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AWS outages highlight promise, peril of public clouds for 5G

The outsourcing of key computing tasks to cloud networks has accelerated in recent years with companies using cloud services to process at least half of their information technology workload. Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud comprise two-thirds of the global cloud market approaching $450 billion. Such “public” clouds allow backup of data, business continuity, offloading of application elements to reduce latency, on-demand resources when usage spikes, and so on. Cloud marketing promises a higher level of service, security, and reliability, but thrice in December 2021, AWS experienced events that brought brought down ecommerce, online gaming, streaming video, and connected household appliances for millions of users for minutes, hours, if not a day or more. Cloud providers are not immune to cyberattack, software bugs, human error, or shortfalls in capacity or power. It is a rude reminder on dependency on technologies that few understand and are controlled by a handful of trillion-dollar firms, notes LightReading editor Iain Morris, who highlights the risk of outsourcing core functions of critical network industries like telecommunications to the cloud. AWS explains its outages here.

Cloud computing or “cloud” is a general term for the on-demand availability of computer resources like data storage and computation without active user management. Cloud services allow firms to enjoy the benefits of supercomputers (storage, intelligence, computing) without having to contract with a data center, and thereby offer better services and applications more cost efficiently. Cloud services leverage distributed functions and multiple locations to provide computing power when and where it’s needed in a “pay-as-you-go” scalable model. This means that enterprises can minimize capital costs in building computer networks, though they may experience unexpected operating expenses for certain uses. There are public, private, and hybrid clouds; a firm might build its own “private” cloud or data center. Alternatively it can access a public cloud. The differences for are like the pros and cons of owning a house or renting an apartment.

The 5G private network opportunity
As Matt Kapko of SDX Central reports, most mobile operators don’t run core connectivity functions in the cloud today, but this is changing as operators move to 5G and enhance their networks with artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), Augmented and Virtual realities (AR and VR), automation, and real-time analytics. Importantly 5G allows enterprises to customize their own “private networks”, a network within a network can be tailored to special demands for speed, security, capacity, and low latency; indoor/outdoor locations, and timetables.

Think Superbowl stadium on game day or the modern factory floor which needs high volume data and quality assurance. While telecom providers could leverage speed, flexibility, cost savings from cloud services, they face the challenge of ensuring the same level of quality and reliability as dictated by their contracted service level agreements (SLAs). In other words, a user can tolerate a web application not working for a few hours, but not the loss of mobile connectivity.

Calling the market for private 5G networks “hot and crowded”, many have joined mobile operators in offering these services including system integrators, infrastructure suppliers, so-called OpenRAN providers, and other sundry IT companies, notes Strand Consult in its 21st annual newsletter on predictions for the mobile industry. The independent consultancy predicts that policymakers will turn attention to public clouds which hold an increasing amount of citizen and enterprise data. Huawei, smarting from restrictions on its network equipment, has pivoted to the cloud market. Though a Chinese government cloud is likely be a hard sell in the US and Europe, Huawei clouds are mushrooming across Latin America, presenting new geopolitical challenges.

The Huawei problem
Huawei has nine datacenters across LATAM (Brazil, Chile, Peru and Mexico, and Argentina), more than any other provider. Though its market share still lags AWS, Microsoft and Google, Huawei is aggressively building new cloud datacenters and content-delivery networks (CDNs) with Paraguay and Uruguay teed up for the next CDN rollout, and Bolivia, Barbados, Suriname, Belize, Bahamas, Guyana, Jamaica, and Nicaragua slated for 2022. “Huawei attempts to bill itself as a trustworthy IT supplier for the public and private sectors and as an alternative to the large IT software companies which supply a combination of services and a cloud”, writes Strand Consult. Huawei’s cloud marketing includes a competition for startups to win hundreds of thousands of dollars in prize money and “cloud credits” to help buy Huawei cloud services.

Does regulation help or hinder these developments?
As mobile networks are increasingly integrated with clouds, individuals and firms are even more embedded with Big Tech, raising questions about privacy, security, data portability or other policy issues. Cloud providers are not necessarily interchangeable. An AI request to the Amazon, Microsoft and Google cloud will not deliver the same result. In any event, it is far easier to switch the vendor of 5G infrastructure equipment that to switch cloud providers.

Noting that a few large gatekeepers control digital ecosystems which can “act as private rule-makers…which sometimes result in unfair conditions for businesses and less choice for consumers”, the European Union Digital Service Act package proffers to “create a safer digital space in which the fundamental rights of all users of digital services are protected and “establish a level playing field to foster innovation, growth, and competitiveness, both in the European Single Market and globally.”

This language sounds a lot like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a similar EU package promised to tame Big Tech. Since the law’s promulgation in May 2018, US platform enjoy even greater  revenue, market share, and earnings in EU, and many small and medium enterprises have exited the EU personal data industry because compliance costs are too high. With the DSA and DSM, Brussels has essentially copy-pasted the same simplistic regulatory conception to different problems of content moderation and illegal goods and proposes to hold cloud providers liable for enabling services.

In addition to raising cost and burden or entry for startups, regulation can reduce service quality, diverting resources from where users need it, as Light Reading’s Mike Dano reports on potential mandates for backup power generators at all cell sites. Cellular networks play an outsized role in disasters because they function on backup power sources like generators. When nothing else is working, cell phones can connect calls. But wireless providers and others are pushing back, saying that backup power resources are case-by-case judgements unamenable to bureaucratic micromanagement and that blanket requirements reduce operators’ flexibility to respond to disasters.

Professor Silvia Elaluf-Calderwood teaches Information Systems Strategy for Internet and Cloud at Florida International University published a working paper at the Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacional on “The Digital Trade Balance in Latin America: Analysis of cloud computing in emergent markets.” She observes,

“Cloud operators and regulators have mismatched in goals for the internet sector. Most regulators have mandates focused on either monitoring fair pricing for consumers or ruling about local competition between service providers. They are limited in their ability to define a regulatory framework that can be effective for cloud computing because of a) jurisdictional issues (where is the data?, where is tax paid for commercial transactions for services provided by cloud provider?) and b) market limitations like investment in telecom infrastructure does not match the business process for cloud investment. Additionally the focus on privacy regulation, seen by many as an overall goal seems to aim to ensure citizens’ rights in the digital world, creates further anomalies when it comes to the efficacy of regulatory policy for cloud services. Regulators have little leverage to impose – outside their area of jurisdiction – full penalties, fines or enforce changes that have global impact. Lawsuits take at least two years. By the end of one lawsuit, a new one starts or the previous one is contested. Thus when one applications of the law is complete, it is almost irrelevant as the technology has moved on. It is difficult, if not impossible to create globally coherent, converged regulation. AI, as it’s enabled by Big Tech today, is managed without regulatory accountability and likely create faster, bigger cases of abuse and inequality.”

US policymakers have a variety of antitrust activities underway including bills in Congress and investigations at the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission, but they are not focused on cloud issues. It’s not clear what will become of these efforts, other than inevitable litigation. If anything, Big Tech will get its fingerprints on relevant policy. The Revolving Door Project documents at least 10 Big Tech executives now working in the White House, FTC, DOJ, and Departments of Commerce and Homeland Security. Forbes

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