This annual European event moved to London this year and had a tighter focus on fixed networks. I chaired the mobile/fixed convergence stream where several operators believe owning both assets puts them in a very strong long term position. The vision was of Gigabit speeds for all, fully virtualised networks delivering seamless fixed/mobile services. Some sharper observations revealed this nirvana may take some time to arrive.
Relentless drive for speed on the Fixed network
Frankly, some of the keynotes were fairly bland punctuated by a few visionary and exciting ones. Several vendors enthused about very high downlink speeds, with 2Gbps residential service now available in the USA and even 10Gbps now on offer in Chatanooga City and in Japan and Korea. (The $300/month fee for 10Gbps wasn’t mentioned, neither was Salisbury which launched first). An expectation of 1Gbps fixed service was set, with Huawei using the term Gigaband which envisions anything up to 16Gbps speeds. Copper using vectored DSL can reach 100Mbps, Vplus up to 300Mbps and G.fast is being touted for rates beyond 500Mbps and aiming to reach 1Gbps. Above that fibre for 1Gbps with TWDM-PON is positioned for 10Gbps.
Content consumption has changed rapidly
These download speeds are changing the way that we consume content. Adtran reminded us that the ubiquitous tablet was unknown just 5 years ago. Sky, a satellite TV broadcast has evolved to become #2 in the UK for wireline broadband. Statistics for the latest Game of Thrones episode revealed the mix of consumption formats. 80% watched this on their own time schedule than via live broadcast:
- 600k Live TV
- 410k On-demand streaming
- 510k SkyGo and NowTV via mobile/Tablet/IPTV box
It’s not just about peak download speeds though. We saw some indication that uplink speeds and latency are also becoming important. Sky actively monitor indoor Wi-Fi performance and can even book an engineer call to fix faults in some cases. They also select and display individual ads from some 500 downloaded to your set top box, not dissimilar to Ad tailoring on web pages.
Mansoor Hanif, Director of RAN at EE, talked about balancing headline speeds and capacity, noting that they’ve moved on from the purely technical KPIs (call drop rates, handover success rates etc.) to measure end to end services (facebook browsing, youtube streaming etc.). He’s aiming to deliver a minimum of 5Mbps speed to every customer and achieving that over 95% of the time. (That should be enough to conduct most transactions including watching video on your smartphone.)
Telenor (Norway) expressed disappointment that they had been unable to switch off their landline voice PSTN service, after many objections. Apparently the average age of PSTN users is 69. Education and training on how to use the latest technology is needed to allow everyone to benefit, and they run workshops and classes to do just that.
Mobile and Fixed Convergence
Several presentations and panels discussed tighter integration of cellular and Wi-Fi. Panellists felt that the combination of fixed and mobile assets had high commercial importance for the future. Both Telstra and KPN thought this put them in a stronger position. However these are still run and operate as separate divisions. There seems to be little or no planning or co-ordination between them.
Melita (a small cable TV and mobile network in Malta, the most densely populated country in Europe) are a truly integrated and multichannel operator. They have enabled open Wi-Fi in 50,000 homes and deployed a mesh or grid of 40 Carrier Wi-Fi Access Points in city areas, offloading a lot of data from their mobile network. They offer a combined Wi-Fi/Mobile package which includes 10Gbytes data allowance and saw a 40% increase in traffic from those who used it. (I did wonder if that was slightly skewed by self-selection plus the issue that smartphones consume more Wi-Fi than cellular). They are clearly very happy about the blend of mobile and Wi-Fi service they provide which helps reduce the cost of wireless data.
When I asked if they deliver Voice over Wi-Fi too, it’s something they are still experimenting with. It’s mostly about improving coverage, especially inside the “cannon-ball proof” stone walled homes found in Malta and in basements. Residential voice coverage seemed to be the main application for Wi-Fi Calling from EE and Telstra too; neither seem to expect to use it when in mobile service coverage. Handoff to/from Wi-Fi for voice calls still appears to be the biggest issue with some concern about managing end-to-end quality. Telstra participate in FON, the Wi-Fi sharing scheme, but restrict it to home hubs fed by at least 6Mbps broadband.
We discussed optimising the radio access networks. Andrew Conway, Head of Network Strategy at Telefonica O2 UK, explained how they use Centralised SON across 3G and LTE. I sensed some caution about fully handing over control to a completely automated system, but it is inevitable. They don’t integrate or optimise this directly with their Carrier Wi-Fi. A 3rd party C-SON provider is used rather than relying on any single major RAN equipment vendor, and he saw this as an important strategy to maintain independence from proprietary solutions.
Both Telstra and KPN were in favour of the LAA standard – why shouldn’t we have the same access rights to unlicenced spectrum as anyone else – provided that it “played fair” as with other unlicenced technologies. But neither saw this as either a quick fix or a fully manageable resource, but more of a bonus. They both have enough licenced spectrum to satisfy their users in the short term and would first need to deploy small cells before adding LAA. I would have expected a panellist from a less well-endowed spectrum owning network to take a different view.
I asked one panel why (or when) Hotspot 2.0 would become a reality. Sami Susiaho from The Cloud thought that Admission Control was an essential part of such a solution, but had been omitted from the standards and has been implemented as a proprietary feature. Access points would not accept users if limited in resource. The mobile network could also deny access if it had plenty of LTE capacity in that area. Good behaviour in admission control is important because phones learn which access points have given poor service and de-prioritise those for the future. Denying access doesn’t incur that penalty.
Subject to that constraint, The Cloud is ready to provide a full Next Generation HotSpot roaming service for any operator that wants it. More smartphone devices are now on the market which support it. Unprompted, Mike Wright, Group MD Networks at Telstra, said that we could expect to see them to turn it on within the next 12 months.
No telecom conference these days goes without a 5G pitch. Dr Chaesub Lee represented the ITU and ran through the huge list of desirable and often conflicting requirements. It still seems too vague and distant to me - even a straightforward question asking whether 5G spectrum will be allocated exclusively to individual operators couldn’t be answered unequivocally. Another speaker suggested that 5G should be viewed as a family of wireless networks, rather than just another radio interface.
NFV featured heavily throughout the event. There seems to have been a surprise recognition in recent weeks that the systems and expertise to manage large numbers of virtual machines doesn’t really exist in the industry today – neither in operators nor traditional vendors. Ray Le Maistre of LightReading reported that some operators thought today’s open source stacks to manage NFV may not be fit for purpose.
Today the expertise lies in the large content and OTT players – NetFlix apparently run up some 30,000 virtual machines with an average lifetime of just 36 hours. It’s quite a different way of thinking from powering up a telecom switch and applying software upgrades every few months or so. Netflix now consumes over 37% of all US internet wired broadband during peak viewing hours.
Whatever the truth of the matter, I sense it will take quite some time for NFV technology to overcome the conservative nature of operations teams. Let’s face it, SON has been around for many years but is still far from the controlling force.
When seeking new revenue opportunities, managing the potentially large number of IoT devices in our homes is considered a potential opportunity. There’s less concern about exactly which of the many radio interfaces might be used – ZigBee, Zwave, BLE (Low Power Bluetooth) are prominently mentioned for battery powered devices. Various forms of Wi-Fi would support higher traffic demands, especially streaming video. There are yet more variants of the 802.11 standard which support longer range/lower power for those applications too.
This service could even be offered by mobile only networks who would provide a central home hub connected via 3G or LTE for remote management – a sort of femtocell in reverse.
Whether consumers would want to outsource that service from their telco remains to be seen. There’s nothing that ties it to any fixed or mobile network, so would be much more competitive.
BBWF has reverted to its roots as a fixed network show, making the most of faster wireline broadband and residential Wi-Fi. Higher broadband speeds have transformed the way we consume data, shifting from live broadcast to accommodate on our own individual schedules.
While many operators believe there is tremendous benefit in offering both fixed and mobile service, most run these as separate divisions with little operational co-ordination. At this show, most talk about using Wi-Fi related to the residential context. Few seemed to me to be very far down the path of tight cellular/Wi-Fi integration, even where it's available. Passpoint is still not yet widely deployed but in the pipeline.
Voice over Wi-Fi is seen as a tool for dealing with poor voice coverage, especially in the home. That will affect residential femtocell volumes if it is seen as successful, but will need VoWiFi to be more widely deployed (including handsets) and handover issues to be solved. Mainstream home hub vendors still offer (integrated) Femtocells, both 3G and 4G, but weren’t hyping new femtocell products or features at this show.
So while small cells in general weren’t a major theme at this event, it helped set the context of the relentless growth in demand for broadband and contrast the future technical nirvana of virtualisation at Gigabit speeds with the realities of managing and evolving today’s networks. The change in emphasis from purely peak speeds to reliable and consistent user experience is noteworthy.