After two decades of increasing use connectivity continues to explode for the home/office, for the individual, and now for inanimate objects. New technologies being deployed like AR/VR, AI, cloud, Blockchain and IoT only promise increased connectivity needs and requirements. 5G, Fiber, Edge Computing and softwarization present a clear path to fulfilling these exploding needs over the next decade. Prepare for a world in which everything is connected at ultra-high bandwidth, securily, automagically and with ultra low latency: it will have its advantages, but we will also have to fight Orwellian nightmares.
Connectivity continues to explode
It has been already almost two decades since the internet boom and bust. Quaint 48kbps and 56kbps modems that loaded the initial text versions of Yahoo! have been replaced by homes connected at hundreds of megabits per second (x10.000 from 1997) and smartphones routinely reaching tens of megabits (x1.000). Load times of minutes have given way to trying to reduce hundreds of milliseconds of a web page or app load. Progress has been staggering and cost has plummeted. The cost per Mbps for consumers is at least 99,98% lower in an internet connection comparing the late nineties with today.
We can expect this explosion to continue. All projections of connectivity use point towards continued exponential growth. Taking Cisco for the 2016-2021 period, it is projecting a tripling of internet data, at least a doubling of speeds, more than three connections per capita and close to two thirds of the world connected.
We can imagine this predictions being fulfilled just with streaming video and file sharing. However, customer needs will go even forward. New emerging technologies have increased needs and requirements for connectivity:
- VR/AR represents an order of magnitude increase in content size compared with video, and it has interactivity making connectivity make or break. The amount of data that needs to be send bidirectionally for AR and VR will strain even today’s connections. And latency will need to be reduced below 100ms to avoid degraded user experience and motion sickness.
- AI requires great quantities of data, including live video and audio feeds as well as huge datasets to be effective. Integrating AI seamlessly in customers lives also requires extremely low latency so the lag between command and response is not perceptible. Connectivity and data security becomes critical in a context in which we are continuously monitored and commands can control the real world.
- Cloud is increasingly distributing computing and storage, requiring connectivity to tie it back together in a way in which the distributed nature of the system is invisible to both human and machines. Connectivity needs and requirements (i.e. latency, security) to make apparently simple tasks, like editing a document remotely, work seamlessly are still significantly greater than what we have today.
- Blockchain’s key problem at this point is scalability, and scalability has to do with network performance. A blockchain is a distributed system and as such requires the network to make it work effectively. To run our most critical trust infrastructure on the blockchain would require extreme bandwidths together with low latency and first rate security.
- Finally, IoT, the connection of all things to the internet, is itself a tremendous connectivity challenge. Not so much in terms of bandwidth, but in terms of latency, power consumption, architectures that allow millions of connected things, and the security to protect us from cybercriminals.
Overall, the connectivity explosion for the next decade will not only mean much greater speeds and capacities, but will also provide lower latency, lower power consumption, greater security, and greater scalability in number of connections.
Telco technology is ready for the challenge
Given this extreme wave of connectivity needs coming, is telco technology ready to cope with them? The answer is a clear yes. The industry has pulled together to create technologies and standards with significant runway in terms of performance and flexibility to meet the challenge.
Fiber will underpin all connectivity. While it hasn’t been widely appreciated yet, fiber deployments taking place across the world are equivalent to the paved roads that allowed our automobile-based economy. We are moving from copper, equivalent to earth roads, to fiber, equivalent to paved roads, and we are doing it quickly and efficiently. Some countries like Japan, Korea or Spain are almost finished in their transition. Fiber infrastructure has the potential to take us very far, with GPON technology already capable of several orders of magnitude of improvement of our average speeds with negligible latency and much lower power consumption and line faults.
5G is built on fiber and softwarization. 5G is the latest industry buzzword and it represents the next standard for mobile communications. This standard is already built with fiber and softwarization in mind. Beyond gigabit speeds we can expect 5G to deliver millisecond latency, much greater flexibility in network architecture, and another level of security through network slicing. While speed and latency in 5G will be evolutionary with 4G, 4,5G and 4,9G, its architectural flexibility and the security provided by network slicing provide a paradigm jump similar to fiber.
Edge computing will optimize latency, bandwidth and data security. Increasing bandwidth, reducing latency and improving security and privacy in the last mile access with fiber and 5G won’t be enough for many applications. The datacenter needs to be closer to the customer, both for performance and data security. Fiber, softwarization and improved datacenter technology is making it possible to deploy “mini-datacenters” in telecom infrastructure or even at the customer’s home or office to make this real.
Softwarization will make the network liquid. Finally, the telco network is being digitized, with specialized hardware losing importance to edge computing and network software. Once the network is softwarized it becomes much more flexible, as happens in all transition from atoms to bits. This is the silent transformation that makes all the other technologies so powerful.
In summary, technology is ready. The only risk some countries might face is making the deployments economically unfeasible through regulation. A natural monopoly like telecommunications needs and benefits from regulation. However, some regulators, especially in the EU, have shortsightedly prioritized short term consumer price reduction (making the 99,98% cost per Mbps reduction a 99,985% reduction) vs. industrial policy for innovation and creation of the infrastructure for the long term economic growth and leadership. The EU hasn’t created any of the Big Techs, has almost managed to destroy its technological lead in mobile with Nokia overthrown in handsets, and the equipment providers are under siege from China and Korea’s much more long term focused industrial policy.
How will the next wave of connectivity change your life and your business?
Picture a world in which connectivity is so ubiquitous, powerful and secure that it can basically transfer all information (including live 360 video) instantly. Private secure connections can be created and decommissioned in milliseconds, completely through software. Processing and storage capacity in the edge allows to perform most computation and storage really close to where the information is being generated, without having to surrender ownership of the data.
A physical store might have even greater data granularity than ecommerce, understanding and analyzing continuous video feeds without compromising user privacy. A doctor might be able to experience a patient fully even if she is hundreds of kilometers away and call on a specialist for support if needed, without sensitive health data being in danger. A teacher might be able to take students into an immersive trip into whatever is being studied, with students attending physically or virtually and having real-time personalization adequate to their level of understanding. This is only some of what we can imagine now, but as the internet and the smartphone revolutions showed our current imagination is a poor guide to what could happen.
Of course, there are also dystopian scenarios already being deployed and many others that can be imagined. China’s social credit system with complete monitoring and censorship of citizen’s actions in the digital and physical world will only be further empowered through the new wave of connectivity. This kind of 1984-like monitoring is in conflict with western values like privacy and freedom. And we shouldn’t only fear state actors, the last months have put companies like Facebook or Google on the spotlight for similar reasons.
So prepare to take advantage of the instant ubiquitous connectivity, but also prepare to fight against whatever intrusions it starts to allow on our hard won rights. As Bill Gates famously said: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten.”