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Intelligent connectivity for the digital industry

Every year, May 17 is celebrated as the World Telecom Day and I must state that I am absolutely proud to have been associated with the telecom industry for almost 24 years by virtue of my past association with AT&T India and Telstra India, donning multiple roles. We have all seen the massive strides made by the telecommunications industry over the last few decades and the profound impact it has had on the world. In our increasingly interconnected global society, the telecom industry stands as the backbone of modern communication, linking individuals, communities, and nations like never before. Its influence is felt across all facets of our lives, transcending geographical boundaries and time zones. The telecom industry continues to serve as a catalyst for economic growth, driving innovation, productivity, and efficiency across various sectors. By providing the infrastructure and platforms that enable businesses to collaborate, operate, and reach customers globally, telecom networks are a driving force behind economic expansion and job creation.

Impact of the telecom industry during the Covid situation
One can never forget how the telecommunications industry played such an important and critical role during the Covid pandemic. Thanks to the high-speed cellular and broadband networks, serving both the Enterprise and the Consumer segments, businesses continued to run and the wheels of the economy were moving when lockdowns and social distancing measures were the norm. Platforms, such as Zoom, Cisco Webex, Microsoft Teams, etc., ensured seamless collaboration as people were using these platforms to connect with colleagues, clients, and classmates as schools and businesses were shut down. With increased adoption of Cloud during the pandemic as enterprises moved many of their critical applications to cloud platforms, the need for ensuring reliable connectivity was an imperative, and one must compliment the telecom service providers for having risen to the occasion by ensuring uninterrupted and reliable connectivity so as to ensure business continuity.

Evolution of connectivity
If I look back at the past, every upgrade in connectivity has driven social development. During the early days of the industrial era, telegraphs and telephones transformed long-distance communication. In the information era that succeeded the industrial era, cellular mobile, fiber, and data communications have enabled the explosive growth of the internet and rapid development of the global economy. When I started my career in the mid-nineties, during my stint with a company that manufactured statistical multiplexers at that time that were used for mainframe to terminals connectivity using 9.6 kbps/14.4 kbps leased lines. Indian Railways were a big user of these multiplexers for connecting the mainframe computers in metropolitan cities to remote computer terminals across multiple cities and towns for the passenger reservation application. During my stint with Telstra V-Comm (a JV between Telstra Australia and VSNL) from 1996 onwards, I have vivid memories of installing large 3.8-meter diameter VSATs on rooftop buildings for organizations across India, wanting to connect their offices using satellite communications links. A 128-kbps satellite link during those days was billed at a whopping Rs 20 lakh per annum. With the privatization of the telecom sector, and with the cost of terrestrial communication links coming down, we have seen the transition from low-speed X.25 packet-switched networks and high-cost frame relay networks to high-speed networks – from kbps to Mbps and now to Gbps. From an enterprise standpoint, we have seen how network architectures evolved from using leased lines to private MPLS-based VPNs, and we now are seeing growth of SD-WANs that are providing application aware, low-cost, and secure connectivity.

Now, we are entering the intelligent era, and this requires intelligent connectivity. Individuals, homes, and enterprises require more from connectivity, which is increasingly embedded with technologies, such as AI and cloud. With the advent of 5G, IoT, AI/ML, AR/VR, 3D printing, and metaverse, we stand on the cusp of a digital revolution that will reshape industries and economies in the years ahead. Intelligent connectivity will become a critical enabler for businesses across various sectors, from manufacturing and retail to healthcare and finance. With the Covid-19 pandemic accelerating the adoption of digital technologies, intelligent connectivity has become even more crucial for enterprises to stay competitive and agile.

The connectivity industry is experiencing a few major changes. The first change is moving from plain vanilla IoT to connected intelligent twins. In the current era, where people and homes are the key focus, connectivity is the main goal – specifically, the connectivity of every physical asset. As we start to see the integration of intelligence in our day-to-day lives, thanks to AI-powered consumer applications and intelligent chatbots, and the fusion of AI into enterprises accelerates, we need to connect more things, more intelligently. The second change is for the telecom service providers to move from providing best effort to differentiated, deterministic, and predictable services. Connectivity requirements vary with industries and different service scenarios. For example, smart city applications require massive connections, while smart factory use cases require predictable latency. Providing differentiated services is table stakes, and deterministic assurance is mandatory. Only after the telecom service providers develop these two capabilities can they gain a foothold in vertical markets. The third change is moving from manual operations and management (O&M) to a state of hyper-automation. 5G, AI, and cloud significantly enhance network capabilities, but also bring challenges to operating and managing networks. As compared with 4G networks, 5G networks increase connection density significantly and the number of network configuration parameters by a factor more than 10,000. As current network complexity increases, manual O&M is just not good enough. Big data analytics and AI must be deeply integrated to simplify decision-making, implement hyper-automation, and free people from unnecessary complexity. These changes highlighted above clearly imply that the value of the connections depends not only on the quantity of connections, but also on quality, bandwidth, and latency of these connections.

For the telecom service providers, intelligent connectivity solutions present a great opportunity to add additional value over the basic layer of connectivity and offer end-to-end solutions that create business impact for enterprises, and thus drive additional revenue streams. The need for telcos to morph themselves into techcos is an absolute must, if they have to show differentiation and compete in a hyper competitive marketplace. For the enterprises, intelligent connectivity can address a number of challenges that they face in the day-to-day running of their businesses, for example for a manufacturer use cases around predictive maintenance, asset optimization, robotic motion control, monitoring of AGVs, AI-powered computer vision for quality will see huge traction, connected supply chain will drive a number of use cases around track and trace, etc., and for discrete manufacturers the ability to now fuse IoT and AI into products and make them smart, intelligent, and connected will be a game changer. Intelligent connectivity can also drive more use cases, which can impact employee and customer experience, and this gives an opportunity for enterprises to innovate around their business models, leveraging the power of IoT, AI, etc., to drive new revenue streams.

As the industry becomes more digital, current industrial connectivity has to keep pace and hence evolving toward advanced and intelligent connectivity is essential for realizing the digital industry. Intelligent connectivity is characterized by agility, flexibility, performance, security, energy efficiency, ease of installation, cost effectiveness, location accuracy, and the need to support diverse industrial applications with specific latency, speed, and power requirements. 5G connectivity addresses most of them and hence becomes a strong contender to adopt, along with current technologies, during this evolution toward intelligent connectivity. In the future, the sixth generation of connectivity technologies (6G) will continue to develop in various aspects, such as scale, time, and space. 6G will provide significant bandwidth improvements, much lower latency, and widen coverage to evolve an intelligent society into a futuristic society. Any assumptions about the future of connectivity may be significant underestimates and hence the best way to predict the future is to create the future. Let us advance toward the intelligent connectivity era together as it requires the entire ecosystem to collaborate to make this happen.

This article is authored by Sunil David, Digital Technology Consultant; Ex-Regional Director (IoT)-AT&T; Co-Chair of Digital Comm. Group of IET Future Tech Panel; and CII National AI Forum Member. Views expressed are personal.

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