The spirit of innovation and decades of pushing technological boundaries have led to the creation of every one of the communication services that is taken for granted today. Whether it is connecting people with fast, reliable broadband so they can work, shop and socialize at home and on the move – or the increasingly diverse range of ways high quality broadcast content can be watched – technology advances have made what just decades ago would be considered unthinkable, everyday reality.
But these technologies have deep historical roots. The wireless and fiber networks used today depend on physical principles first established by James Clark Maxwell in 1861, and on mathematical limits developed by Claude Shannon in 1948. And it took another 48 years for Claude Berrou to show how engineers could reach those limits using turbo coding.
And with wireless and wired capacity doubling every 18 months from the 1970s into the 21st century, and computing power growing at a similar rate, there is phenomenal growth in data used on mobile, fixed, and broadcast systems. Without these advances, the services that are relied on today to communicate and get news and entertainment, simply would not have been possible.
The emergence of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) brought a series of black swan events to the entire telecom industry. People and businesses shifted to digital means to manage their work loads, which led to an unexpected surge in fixed and mobile network traffic and access demands. Telecom network operators have had to address this unprecedented situation to fulfill the increased networking requirements of their subscribers. As high-speed internet connectivity and broadband connectivity became crucial, be it for medical facilities, educational institutions, or businesses, networks were taxed to their limit and operators and platforms reported demand spikes as high as 800 percent.
Dramatic changes were seen. The operators were expected to ensure resilient connectivity 24×7. With demand for video conferencing services and SaaS applications continuously rising, cloud computing increased amidst the lockdown. With payments with pin and chip becoming the new normal, cyber security engineers needed to act on developing strategies to strengthen remote connectivity with proper authorization procedures.
Telcos responded by an increase in network transport capacity, partnering with technology companies to understand customer behavior using technologies like AI/ML and data analytics and providing tailoring solutions accordingly, and even for some period not terminating the service if a customer could not afford to pay bills due to the pandemic or waiving late fees and expanding the availability of their Wi-Fi hotspots.
The pandemic accelerated structural challenges and trends that have long faced the telecommunications industry.
Mobile and wireless technologies
In the last 5 years, both mobile (4G/5G) and local area (Wi-Fi) networks have seen major changes in how they are designed, deployed and owned; and in how they are used. Both mobile and Wi-Fi systems have been using an increased number of antenna elements. More than 25 years since the seminal work on multiple input, multiple output (MIMO), and 10 years since the first proposal of massive MIMO, multiple antenna systems have continued to evolve and are finally well-understood. They have led to substantial increases in spectrum efficiency, coverage, and service consistency, with massive MIMO offering up to 5x the practical capacity of more traditional MIMO techniques, although there is still a significant gap between theoretical and real-world gains.
A flexible baseband and radio frequency design has allowed the aggregation of different frequency bands and supported different types of deployments, from large macro cells to outdoor and indoor small cells. Both mobile and local area networks have been supporting increasingly high frequencies and wider bandwidths, up to 70 GHz.
At both radio and network level, there is a move from vertically- to horizontally-integrated network elements (referred to as disaggregation). For example, Open Radio or Open RAN aims to disaggregate mobile base stations by standardizing open interoperable interfaces between the radio and signal processing elements, with the aim of increasing supply chain diversity, lowering costs, and increasing innovation. Similar disaggregated architectures have been proposed for Wi-Fi. This trend is reminiscent of the shift from vertical to horizontal integration of products for personal computers during the early 1980s. Disaggregated radio or network solutions also facilitate building network elements as software functions running on virtual machines or containers which themselves run on top of general-purpose hardware. While for core networks software-based solutions are already becoming mainstream, for radios there is still some work to do for software-based products to provide solutions that are able to fully replace vertically integrated base stations. But things are moving and commercial virtual radio solutions have recently become a reality.
Ravi Shankar Prasad
Minister for Communications, Electronics & Information Technology, and Law & Justice, Government of India.
“We are very keen that India becomes a global hub for supply chains. Our recent policies, coupled with the ease of doing business, are attracting global capital to India. We urge innovators and manufacturers to come, tap, and explore the extraordinary enabling atmosphere in India. We invite them to manufacture in India, export from here, and earn good production linked incentives. It is these objectives that are behind the spectrum trading, sharing, right of way, and software product policies.”
Related to the trends above, the boundaries between radio, network, and IT infrastructure are dissolving, with some of the radio functions being pushed more towards the center and some network and cloud platform functions being pushed toward the edge – underpinned by distributed processing, storage, and software infrastructure. This trend is referred to as mobile edge computing. For example, recently Rakuten (a Japanese marketplace and IT giant) deployed its own mobile network in Japan. And Amazon, Google and Microsoft have all leveraged their cloud infrastructure and skills and expanded their offerings (either via organic growth or acquisitions) to provide cloud-based network solutions.
On the spectrum side, the emergence of new regulatory regimes allowing shared and local access licenses, has broken the traditional dichotomy between nationwide license models (as usually used for deployment of cellular systems) and unlicensed/license-exempt spectrum (usually used for deployment of local area network technologies like Wi-Fi). For example, in the UK shared access licenses are currently available in four spectrum bands, including the 3.8–4.2 GHz band and the 24.25–25.5 GHz band. In the US, a dynamic spectrum sharing mechanism is available for the 3.550–3.7 GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band. Other shared access license mechanisms are available in other countries.
While traditionally mobile and local area networks provided solutions for connecting people to each other or to the internet, recently new use cases have emerged including the trend to connect things (such as sensors and actuators) and to use wireless networks for control rather than communication. The former trend drove the emergence of new low-power wide-area (LPWA) network technologies, either using unlicensed bands (like long range (LoRA) or Sigfox) or mobile bands (like LTE-M or NB-IoT).
The latter trend led to 5G being designed to natively support much lower latencies and more reliable connections, leading to the so called 5G ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC) standard features. So, in the last few years mobile and Wi-Fi standards (together with non-standardized proprietary solutions) have started to be used to provide connectivity solutions for so called vertical sectors, including logistics, manufacturing, transportation, automotive, and utilities.
AI is being used to solve a different set of problems in networks and devices. These applications include network optimization (such as 5G-aware traffic management, dynamic spectrum management, predictive resource allocation, and cell-sleep optimization), service operation (predictive maintenance, security management, and automated issue resolution), customer engagement (via identification and prediction of customer satisfaction), and customer care (chatbots, real-time analytics to monitor quality of experience), among others. Gains can be quite substantial. For example, Ericsson claims a 14 percent saving in site energy consumption by using machine learning for sleep mode management and the ability to increase 5G coverage up to 25 percent, by directing 5G devices to the best 5G capable cells. In devices, it has been used in cameras, to provide extended reality services and to enable virtual assistants. To make in-device AI faster, mobile processors integrate neural processing units and use optimized deep learning software.
Dr Ajay Kumar
Union Defence Secretary, Government of India
“With the huge, strong pool of talent that India has, we have a great opportunity to leverage our capabilities in digital technologies. Today we are seeing increasing success in developing indigenous 5G solutions. I hope that by the time 6G comes, we would be able to produce at least 50 percent of the technologies indigenously, and by 7G, a majority of them. I also hope our industry and academia will jointly be able to participate in a much greater manner in contributing to global standards in cellular technologies in the coming years.”
Remote connectivity transforms telecom networks
To help reduce the spread of COVID-19, everything went remote. Complying with social distancing regulations and lockdown restrictions, many sectors shifted online and workforces across the world started working from their own homes. With the sudden shift of so many people accessing digital platforms at one time, the telecom industry had to react to demands of seamless connectivity. And it did.
The changing patterns in peak network traffic and the substantial movement of traffic from central business districts to residential areas require a fundamental rethink in network traffic management. In addition, many businesses continue to ramp up digital transformation efforts to conduct business online as physical channels will remain limited. Consumer onboarding will also be fervent, as organizations look at business recovery – resulting in increase in bandwidth requirements.
Telecom operators are facing increasing demands for cutting-edge services and top-notch customer experience (CX). The global pandemic has caused revenue loss, due to struggling economies and many operators will aim to reduce OpEx to circumvent these financial pressures, raise the quality of CX and retain existing customers. To realize this, there will be more focus on improvement in efficiencies, better operations management as well as improving the IT stack. These digital transformation efforts will enable rapid and flexible services provisioning, which will be better prepared for the tailored services customers now demand.
Many operators are increasingly incorporating cloudification alongside the 5G network deployment. Operators are moving toward transforming their operations and business support systems to a more virtualized and software-defined infrastructure. 5G will operate across a range of frequencies and bands – with significantly more devices and connections becoming software-defined with computing power at the edge. Operators will also harness the power of AI to analyze massive volumes of data from the networks accessed by millions of devices in order to improve CX, ramp up operational efficiencies as well as introduce new services tailored to customer needs to increase revenue.
Going into next year and beyond, telecommunication networks need to ensure optimum speeds and low latency for their customers. This is only going to increase as more users access online technologies.
The increasing remote working trend is amplifying the need for greater cybersecurity. Cybersecurity has catapulted in importance as the pandemic has seen a worrying increase in attacks on banks, cloud servers and mobile devices, among others. Cyber-attack incidents specifically due to remote working, has seen a rise. A telecom operator’s compromised security can have country-wide, and even global consequences.
Former Secretary-Telecom & Secretary, MeiTY
“There needs to be a clear understanding of the Atmanirbhar scheme. It is not about self-sufficiency, but about self-reliance; it is not about protectionism but about imaginative use of tariffs and subsidies to incentivize manufacturing of higher value products. Our dependence on semiconductors, microprocessors, and components will remain for a long time. The strategy is not to try to manufacture everything, but seek to develop scale in champion products, by incentivizing the leading companies, existing or new, to invest and take advantage of this, over a longer period of time.”
Open Radio Access Networks (O-RAN) is disrupting the market, enabling vendor mixing and matching, greater competition, and introducing new entrants via standardization, separation of software and hardware, and by turning certain elements into independent applications. It is an emerging trend that is set to shake up the roughly USD 40 billion 4G/5G infrastructure market. This trend is a continuation of ongoing forces in the broader IT and telecom hardware markets, such as the shift to virtualized software, whitebox hardware, merchant silicon, and general software disruption of the proprietary hardware markets.
Similar efforts have been witnessed to open and standardize other networking markets such as ethernet switching and IP routing, however the complexity, performance demands, and tight vendor controls in the mobile infrastructure market have left the RAN proprietary thus far. 5G deployments represent an entry point and a catalyst for O-RAN.
Currently, O-RAN development is supported by a wide range of semiconductor, hardware, testing, systems integration, and software companies, helping foster innovation in each domain and cooperation toward a more hyperscale-like network. As it has been seen in other areas of cloud networking and technology, open ecosystems often foster greater innovation.
One of the key drivers for O-RAN interest is the ability to avoid vendor lock-in. Following years of vendor consolidation in the mobile infrastructure market, there are only four leading equipment provider choices: Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson, and ZTE to a lesser extent. On top of limited choice, it is notoriously difficult to switch vendors, requiring expensive and labor-intensive equipment swaps from the radio head to the baseband data center infrastructure. In some cases, the equipment swap cost burden falls on the carrier and, in some cases, vendors provide such services as part of the sales/services strategies. Ultimately, the lack of choice and difficulty in switching vendors create a market rife with equipment vendor lock-in.
Having said this, that may change with the movement of Nokia and Samsung announcing Open RAN products. Nokia has become the first major telecom equipment maker to commit to adding open interfaces in its products that will allow mobile operators to build networks that are not tied to a vendor. Its Open RAN aims to reduce reliance on any one vendor by making every part of a wireless 3G/4G/5G base station modular and interoperable, which permits network operators to choose different suppliers for different components. As part of its implementation plan, Nokia plans to deploy Open RAN interfaces in its baseband and radio units. An initial set of Open RAN functionalities became available in 2020, while the full suite of interfaces is expected to be available this year.
Managing Director & CEO (India & S Asia), Bharti Airtel Limited
“COVID has in many ways put the entire Digital India vision on steroids. If we can as a country, embrace the global standard, create an open ecosystem for India, and leverage this to reimagine our businesses, while having a predictable and simple policy environment, the entrepreneurial energy of Indians will deliver Digital India.”
As the market has consolidated, political pressures versus Chinese vendors’ role in 5G further limit vendor choice to only 2-3 firms in some regions. Therefore, global pushback against Huawei/ZTE may be one of the largest drivers of O-RAN adoption, pulling forward the timing of operator decisions on RAN architectures. Huawei has gained significant share in the USD 38 billion market over the last 7 years, now representing 34 percent of the total market, and government support for removing the vendor from networks has grown in recent months. The UK government recently instituted a policy banning UK carriers from buying new Huawei equipment beginning in 2021, and all Huawei equipment must be removed from UK networks by 2027. Other regions of Europe such as Belgium, Poland, and Sweden have also recently shied away from Huawei. Importantly, replacing Huawei brings large costs, both from losing Huawei as a competitor and equipment swaps.
The move, having been initiated by the US, its government had taken steps to help developing countries within Africa and the Middle East fund the costly replacement of Huawei/traditional equipment. Specifically, the US Agency for International Development is spearheading the effort, while the US State Department continues to pressure US allies to displace Huawei and ZTE equipment from their networks. The replacement of Chinese RAN technology could open up a USD 35 billion market to both incumbent and new vendors, and the replacement of network vendors’ architectures offers an attractive opportunity for carries to re-architect the access network utilizing modernization and virtualization, which are both drivers for O-RAN. The US government has also explored investing in O-RAN technologies to help US software/hardware/semi vendors play more of a role in cellular networks.
Opening the interfaces between the baseband unit (BBU) and remote radio unit (RRU) helps increase competition, lowers the switching costs, and likely saves carrier CapEx to some degree. However, the real benefits related to the O-RAN vision come to fruition when the architecture becomes virtualized or cloud O-RAN (often referred to as Open vRAN). In Open vRAN, carriers first save on equipment CapEx as the baseband unit software runs on commodity off the shelf (COTS) hardware (i.e., x86 servers) rather than proprietary integrated hardware. Software can be purchased from new vendors and the equipment can be provided by vendors such as Quanta Computer. High degree of competition for the RRU component and the hardware commoditization for the BBU component could result in potential CapEx savings of 40-50 percent. Installation and integration services can also potentially be brought in house or outsourced to a longer list of competitors, adding RAN installation savings that are typically part of CapEx. The second area of carrier total cost of ownership (TCO) savings is related to the maintenance and operating expense. By copying the efficient cloud models of hyperscalers and centralizing/standardizing the foundation of the RAN, carriers stand to run more efficient data center operations. The software-defined approach also adds to network agility and automation. Through better agility and automation, carriers save on the management, maintenance, and upgrades for the network. Early reports suggest potential 31 percent operating expense savings as a result.
On the vendor side, O-RAN represents new opportunities for software-only vendors, hardware providers, and leading semi vendors. Nokia and Ericsson partially support O-RAN, given its disruptive nature, focusing instead on proprietary software-based solutions, like virtualized (vRAN) or Cloud RAN. However, as momentum grows, all leading vendors are expected to support O-RAN, similar to trends seen in switching and routing. The legacy radio vendors are expected to offset the negative implications of O-RAN via a growing focus on software, applications and expansion into adjacent markets.
MD & CEO, Vodafone Idea Ltd.
“As we move into the next decade, the future-connected India will be built on technologies, such as M2M, IoT, AI, blockchain, and robotics. We are already witnessing a lot of innovation in these areas and a thriving OTT eco-based system on solid foundations of telecom networks. I am confident that with government support, a light touch regulatory approach, and a vibrant private sector participation and investment, we will realize the Digital India dream.”
O-RAN is still in its early days, representing ~1 percent of the total RAN market in 2020 and ~6 percent projected by 2024. In 2020 O-RAN was portrayed as a miracle technology. Many believe it will increase innovation, reduce operators’ costs, and help rid Chinese equipment in telecom networks. Other O-RAN boosters want more nations to become manufactures of telecom infrastructure. 2021 will bring a needed reality check. It will take years before O-RAN can replace regular RAN on a 1:1 basis.
Cellular communication has revolutionized the way people live, work, and play, and Qualcomm has been at the forefront of pioneering standardized cutting-edge technologies since the development of CDMA for 2G. Today, 3GPP is the standards body that drives most of the evolution of cellular technology. 3GPP has an open collaborative process, which allows any company to participate. Participating companies submit their technological proposals which are then discussed, adopted, rejected, and modified by 3GPP participants through a consensus-based process. Through this competitive process, involving some of the best minds in the communications industry, come out the best technical solutions which form the base technology for the trillion-dollar cellular industry.
Small cells are increasingly used to boost network densification and expand coverage for both private and public networks. They will be increasingly important in the deployment of 5G mmWave networks because of the very short propagation distances, which require many small cells for adequate coverage in a given geographical area.
5G small cells market is gaining momentum on account of the higher bands like mmWave limitation, in-depth in-building coverage requirement, and strategic area densification. However, despite the hype surrounding 5G, 3G/4G deployments are expected to remain the dominant technology in terms of volume shipments until 2022 when 5G small cell deployment will overtake 3G/4G. Therefore, because small cell densification is moving forward, integrated small cell platforms supporting both 5G and 4G radio are essential for the next 5 years.
MD, Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd.
“In alignment with government’s vision for an Atmanirbhar Bharat, Jio has successfully designed and developed a complete 5G solution from scratch, creating 100 percent indigenous technology. Once this solution is adequately scaled up and commercially ready, in 5G space, it will give India a significant edge over other countries.”
Small cells deployed in strategic areas have also accelerated the new virtualized and disaggregated architecture adoption, aiming for greater cost-efficiency and flexibility. Together with edge computing, they are enablers for enterprise digital services such as manufacturing applications, smart harbor/terminal, local contextual applications, and IoT services.
The small cell solution is shifting from delivering in-build coverage to enable large-scale network densification. Increasing 5G and private network deployments further accelerate the trend. In the small cells market, variety and diversity are replacing uniformity. Introduction of new spectrums, types of cells and architectures, vertical industries use cases, and business models like neutral host act as accelerators in this respect.
In addition, diversity increases the cost and complexity of small cell deployment and management, not just access points but also potentially edge computing, localized core and distributed radio units. Traditional proprietary small cell systems are challenged by disaggregated, virtualized architecture. Communications service providers (CSPs) are looking for a more flexible, multivendor, cost-effective solution through breaking apart basebands and radio heads, and virtualizing some or all of the baseband functions in software.
Small cells will be at the forefront of virtualization and O-RAN
The economic success of 5G is reliant on interoperable multi-vendor networks, which require open interfaces at both the silicon and network levels. Therefore, many CSPs are continually exploring the possibility of moving away from the proprietary hardware to more modern open and interoperable systems.
To support these, CSPs will need to adopt new network topologies such as cloud-RAN, virtualized RAN (vRAN) or Open RAN (O-RAN), together with integrated edge compute. The key to the open network lies in disaggregation — separating the key elements such as centralized units (CUs) and distributed units (DUs) — and the open reconfiguration — combining components from any suppliers because they are all interconnected in the same way.
For 5G, those central processes will usually be virtualized (run as software on off-the-shelf servers). The move to open network has been more advanced in small cell layer than macro network, and several suppliers already offer architectures in which a number of small cells are clustered around a centralized, virtualized controller. But there are two potential barriers to achieving a real multivendor environment: the need to be in agreement on where the network should be split between the central and the local elements and the need to be a single common interface between the elements in each preferred split.
Split RAN/SC architectures have multiple options, as identified by 3GPP. Of these, 3GPP has focused on Option-2 (RLC-PDCP), ORAN on Option-7.2 (PHY-PHY), and Small Cell Forum (SCF) on Option-6 (PHY-MAC). SCF will develop a 5G version of its networked FAPI spec, which will enable a split MAC and PHY in a disaggregated small cell network, supporting the 3GPP Option-6 split over Ethernet fronthaul and targeting, in particular, cost-effective indoor scenarios. SCF’s work on open interfaces such as nFAPI will play an important role in the market, alongside the work of partners such as O-RAN Alliance and Telecom Infra Project.
Many CSPs expect to take their first steps in their small cell layer, providing valuable experience of how to manage and orchestrate a network in which multiple radio units share common baseband functions, some of them deployed on cloud infrastructure. While there are still challenges in this domain, the disaggregation and virtualized architecture reduce the technology barrier to market and introduce new players into the market including software players as well as OEMs and ODMs.
Shyam Prabhakar Mardikar
President-Group CTO Mobility, Reliance Jio
“I define 5G as that goes significantly beyond connectivity, available till now with 4G. And beyond connectivity, gets added hyper connectivity, hyper compute, and hyper storage, the holy trinity of communication which gets amalgamated into a hyper distribution network. Once a robust infrastructure policy enablement, armed with capabilities like power, right of way, right amount of spectrum, at right time becomes the fundamental underpinning layer for 5G; the device, services, and the vertical ecosystem will have an important role to play.”
Other emerging technologies
Optical wireless communication is already widely used in some areas and has the potential to become even more prevalent. For example, barcode scanners and remote controls all use optics for short range data communications. There has also been considerable interest in light fidelity (LiFi) systems that use modulated LEDs (visible or not) to provide a short-range alternative to RF. The range for exterior use is limited by difficult atmospherics, particularly fog, but there may be some cases where this is less significant at shorter ranges or where atmospherics are less important such as space-based communications. In these cases, there is considerable work ongoing and the range can be long, partly enabled by the high antenna gain from the short wavelength.
Generally, the propagation of electromagnetic waves has an associated property called angular momentum which comprises of two components, namely spin angular momentum (SAM) and orbital angular momentum (OAM). SAM is an additive component linked to polarization and the OAM is related to the angular change in signal phase around the plane that is transverse to the direction of propagation. It is being suggested that exploitation of OAM for communication could provide high spectrum efficiencies, in particular for fixed line-of-sight applications, such as in the form of a linear array for communication to trains. However, some commentators suggest that OAM is not new but a subset of the solutions offered by traditional MIMO communication.
The emergence of new regulatory regimes allowing shared and local access licenses and the commercial adoption of dynamic spectrum sharing mechanisms is being witnessed. Going forward, trends like radio self-optimizing networks, distributed ledgers, and ML/AI could bring a new paradigm in spectrum sharing, although considerable uncertainties remain. An example of a major project on dynamic spectrum sharing is the defense advanced research projects agency (DARPA) spectrum collaboration challenge. This was a 3-year competition between different research groups, that lasted between 2016 and 2019. The research groups were asked to leverage ML to design radios capable of optimizing the use of shared spectrum bands in a real-time manner, with both non-collaborative algorithms and collaborative algorithms. The winning team applied an AI technique-based on reinforcement learning to make the best use of the available spectrum.
In spring 2020, Ofcom directly asked the world’s leading technologists for their views on what the next game-changing technologies could be. Dozens of interviews were carried out and also anyone with insights and evidence on new technologies was invited to contribute to the research.
Through this process, a huge range of exciting technologies were discovered. Some will lead to new, richer communication experiences, involving immersive technology that enables us to touch, move – and perhaps even smell – at a distance. Others, such as clusters of satellites and new network architectures, could massively expand the coverage, availability, speed and consistency of wireless and wired networks. And some advances might allow optical fiber – in which signals already travel at the speed of light – to carry signals even faster!
New materials, devices, and quantum physics, could fire the starting gun for a new wave of engineering advances. And while some of these advances could take decades to come to fruition, others could change the way we communicate in the near future.There are four particular areas where progress will have a major impact in the medium to long term:
- This is about going beyond the limits that defined communication technologies since their theoretic foundations were established by Claude Shannon in 1948. For example, systems using smart surfaces made of artificial materials (metamaterials), deployed along streets or on buildings’ façades, will be able to direct the energy of the wireless signal toward a given point in space and time, thus providing better coverage and decreasing energy consumption.
- AI could have an even more disruptive impact in the future for the communications sector. And that to fully exploit the benefits of AI, a major redesign of communication systems might be needed, building on disruptive new computing architectures. For example, researchers are exploring computing and communication architectures that work in a similar way to the human brain, and that could lead to a massive reduction in energy consumption and latencies compared with today’s computing and communication architectures.
Since their inception, mobile networks have been based on a cell-centric architecture. New trends are calling for the use of a new design that places the person or the device being served at the center of the architecture. The emergence of drones and Low Earth Orbit satellites as possible mobile base stations in the sky, is leading to the definition of architectures based on hybrid terrestrial/aerial topologies. These new hybrid topologies could provide consumers with a much more consistent quality-of-experience and ubiquitous coverage.
Historically, wireless communications and radar/sensing systems have developed mostly independently. Recently, however, there is growing interest in the potential for a single system to meet both applications, saving spectrum and extending the range of services. And applications are emerging like the use of wireless access points normally used to deliver broadband in homes to monitor the health of older people, by detecting their motion patterns.
Continue to improve at a rapid rate and there are three particular areas where progress will have a major impact in the medium to long term:
- Two techniques will provide extra capacity in each fiber by either deploying complex multi-core or hollow-core fibers. The former embeds multiple cores in a single glass fiber, and the latter avoids many of the limits of existing fibers by using ultra-thin glass membranes to nudge the light now guided not in glass but in a hollow air core, travelling as much as 50 percent faster than in existing fibers;
- Denser and more complex integrated optical chips will provide the routing and termination functions needed for newer, more complex passive optical fiber networks. Integrated optical devices could reduce energy requirements significantly; and
- Quantum-based techniques that use the inherent quantum mechanical properties of light, will have applications in security, computing, and communication.
As the industry moves further into the new world of immersion, not only new products and services are expected to be seen, but also significant digital transformation in areas, such as retail, sports and entertainment, education and training, and health. Delivering these services will require fixed and mobile networks with higher speeds and consistently low latencies, in some cases even stretching the boundaries of 5G networks.
Chief Technology Officer, Nokia Networks
“Most operators, globally have created a long-term network plan, comprising a combination of low-band, mid-band, and high-band spectrum. A similar clear roadmap for the operators is required in India, where synchronization of government, industry, stakeholders, and policymakers is essential for India, for historically we have been granted spectrum in piecemeal. Now is an opportunity for complete transition of laying new technology and digitizing India, and with 5G enablement addressing the multiple facets of the industry and the opportunities the enterprise offer.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has influenced the enterprise networking arena in a number of ways, including the rise of fully automated remote offices, the need to support a branch of one, and the growth of new communications software tools. One of the biggest trends is business agility.
The pandemic has resulted in a recalibration of cloud strategies, where collaboration, mobility and virtual desktops are rapidly moving to the cloud to enable a distributed and secure workforce. COVID has accelerated transition to the cloud not only as an application destination but also as an emerging enterprise management model.
With the arrival of 2021, enterprise network managers have the opportunity to shore up solutions that were implemented in response to the unprecedented environment of 2020. At the same time, network managers are building stronger, more resilient networks designed for the new normal. With the transition from temporary to permanent remote working underway, network security, speed, and stability are top concerns. The year 2021 has brought evolution in remote work styles and with it, innovations in SD-WAN, SASE, 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and multi-cloud implementations.
Edge computing hits an inflection point
Edge computing was one of the only accelerated technologies in 2020. As people worldwide had to lean more heavily than ever on digital solutions, internet infrastructure was called into question for capacity limits. Many users saw broadband speeds drop by as much as half. Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube were asked to reduce the quality of their streams to improve network speeds.
Data center marketplaces will emerge as a new edge hosting option. When people talk about the location of the edge, their descriptions vary widely. Edge computing technology needs to sit as close to the action as possible. It may be a factory floor, a hospital room, or a North Sea oil rig. In some cases, it can be in a data center off premises but still as close to the action as makes sense.
This rules out many of the big data centers run by cloud providers or co-location services that are close to major population centers. If an enterprise is highly distributed, those centers are too far. There is a promising new option emerging that unites smaller, more local data centers in a cooperative marketplace model. These marketplaces were nascent in 2020 but will become a viable model for edge computing in 2021.
Private 5G will push enterprises to the edge. If any term could challenge edge computing as top, it is 5G. The 5G hype machine was in full stride as we entered 2020, and then it fell off the radar a bit as everyone dealt with more pragmatic priorities brought on by the pandemic. The 5G buzz is getting louder again, with trials now underway in key cities and Apple’s iPhone 12 injecting a lot of energy into the dialog. Despite the hype, 5G technology is superior in many ways to existing networking options. Public 5G from the carriers is indeed coming and will transform how we do many things, but it will take years to reach widespread adoption.
Forrester sees immediate value in private 5G — a network dedicated to a specific business or locale like a warehouse, shipyard, or factory. Private 5G is here now, and it is expected to fuel edge computing in 2021. Business infrastructure like warehouse robots and factory machine tools enabled by the internet of things need local processing and low-latency networks; edge computing and 5G serve these, respectively. 2021 will be the inflection for 5G, but it will be private, not public.
Every type of technology vendor — hardware, software, and cloud — has jumped on the edge bandwagon, crowding the market and confusing buyers. The coming year will prove to be the real inflection for edge computing. Practical applications are finally emerging where this architecture can bring real benefits. New edge vendors will shave five points off public cloud growth.
Cloud services continue to grow like weeds. The pandemic pushed cloud revenues higher than expected in 2020. That bull run will continue into 2021, but edge computing will be seen moderating that meteoric growth a bit. As edge computing becomes a cool new platform for business computing, it will siphon some of the money that would otherwise have gone to cloud expansion.
While the benefits will vary, an enterprise will likely take business to the edge in 2021. It is a confusing market, and serious applications are only starting to materialize. However, the benefits will be significant if you can attenuate the noise.
SD-WAN and SASE
To say 2020 was a year of surprises is a colossal understatement, but in the SD-WAN and SASE spaces, that statement could not have been more accurate. The challenges of a global pandemic helped to drive adoption of technologies like SD-WAN, particularly in the home, and catapulted SASE from relative obscurity to a hero product.
The technologies became critical to enabling countless office workers of all walks of life to transition to remote work. This sudden ramp in addressable market also fueled a vicious cycle of mergers and acquisitions as SD-WAN and security vendors fought to fill the gaps in their respective platforms.
As networking and security becomes more complex and company’s attack surfaces balloon with the migration to the cloud and remote work initiatives, companies argue that the real value add is not the technology, it is the support provided by a vender that is also a managed service provider. While portions of SASE — particularly security functions like cloud-access security broker, secure web gateway, and zero-trust network access — are commonly delivered as a service, most enterprises in North America have traditionally deployed SD-WAN themselves rather than relying on a managed service provider. And it should be noted that even when SD-WAN or SASE are delivered as a service, it does not necessarily mean the customer has the knowledge or the experience to manage it, especially where it concerns security.
While SASE has become one of the hottest product categories in any one of its adjacent markets — SD-WAN, security, and edge compute — it would not be replacing SD-WAN or on-premises security, at least not in 2021. SASE is less a new technology than it is a convergence of existing networking and security technologies around a single pass architecture, which enables traffic to be inspected while in transit. In most cases, the SD-WAN appliance is only responsible for providing a secure tunnel from a branch office, retail location, or headquarters to the nearest SASE point of presence (PoP). Here, security functionality, like ZTNA, SWG, and CASB are applied based on the identity, location, posture of user, and the application they are trying to access. So, while many SD-WAN and security vendors like Cisco, Versa, and Fortinet are betting customers will begin gravitating toward a full SASE stack, these same vendors plan to continue offering SD-WAN and on-premises security platforms going forward. It is not a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. While remote workers had helped to drive adoption of its SASE platform, the company’s SD-WAN offerings remain popular among some customers. The enterprise market is at various phases of their WAN transformations, and customers’ needs today may be better addressed by SD-WAN, but in the future may benefit from SASE. As a result, standalone SD-WAN and security appliances would not be going away anytime soon. However, fundamental changes in the way companies do business — including a permanent transition to remote work as a norm, as well as the increased use of software-as-a-service applications — will drive adoption of SASE platforms across the board in the long run. On the SD-WAN front, the pandemic caused some delays in deployments in 2020, but the underlying demand drivers for modernizing WAN infrastructures remains strong. With more clarity on the direction of macroeconomic conditions and the pandemic in 2021, businesses will increasingly execute on their strategic SD-WAN investments, which in turn will drive a market acceleration. And while slower than SASE, the SD-WAN market is much more mature.
Looking ahead to 2021, artificial intelligence (AI) looks like it will play a more significant role in managing network operations and automation. AI operations or AIOps has increasingly become a talking point among SD-WAN vendors and managed service providers alike as a means to cut down on alarm noise and identify and resolve issues more quickly.
However, most AI applications in SD-WAN today are not closed loop and are limited to surfacing issues and cannot proactively address them. Closing the loop will be critical to not only making networks easier to manage, but more fault tolerant as well. The intent is how downtime van be avoided. Today’s AIOps platforms can make finding the needle in the haystack easier and allow disruptions to be resolved faster, but the world is moving to AIOps capabilities within SD-WAN tare expected to begin closing the loop sometime in 2021, but from a mainstream adoption perspective, the use cases will drive the timeline.
Chief Analyst, MTN Consulting
“Many telcos and policymakers in the US, have pointed to India as a potential alternative player in the Telco NI market. However, there is less than a 10 percent chance of this happening. Its starting point is low, jumping from less than 3 percent to above 4 percent in the space of a few quarters is a challenge. If IT services specialists as Tech Mahindra, TCS, Infosys, and Wipro can quickly help telcos review and implement new network architectures with verifiable cost savings, then India’s vendor prospects may brighten.”
Wi-Fi 6E will see rapid adoption in 2021
When Wi-Fi 6 debuted in 2020, wireless speeds dramatically increased as the technology allowed more data to flow through wireless routers. With Wi-Fi 6, wireless speeds are roughly 30 percent greater than Wi-Fi 5. Adoption of this standard will continue to expand in 2021 as will the move toward Wi-Fi 6E (where the E stands for expanded), which opens up the 6GHz band.
Wi-Fi played a critical role in providing digital infrastructure to support increased connectivity demands during the global pandemic. With greater worldwide availability of 6 GHz, wider adoption of WPA3 security, and global momentum of Wi-Fi 6 across more enterprise and vertical markets expected in the coming year, Wi-Fi is ready to deliver innovation and advanced connectivity when and where users need it most.
The introduction of the 6GHz band adds seven 160MHz channels. This on the one hand doubles the throughput and on the other hand greatly reduces the possibility of multiple devices sharing spectrum, which in turn greatly enhances the support of Wi-Fi 6E for high-bandwidth applications. Although the mainstream Wi-Fi 6 devices currently do not support Wi-Fi 6E, chipmakers are still actively launching Wi-Fi 6E products. It is forecasted that in the first half year of 2021, mainstream chipmakers will release their flagship three-band Wi-Fi 6 chips. In the future, it is highly likely that high-end STAs will support Wi-Fi 6E. The planning of 6GHz spectrum in various countries is also an important factor affecting how fast Wi-Fi 6E is adopted.
Wi-Fi 6 is designed partly to improve network performance in dense scenarios. With the release of the EasyMesh specification and the rapid increase in multi-AP requirements and applications, the focus has shifted to having the next-generation Wi-Fi technology after Wi-Fi 6 coordinate multiple APs to optimize network performance. Meanwhile, with the introduction of 6GHz, tri-band CPEs will start large-scale commercial use in the near future. This makes the topic of taking full advantage of multi-link benefits of Wi-Fi technology more attractive. The next-generation Wi-Fi standard is still being formulated, and its functions and technology are still being discussed and improved.
Wi-Fi 6 will see strong global adoption across PCs, access points, smartphones, and IoT devices in enterprises, homes, and public arenas – with nearly 2 billion Wi-Fi 6 device shipments expected in 2021. The pandemic has proven a strong need for state-of-the-art networks to support more online activity. Wi-Fi 6 networks will become more widely deployed in the home and see steady rollout in the enterprise to ensure all networked devices perform at an optimal level and support environments with greater capacity and coverage. It will be deployed in market verticals like industrial and hospital networks, delivering wireless efficiency, and low latency connections. New connected use cases facilitated by Wi-Fi 6 will emerge to meet health and safety guidelines amid COVID-19 at transportation hubs, airports, and stadiums to deliver social distance measurement, security checkpoints, mobile concessions, health check screening, and passenger communications.
Founder, Venture Intelligence
“PE-VC investments in B2B software companies got a lot of attention. The number of deals in 2020 grew to 147 as against just 128 in 2019 even though the total amount invested came down – from USD 2211 million in 2019 to USD 1589 million in 2020, signalling a lower deal size. The India-China standoff tilted the funding pendulum from China back to the US. A lot of new investors like sovereign funds from the Middle East are now directly investing in India.”
Regulatory momentum around 6 GHz will lead to greater availability of unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi worldwide in 2021. The US recently cleared unlicensed access to 1200 MHz of spectrum in the 6 GHz band. The UK, Europe, South Korea, Chile, Brazil, and the United Arab Emirates are expected to deliver 6 GHz to their citizens before the end of the year, and many other countries are following their lead. Users will see worldwide rollout of Wi-Fi 6E devices as multiple vendors embrace 6 GHz. Up to seven superwide 160 MHz channels can be used with this newly available spectrum, triggering development, and innovation for higher bandwidth applications including unified communications, AR/VR, and even holographic video. New use cases will emerge to support telemedicine, virtual learning, and telepresence that rely on Wi-Fi 6E’s speed and latency benefits. With features like OFDMA extended into the less congested 6 GHz band, Wi-Fi 6E will help address the reliability and deterministic needs demanded by industrial applications, helping facilitate the transition from wired to wireless in industrial IoT environments. Wi-Fi Alliance certification for Wi-Fi 6E will ensure Wi-Fi-certified devices operating in 6 GHz worldwide are secure and interoperable, and will serve as an inflection point for greater adoption. Member companies providing interoperability test bed devices that are among the first Wi-Fi 6E certified products include: Broadcom, Intel, MaxLinear, MediaTek, ON Semiconductor, and Qualcomm.
The latest generation of Wi-Fi security, WPA3, brings critical updates to personal and enterprise networks to protect users wherever they connect. Wi-Fi Alliance now requires all new Wi-Fi certified devices to support WPA3 security, and in 2021 the industry will see greater adoption of WPA3 across more devices, networks, and environments – including sensitive environments like governments and financial institutions. The number of devices connected to the internet, including machines, sensors, and smart home devices is forecast to reach 41.6 billion in the next 4 years. With that tremendous growth comes demand for strong security mechanisms to protect the increasing amount of user data generated by IoT devices.
Wi-Fi is a critical link to keep businesses and individuals connected. Wi-Fi has played a key role in helping reduce the negative impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic. As the world maintained social distance, Wi-Fi limited the impact of social isolation by enabling business, education, healthcare, and other services to move online. The way users work, socialize, and communicate may never be the same as in pre-pandemic times, and Wi-Fi will now be acknowledged for delivering a strong digital foundation that enables the world to maintain productivity and economic prosperity.
In 2021, Wi-Fi will help further mitigate economic damage resulting from the global pandemic. Wi-Fi will keep economies running, supporting telecommuting needs, distance learning, telemedicine, and delivering connectivity to remote or underserved areas. The need for strong, reliable multi-device connectivity highlighted during the pandemic will generate permanent effects as people continue to adapt to more of their daily activities moving online. Wi-Fi will be seen as an indispensable technology providing a key resource in many aspects of our daily lives. Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, and other Wi-Fi technologies will drive a surge in technology innovation continuing well after the pandemic is behind us.
The omnipresent multi-cloud phenomenon
Cloud computing is the centerpiece of the world’s technical response to the COVID-19 crisis. Indeed, the leading public cloud providers were standout business successes in this most unusual of years. As businesses everywhere managed to keep the lights on by having personnel work from their homes, all of the principal cloud providers substantially grew their revenues and continued to deliver innovations at a blistering pace.
Cloud computing has become as indispensable to the data ecosystem as it has to consumers’ lives. Its collaboration capabilities epitomize the remote interactivity of a big data landscape shifting, inexorably perhaps, toward the edge. Less than a year ago, this decentralized transaction capacity was a matter of competitive advantage. Today, it has become the cloud’s cardinal point of distinction as its architecture keeps society itself operational and connected.
As such, it is imperative organizations optimize its traditional advantages of reduced cost, scalability, and ubiquity of access with a low latent experience. Although numerous developments have arisen to reinforce these boons, their underlying motif is the multi-cloud phenomenon surging to the top of progressive organizations’ priorities.
Multi-cloud deployments are central to cloud computing for numerous reasons, the most immediate of which may be an expansion of viable public clouds. Although Google (prized for its AI utility), Azure (lauded for workplace applications), and AWS (desired for its B2C accessibility for retailers) remain the most prominent, clouds by Oracle and IBM are gaining credence too. Moreover, the cloud’s pervasiveness throughout personal and professional spheres of life warrants multiple clouds, types of clouds, and support for distributed technologies.
In the sad and fraught year that went by, cloud services were a godsend for keeping the economy and the lives from grinding to a halt. In 2021 and beyond, everybody will continue to rely thoroughly on clouds (as well as on streaming, remote collaboration, smart sensors, and other cloud-reliant digital technologies) to emerge from a pandemic that is still grinding down on us remorselessly. Enterprise technology professionals will adjust their cloud strategies with one eye on COVID-19 trends and the other on their digital transformation initiatives. The tech vendors who stand to gain the most are those such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft that provide full, cloud-to-edge ecosystems that enable seamless new normal lifestyles.
In the past year, public clouds rode the pandemic to faster growth. According to IDC, enterprise cloud spending, both public and private, increased 34.4 percent from a year previous, while non-cloud IT spending declined by 8 percent.
In 2021 leading public cloud platforms will cement their dominance in the cloud market and expand their sway across many sectors of the global economy. AWS will retain its leading market share, though Microsoft, Google, and Alibaba will continue to close the gap. Revenue growth will remain explosive through mid-decade, according to Deloitte’s projections, never dipping below 30 percent annually. Global cloud spending will grow 7x faster than overall IT spending through this period. Worldwide spending on public cloud services and infrastructure will nearly double, to around USD 500 billion, by 2023.
In the past year, public clouds’ deepening dominance compelled traditional enterprise computing companies to set their strategic focus on hybrid and multi-clouds. In 2021, enterprises will grow more uneasy with their reliance on the top tier providers. IT professionals will seek out hybrid and multi-cloud tools to reduce their risks of being locked in to specific providers. This is already a mainstream tactic considering that, per Flexera estimates, 93 percent of enterprises have a multi-cloud strategy and 87 percent have a hybrid cloud strategy.
Chairman, Axilor Ventures, and Co-founder, Infosys
“I believe that the next 30 years are going to be even more exciting and businesses will continue to transform by adopting emerging technologies like AI/ML, IoT, 5G communication technology, cognitive cloud computing, and quantum computing. In spite of the COVID-19 crisis, the IT industry in India has done well and reinforced the strengths of the global delivery model and increased the trust and the dependence on the model by global businesses. This demonstrates the resilience of the Indian IT industry and augurs well for the future.”
Going forward the growing maturity of hybrid/multi-cloud offerings from AWS, Microsoft, and Google will tempt enterprise cloud managers into increasing their spending with these providers. At the same time, private-cloud stalwarts IBM, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Cisco, Dell EMC, VMware, and others will continue to beef up their hybrid/multi-cloud integrations with the dominant public cloud services in order to defend their enterprise IT market shares. Nevertheless, this space is now a war of attrition. Hybrid-cloud appliances would not significantly boost those vendors’ shares in their core public cloud market segments.
Companies end up with hybrid cloud architectures for many reasons. But there is one that is increasingly fueling intentional adoption. Edge computing has emerged as one of the most important drivers given that edge is an explicitly hybrid approach to computing. Edge contrasts sharply with multi-cloud silos given that consistent platforms and management is a necessity for edge architectures to function effectively.
The main idea to keep in mind here: If applications and data are essentially everywhere, then infrastructure must be similarly elastic and flexible. If there is any remaining argument that hybrid or multi-cloud is a reality, the growth of edge solidifies this truth. It is an emerging era of hyper-connected computing that will go hand-in-hand with mature hybrid cloud architectures.
Cloud technology has fueled the digital-first movement through a centralized deployment model that will be extended with the arrival of a new localized deployment model enabled through a hyperconnected fabric comprised of 5G, edge computing, and IoT devices. The combination of these technologies will create a new hyperconnected computing ecosystem that will move the industry beyond cloud and into the future of distributed cloud, where cloud capabilities are now delivered through hyper-connected networks, localized processing, and ambient technology.
2021 is also expected to be a year in which security strategies begin to more tangibly adapt to the hybrid cloud reality and the cloud-native ecosystem that surrounds it. There is a new evolution in security that will come into focus as the number of microservice-based workloads continues to rise and cloud-native technology takes hold as the means to deliver modern digital capabilities. This is an intersection of two realities: Security threats remain a mix of old and new, just as applications and infrastructure have also taken their own hybrid path. Zero trust security strategies are increasingly a norm as one adaptation to the modern IT world. In general, the direction of security needs to shift from to.
It is obviously not a given that this will happen in every organization, but it is a worthwhile ideal. Cloud-native will require security to take an application-out approach to providing software-defined security and authentication controls at all layers of the cloud-native technology ecosystem, including source-to-artifact builds, CI/CD pipelines, core platforms, microservices, gateways, and databases.
Automating the multi-cloud experience to profit on its advantages requires culling the best opportunities for data integration, cloud native technologies, data privacy, private clouds, and security. Organizations capitalizing on multi-cloud deployments can not only standup instances anywhere on demand, but more importantly, realize this architecture’s full potential by doing multi-cloud integration as a Swiss Army knife going across multiple different clouds without having to be horned into a particular cloud.
A fresh start
A new year is always greeted with a sense of optimism. There is a shared hope for a fresh start, and expectations for 2021, perhaps more than any year in recent memory, are high. The structural changes of the past 12 months have resulted in more reliance on computers and the internet.
Enterprise network professionals bear the responsibility for keeping the engine secure, stable, and functional. Implementing SD-WAN, SASE, Wi-Fi 6, 5G, and a multi-modal strategy as discreet strategies or as part of a full realignment represents an opportunity to drive innovation and propel growth.
COVID drove a shift to a hybrid workforce that would not be going away. The drive now is to bring the best experience, premium connectivity, and security possible in a tightly integrated package, no matter where the user is coming from.
Founder and Executive Managing Partner, IndoUS Venture Partners
“As 50 years of the relentless march of Moore’s Law is coming to a halt, a level playing field for new entrants like India is opening up. If Moore’s Law really slows down and stops, fabs will really become cheaper, because then you can amortize the cost over many years, which is a huge benefit for India. For example, if a 5 nanometer fab lasts for 10 years instead of 3 years, one will get enough time to monetize the investment.”