "Digital Democracy Manifesto" launch

(Disclosure / intro for any politics-type people who don't usually read my stuff: I'm a technology & telecoms analyst & consultant. Much of what I do involves forecasting realities of new tech innovations & deployments, part to how the tech industry commercialises its products/services and part to policy and regulation of the Internet & telcos. 

While I'm "neutral" on tech futures aside from wanting to see the "next big cool thing" as fast as realistically possible, I'm not always neutral on policy; for example, I support Net Neutrality as a broad principle. I'm also not a Labour party supporter, and I'm definitely skeptical of Corbyn's ideology, policies and general competence).

This morning I attended the launch of the "Digital Democracy Manifesto" (link) by Jeremy Corbyn, current leader of the UK Labour Party, and associated team members / advisors including Eva Pascoe, a longstanding member of the UK's web establishment (see link here). Although in theory this event was part of the current Labour Party leadership campaign, given the high probability that Corbyn will remain leader it also gives an indication of future direction - and probably forms the basis of the technology bit of the Labour manifesto for the next UK General Election, which will likely be in 2020.

Amusingly, the event was held at a venue called Newspeak House (a "hub for political technologists") the name of which derives from George Orwell's 1984. I'm sure for general tech-inspired activism that has resonance - but perhaps less than ideal for a Corbyn speech given Wikipedia's note that "any form of thought alternative to the party's construct is classified as 'thoughtcrime'". 

I'm definitely guilty of "thoughtcrime" in this post.... starting by highlighting Corbyn's first name-drop of a tech company as fond memories of Amstrad, purveyor of 1980s/90s PCs. Amstrad stands for Alan M Sugar Trading. Mr Sugar's views on Mr Corbyn are somewhat less than reciprocally positive (link). Corbyn's second reference was to Skype - amusing given Pascoe's later rant about Microsoft during the event. I should also point out that the seating space in the venue was limited & some attendees had to stand - something of an irony given recent concerns about train capacity and seat availability.


There are 8 areas in the manifesto, which were covered in greater or lesser detail in the event, and which fit to varying degrees with my own coverage. I'm not going to talk about the "open knowledge library" of learning materials, and given that the "people's charter of digital liberties" will be driven by public consultation it's mostly too vague at this point anyway. I'm generally pro-privacy so this sounds a good idea in principle.

The main section I have thoughts on is the first, the "Universal Service Network". This goes considerably beyond current UK policies on broadband, and included a pledge for £25bn state investment in a "public sector backbone" to help deliver high speed broadband and mobile connectivity, everywhere in the UK from inner cities to remote Scottish islands. Not only that, but the manifesto commits Labour to ensuring that access is available "at the same low price without any data transfer cap". 

The relevant part of the speech itself was mostly about "equality" of network coverage. But implied in that statement is not just coverage, but also price controls and - essentially - infinite capacity. Leaving aside the competitive niceties of forcing identical pricing from multiple providers, the "no caps" promise is essentially unattainable, especially coupled to another seeming promise for (hard-ish) Net Neutrality. A reference to South Korea and its enviable broadband infrastructure was fair, but didn't attempt to explain why it is different to the UK (eg urban population density and less planning constraints).

I asked a question about whether Corbyn would be willing to relax planning regulations for cell towers, or rights-of-way for fibre installation, in order to fulfill this desire for ubiquity and unlimited capacity. He didn't answer personally, instead allowing Pascoe to address it. She didn't mention the cell-site problem and instead claimed that FTTH was mostly an unattainable goal (don't tell the Koreans) and that Google was developing wireless technology that could help fix things. 

However, FTTH everywhere (although a popular political topic) wasn't really my point. It was more about being able to put cell-sites everywhere (with fibre backhaul, including to small-cell locations) which is a huge practical constraint and cost for mobile operators, and the ability to put fibre elsewhere for trunk connections - and perhaps financial incentives for doing so.

Someone else asked about ownership, and the relationship with telco networks. Corbyn's answer was vague, but certainly didn't discount the possibility of wanting to re-nationise parts of the infrastructure. Given his recent spat with Richard Branson about trains, I wonder if Virgin Media is in his sights too.

Nobody mentioned spectrum, at any point. Or how the new promises compare to existing UK government efforts to push mobile coverage. Or the questionable "success" of other national broadband infrastructure projects (eg Australia's NBN) or the practical limits of "local access cooperatives", especially when it comes to cellular networks.

Overall, I thought that the network part of the manifesto was pretty weak. Yes, rural areas need better networks, as do train lines. But it's hardly as if this hasn't been a focus in the past. But Labour's team doesn't - at first sight - seem to understand that both coverage and capacity incur costs. It is also unclear in explaining how planning rules and competition might fit with any government assistance. The role of state- or metropolitan-owned networks was not detailed, and the costing sounds ambitious/unrealistic when one considers the need for both remote regions and (presumably) in-building networks, plus vast increments to existing network capacities to satisfy a "no caps" pledge. Also, ongoing operations of any network would raise the cost & future commitment to expenditure much further. I suspect throwing fibre under the bus, in the hope of some future wireless tech alternative would have pleased the 5G lobby, had it actually been mentioned instead of some unspecific wireless innovation by Google. I'm assuming they don't expect Loon balloons over the Highlands any time soon.

The other area I asked a question about was open-source. Although social-media and press comment ahead of the event suggested that Corbyn would insist all "publicly funded" software and hardware be open-source, this was considerably toned down at the event. The outcome was that a future Labour government would have a "bias" towards open-source "where possible", and that government contributors to O-S projects would be be rewarded. 

I inquired how all this would fit with the ubiquity of proprietary software in things the government bought (say software in ambulance engines, x-ray machines... or political parties' campaign-management systems). I also noted the government supports/funds proprietary software through R&D programmes, support for the games industry, encouragement of IoT and so forth. The "where possible it should be open-source" seems like generic IT "activism" rather than analysis.

My takeout was that (like the network bit) none of this has been thought through properly. There seemed to be a general dislike of big (mostly US) software companies like Microsoft, but little awareness of how pervasive software is elsewhere. I'll be interested to see if all the software running the promised "public backbone" network is proposed as open-source too.

Perhaps Corbyn's first move should be to guarantee that all of the Labour Party's own software & hardware moves to open-source first. Judging by proprietary software experience required on its current open jobs (link) & previous ones (link) it's got a long way to go.

By contrast to applauding free software (especially when implemented by government), the manifesto very much wants people to pay for music and other creative output. There were promises to re-write copyright law to ensure that cash flows to the right people in the entertainment space. I got the sense that nobody had really recognised the ever-blurring boundaries between software, hardware, cloud, content, networks and the implied inconsistencies in the various manifesto pledges arising from this.

Other elements of the "digital democracy" pledges were:

- Platform Cooperatives, for which read "nationalised versions of Uber & Airbnb & TaskRabbit", plus pledges that anyone earning "most or some" money from "digital platforms" should be able to unionise and have an employment contract". (It was unclear whether the robots & AIs which would inevitably take larger roles would have the same rights as humans).
- Digital Citizen Passport, for which read "ID cards by the back door, but voluntary opt-in only and with lots of controls for privacy & who gets access to what data, honest!". It's unclear how this fits with the existing Gov.UK Verify project too.
- Community Media Freedom, which is a hotchpotch of things aimed mostly at the media industry, including education programmes for "analysing and making media". I look foward to diplomas in advanced trolling, speaking slots on RT & Iranian news TV, and YouTube/SnapChat editing. More bizarrely, this section also says "Ofcom will protect network neutrality from discrimination between data streams and manipulation of software algorithms for private gain". If generalised, the latter half of that sentence pretty much kills most of the businesses on the planet, given that software algorithms are in everything. (And yes, I know that Neutrality in its strictest sense doesn't necessarily "work", but various principles are realistic to implement, as BEREC has shown today - link)
- Massive Multi-Person Online Deliberation - this is actually potentially cool, with more participation from people in politics via web/apps/whatever to help design legislation. However there are lots of forums for this already (notably Twitter and Facebook) and the key problems are around partisan groupings and abuse/trolling. I'm not too sure about the Orwellian overtones of the this newspeak though: "The National Education Service will enlighten the British electorate with the theoretical knowledge and practical skills of digital citizenship". I'd rather get my practical skills about being a citizen from someone other than the people who want me to vote for them, thanks.

Overall, it was mostly standard "digital engagement & inclusion" waffle you'd expect from politicians - some of which makes sense but is largely happening anyway - plus lots of incoherent digs at private businesses "we hate Microsoft - except for Skype" and "we hate Google - unless it does wireless networks" and "we hate Uber - so we'll do it ourselves". 

There was very little on "proper technology" and little awareness of the realities of networks, software development, IoT, Internet architecture or existing initiatives.The pledges for uncapped and ubiquitous broadband look utterly unrealistic - even with a one-off investment of £25bn.

What was also missing from the event was the presence of anyone else in Labour who actually acts as a shadow minister for telecoms, IT and the so-called "digital" economy. Corbyn uses social media but clearly isn't a technologist himself - so is reliant on the people around him to fill in the details, which is OK in principle. But the other speakers at the event: Pascoe, an associate with a dubious history (link), and someone who runs campaigning for Labour's Momentum supporters' fan-club weren't exactly deep techies either, especially on networking issues. It's all very well addressing the "social" side of the Internet - employment by Uber, musicians' rights and "massive on-line deliberation" but unless it's underpinned with proper understanding of how networks and software and hardware and IoT work, it's just fluff.

Monday, August 22, 2016

TelcoFuturism: Initial thoughts on Blockchain

An area I'm currently researching, as part of my ongoing analysis of telecoms/futurism intersections is Blockchain. (See here for an intro to what I mean by telcofuturism)

For the uninitiated, Blockchain (abbreviated here to BC) is the technology underpinning Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. It's a way to create distributed, secure, unchangeable, peer-to-peer databases for "trust" and transactions/applications which require it. It removes the need for central coordination and storage to prove that you own/bought/sold/transferred things, and stops the "double-spend" problem of digital copying of things like e-money. This is potentially great for finance, where a lot of cumbersome back-office processes could be made hugely more efficient.

When more extensive definitions of "trust" are considered (eg authentication of documents or relationships), it potentially has the ability to dis-intermediate all sorts of other existing businesses and even government functions, beyond just banking and digital money. There are tons of books, conferences and think-pieces about BC, from everyone from FinTech disruptors to governments to major IT and auditing companies. It's definitely a "thing" at the moment.

However, it is debatable whether some of the more far-fetched concepts presented are truly visionary - or sci-fi hype peddled by people who are less-than-objective wishful thinkers. It could become as important and ubiquitous as electricity, semiconductors or the Internet - or else it could just be an interesting platform for diverse applications, but not really a global "game-changer". 

An historian from the year 2100 might point to Blockchain as the most pivotal enabler of the restructuring of global business and society - or else it might be a minor footnote to the much-larger impact of other innovations around AI, CRISPR gene-editing and nanotechnology.

I'm trying to look at Blockchain through the lens of telecoms, networks, communications and cloud platforms. I can't really comment on the full impact on banking or manufacturing or property markets.... but I think I have an idea of the practicalities for telcos to deploy blockchains, and also the realities of networks as they might apply to other use-cases.

I haven't yet reached firm conclusions about the most important use-cases for blockchains in telcos & other communications infrastructure, or the probable timelines, but I'm starting to develop some initial hypotheses. There's some good arguments about BC's use in billing systems, IoT/network registration and control, vertical-market services in finance and healthcare, and perhaps integral network/OSS functions. I can also see it dovetailing with eSIM, cloud/PaaS platforms and numerous other niches in telcos, enterprise comms/UC domains and beyond.

I'm cautiously positive about the technology, rather being than a full-on religious convert and evangelist, as some Blockchain advocates seem to be. I don't buy into the notion that it's going to magically remove all intermediaries from all areas of human interaction, and lead to some anti-capitalist utopia/dystopia (delete according to taste) where middlemen no longer have roles to play.

I see a few major problem areas and "gotchas" emerging, that lie between the vision and possible reality, especially in the medium term:
  • Often, blockchain is suggested as the "missing piece of the puzzle", after which a new low-friction process, or entire new industry can be born. Yet in many cases, it isn't transaction cost, or cumbersome trust arrangements that are the "gating factor" stopping deployment adoption today. There are other practicalities involved too - perhaps regulation, business model, customer preferences and loyalties, or 100 other factors. For instance, the idea that everything to do with IoT just needs a sprinkling of Blockchain pixie-dust, for trillions of dollars of value to be released, on interoperable open-source style platforms, is pure hyperbole. It might be desirable - even necessary - but it's certainly not sufficient for many things to take off.
  • A fair amount of envisaged blockchain use-cases require perfect, ubiquitous connectivity. That might be OK for banks and fintech companies using multiple data-centres and redundant fibre links, but it doesn't work well for mobile/wireless which is not going to be ubiquitous any time soon (if ever). Unless the applications have some way of dealing with "offline mode", or patchy/intermittent connections, that's a major obstacle.
  • Some blockchain architectures have significant time-lags involved, due to processing for verification and permanent storage/encryption ("mining" etc.) That's fine for things which operate on a scale of minutes/hours/days - say transfers of property deeds - but not ideal for network operations that involve subs-second decisions. As we move towards 5G and "millisecond latency" critical applications, this becomes even more imperative.
  • Blockchain applications will need to "play nicely" with all sorts of other technology trends, such as distributed clouds, telecoms NFV/SDN architectures, third-party PaaS, integration with legacy systems, security gateways, policy-managed networks (can they spot, block or prioritise BC data flows?), AI and machine learning creating unpredictable or novel transactions/interactions and plenty more.
  • Many suggested blockchain use-cases ignore what might be termed "immovable obstacles". It's all very well having a BC-based wireless mesh network, but if it's ignored by the companies owning big chunks of licenced spectrum, and creating non-BC back-office functions, it's a bit of a waste of time. The same thing applies to regulations, taxation and assorted other slow-moving areas of bureaucracy. It's all very well suggesting that your house can act as an autonomous business, renting out the WiFi to passers-by all by itself when you're out, and using the payments to pay the utility bill - but that my well cause consternation among people who tax and regulate such things. Other ideas - such as micropayments for IoT sensors selling weather data by themselves - sound great until people realise that the billing systems only support 2 decimal places, or ask the user to click "OK" or answer a captcha. There are many, many devils in the detail.
  • A lot of the rhetoric seems to suggest that everyone wants a completely peer-to-peer, decentralised, no-intermediary, no-brand economy. However the evidence seems to suggest that humans actually quite like intermediaries for many things and are prepared to pay for them - Apple running an appstore, curators for a museum, editors and brand for a news service and so on. Add in the clear need for designers as the new uber-class of intermediaries, and the over-riding importance of UX in any situation, and the "fully automated world" seems even less plausible.
None of this means that blockchain based services are a bad idea, or irrelevant to telcos and network/software vendors. There are, undoubtedly, many important and possibly huge opportunities in blockchain-based telcofuturism.

But at the same time there is a lot of hype. Outside of financial services, we're still mostly at the napkin-diagram/Powerpoint/very-early prototype stage of telecom/BC use-cases. I'm hoping to get some more clarity over the next few weeks - and will try to assemble a realistic timeline that blends vision and pragmatism for comms and network applications.

Please get in touch with me if you'd like to discuss Telecoms + Blockchain combinations. I can be reached via information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com, or via Twitter or LinkedIn.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

NEW: eSIM Status and Forecast report published

Beyond M2M: eSIM Status & Forecasts
Overcoming practical & economic issues for mid-term consumer-market eSIM adoption

Disruptive Analysis has published a 36-page report on the emerging technology of eSIM and SIM remote-provisioning. The focus is on the use-cases, practicalities, drivers and obstacles for bringing eSIM-based devices to market, alongside suitable mobile data plans or subscriptions.

The report addresses both the motivations (lower costs, higher revenues, better experience) and problems (business-case, user journey, regulation, transition) that will be experienced by operators (MNOs) and device vendors (OEMs).

Forecasts are given for annual shipments of eSIM-enabled devices (phones, wearables, M2M, tablets), and for the installed base that will be a target for after-market eSIM provisioning.

Key findings:
  • There are numerous use-cases for “remote provisioning” of SIMs with mobile operator “profiles”, especially where the SIM hardware is built-into devices
  • eSIM adoption will have a slow start. 2016-17 consumer deployment will mostly be early concepts, allowing MNOs and OEMs to gain practical eSIM experience and refine implementation and processes. eSIM phones will emerge very gradually.
  • Adoption should ramp up in 2019-2021 as cost, industry value-chain and user-experience problems are progressively solved.
  • Apple and Samsung are unlikely to use eSIM to become MVNOs / carriers. Neither will they aggressively push eSIM into their flagship products.
  • For many M2M/IoT devices, the eSIM decision is secondary to justifying the extra cost, space and power needs of the cellular radio itself. 
  • eSIM is "necessary but not sufficient" to drive adoption of cellular M2M. It is unlikely to change the competitive dynamics vs. LPWAN technologies like SigFox or LoRa.
  • There remain unanswered questions about regulation, customer-support and business model for eSIM. Although some projected cost-savings are attractive for operators, it is unclear that it will help OEMs generate extra revenues/loyalty. 
  • There will other approaches to remote provisioning beyond GSMA's vision of eSIM. Some OEMs may adopt proprietary versions, while standards-body ETSI is intending to develop specifications which go beyond just mobile use of chip-cards 
  • By 2021, 630m mobile & IoT devices will ship with embedded SIMs annually, driven mostly by smartphones, although vehicles and tablets show growth earlier.
  • By end-2021, the installed base of eSIM-enabled devices will exceed 1 billion 
  • While significant, this only represents around 10% of total cellular connections
In a nutshell: eSIM is an important evolution for some use-cases, but it is neither an outright "game-changer" nor a major risk to traditional cellular business models.

To purchase the report, see below

Report Contents

Executive Summary
Introduction & Outline
   The Potential
   What is eSIM / eUICC?
   New uses for eSIM & other programmable-SIM technologies
   A device-centric view of SIM provisioning             
   A growing variety of “SIM evolution” options
The Practicalities             
   Economics and demand
   SIM/eSIM irrelevant if radio module costs too high          
   Operational issues          
   User experience              
   Retail and channel management              
   Maintenance and lifecycle-management               
   Transition issues: the need for hybrid SIM + eSIM devices             
   Regulatory considerations           
   Ecological considerations: fit with other telecoms trends
The Phones        
   Low-end vs. high-end phones
   Apple-specific considerations
   Conclusions and Forecasts          
About Disruptive Analysis            

Figure 1: Understanding the definition & semantics of “eSIM”     
Figure 2: Advantages of “programmability” vs. “embeddability” varies by device 
Figure 3: SIM evolution – multiple variants are emerging, not just GSMA eSIM     
Figure 4: SIM evolution – costs and key stakeholders       
Figure 5: Few handsets’ gross margins can sustain extra BoM cost from eSIM       
Table 6: Forecast eSIM shipments, by device category, 2016-2021             
Figure 7: eSIM shipments, by device category, 2016-2021             
Figure 8: eSIM device shipments, hybrid SIM/eSIM vs. eSIM-only
Table 9: eSIM active installed base, by device category, 2016-2021           
Figure 10: eSIM installed base, by device category, 2016-2021     
Figure 11: Overall SIM & eSIM active installed base, end-2021     

Ordering & payment

The report (delivered as a PDF) costs:
  • US$900 for a 1-3 user licence
  • US$1500 for a corporate-wide licence + a free 1-hour conference-call discussion
  • (plus VAT in UK/EU as appropriate)

Payment is via credit-card and Paypal (see below), or where a purchase-order and invoicing details are submitted by email to information at disruptive-analysis dot com. The report will be emailed to you within 24 hours of receipt of payment.

[Note: Sometimes Paypal's credit-card transaction process is a little variable, especially with corporate cards. Please drop me an email if you have problems]

eSIM Report, 1-3 users

eSIM Report, Corporate