Speaking Engagements & Private Workshops - Get Dean Bubley to present or chair your event

Need an experienced, provocative & influential telecoms keynote speaker, moderator/chair or workshop facilitator?
To discuss Dean Bubley's appearance at a specific event, contact information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

New: Workshops on Enterprise Cellular & AI/Blockchain in Telecoms, May 30-31

NOTE: I am away travelling & "off-grid" without email or phone April 24 - May 2. I will respond to any inquiries about workshop places on my return, or else contact: caroline AT rethinkresearch DOT biz

I'm delighted to announce a new collaboration:

Rethink Research & Disruptive Analysis announce joint workshops on Enterprise Cellular Networks, and AI/Blockchain in Telecoms

At the end of May, two of the leading independent thinkers in telecoms research will jointly be running small-group interactive workshops in London, addressing two of the hottest topics in telecoms technology and business models:

  • 30th May: Private Cellular Networks for Enterprise, IoT and Vertical Markets
  • 31st May: Use-cases and Evolution Paths for AI, Machine Learning and Blockchain Technologies in the Telecoms Sector
Each day will have a maximum of 30 attendees to ensure a high level of discussion and interaction. We expect a diverse mix of service providers, vendors, regulators and other interested parties such as enterprises, investors and developers. 

The sessions will combine presentations, networking opportunities, and small-group interactive discussion. Rethink Research’s Caroline Gabriel, and Disruptive Analysis’ Dean Bubley, will be the leaders and facilitators. Both are well-known industry figures, with many years of broad communications industry analysis – and outspoken views – between them.

The two events will run as separate standalone sessions, but there will be common themes and approach across both, to benefit organisations with an interest in both topics.

Enterprise Cellular Networks, May 30th

The first day will cover the rising need for businesses of many kinds to control their own, well-managed, wireless connectivity solutions. The growing use of mobile devices and the emergence of the Industrial IoT means that high-quality – often mission-critical – networks are required for new systems and applications.  

These can span both on-premise coverage (eg in a factory, office or hospital) and the wide-area (eg for smart cities or future rail networks). It is unclear that traditional mobile operators can or will be able to satisfy all the requirements for enterprise coverage – or assume legal liability for failures. Some enterprises will want to have full control for reasons of security, or industry-specific needs.

Among the topics to be discussed are:

  • Key market drivers: IoT, automation, mobile workers, industry-specific operational and regulatory issues, diffusion of wireless expertise outside of traditional telecoms providers
  • Evolution of key enabling technologies such as 5G, network-slicing, SDN, small cells and enterprise-grade IMS cores
  • Regulatory/policy issues: spectrum allocation, competition, roaming, repeaters, national infrastructure strategies and broader “Industry 4.0” economic goals
  • The shifting roles of MVNOs, MVNEs, neutral hosts and future “slice operators”
  • Spectrum-sharing approaches, including unlicensed, light-licensing and CBRS-type models. Also: can WiFi run in licensed bands?
  • Numbering and identity: eSIM, multi-IMSI, liberalised MNC codes
  • Commercial impacts, new business model opportunities & threats to incumbents
  • Vendor dynamics: Existing network equipment vendors, enterprise solution providers, vertical wireless players, managed services companies, new industrial & Internet players (eg GE, Google), implications for BSS/OSS, impact of open-source
(I've covered various of these themes in previous posts and presentations. If you want more detail about some of my thinking, see links here and here. I'll include links to Caroline's thoughts on this in subsequent posts. We will be going into a lot more depth in the workshop itself).

AI & Blockchain in Telecoms, May 31st

The second day will consider the specific impact on the telecoms sector of two of the hottest new “buzzword” technologies in software: Artificial Intelligence (and its siblings like machine-learning) and Blockchain / Distributed Ledgers. Both have already received more than their fair share of hype: but what are the realistic use-cases and timelines for adoption? What problems do they solve, and what new opportunities do they create? Are they just re-branding exercises for “big data” and “distributed databases” respectively, when applied to telcos?

(I've been covering these areas as part of my "TelcoFuturism" research, including presenting on Blockchain at a recent TMForum event (link) and at Nexterday North last November, plus thinking about various AI intersections with telecom trends such as 5G (link). Caroline has done a large amount of work on AI / Machine Learning).

This day will benefit attendees from the telecoms industry looking at new developments; as well as  those from the AI/blockchain mainstream interested in specific applications in the telco sector. It will include some basic “101” introductions so that delegates from both sides can be sure they’re speaking each others’ language & decode the jargon.

Among the topics to be discussed are:

  • Understanding and categorising the types of AI (machine/deep learning, image recognition, natural language etc)
  • Introduction to blockchain concepts and the complexities of “trust”
  • Review of telecoms industry structure, key trends and important components of network/IT systems
  • Where will AI have the largest impacts for telcos? Improving customer insight & experience? Improved network operations & planning? New end-user facing services such as chatbots or contextually-aware communications? B2B, B2C, or B2B2C platforms?
  • Mapping the possible use-cases for blockchains in telecoms, and current trials / status of projects – from micro-transactions, to roaming settlement & fraud prevention, data-integrity protection, or smart contracts for NFV systems
  • Impact of 5G & IoT for both AI and BC
  • Risks and challenges: regulatory, privacy, new competitors?
  • Vendor and supplier ecosystems and dynamics: new entrants vs. adoption by established providers

Reserve your place today

Both workshops will take place at the Westbury Hotel in Mayfair, central London [link]. They will run from 9am-5pm, with plenty of time for networking and interactive discussion. Come prepared to think and talk, as well as listen – these are “lean-forward” days. Coffee and lunch are included.

Fees for attending one day: £795 / US$995 / €930 + UK VAT of 20%
Fees for attending both days: £1395 / US$1750 / €1650 + UK VAT of 20%

There is an early-bird discount of 10% available for confirmed bookings prior to May 2nd.

Payment can be made either credit card or Paypal, or by invoice / bank transfer: please email me at information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com, for payment-request by email or with purchase-order details. Please also contact me for any more information.

NOTE: I am away travelling & "off-grid" without email or phone April 24 - May 2. I will respond to any inquiries about workshop places on my return, or else contact: caroline AT rethinkresearch DOT biz

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sources of value in voice: Asking the right questions

In the last few weeks I've been doing a lot of work on voice communications (and messaging / video / context):

  • I attended Enterprise Connect in Orlando discussing collaboration, UCaaS, cPaaS, WebRTC and related themes
  • I spoke at a private workshop, for a Tier-1 operator group's communications-service internal experts team
  • I've helped a client advise a strategy around the new European eCall in-vehicle emergency-call standard
  • I've been writing a report on VoLTE adoption and impact, for my Future of the Network research stream published by STL Partners / Telco 2.0 (Subscribe! Link here)
A common, over-arching, theme is starting to form for me. The future sources of value in voice are all about SPs / vendors asking the right questions when they design new services and solutions.

Historically, most value in voice communications has come from telephony (Sidenote: voice is 1000 applications/functions. Phone calls are merely one of these). And in particular, the revenue has stemmed from answering the following:

  • Who is calling?
  • Where are they?
  • Who is being called?
  • Where are they?
  • How long did they speak for?
  • Plus (sometimes):
    • When did they call?
    • What networks were they on?
    • Was the call high-quality? (drops, glitches etc)
    • Is it an emergency?
This pretty much covers most permutations for ordinary phone calls: on-net/off-net, roaming, international and long-distance, fixed-to-mobile and so forth. 

Clearly, the answers to these questions are worth a lot of money: many billions of dollars. But equally clearly, they don't seem to be enough to protect the industry from competition and substitution from other voice-comms providers, or alternative ways of conducting conversations and transactions. As a result, voice telephony services are (mostly) being bundled as flat-rate offers into data-led bundles for consumers, or perhaps per-month/per-seat fees for unified comms (or SIP trunks) for business. 

In other words, current voice revenues are being delivered based on answering fewer questions than in the past. Unsurprisingly, this is not helping to defend the voice business.

The current "mainstream" telecoms industry seems to be focused only on adding a few more questions to the voice roster:

  • Is it VoIP / VoLTE / VoWiFi? (Answer = sometimes, but "so what" for the customer?)
  • Can we use it to drag through RCS? (Answer = No)
  • How can we reduce the costs of implementation? (Answer = maybe NFV/cloud)
  • Are there special versions for emergencies? (Answer = yes, eg MCPTT and eCall)
  • Is there a role for CSPs in business UCaaS? (Answer = yes, but it's hard to differentiate against Microsoft, Cisco, RingCentral, Vonage and 100 others)
  • What do we do about Amazon Echo? (Answer = "Errrrmmmm... chatbots?")
Given the huge expense and complexity involved in implementing IMS for VoLTE, many mobile operators have very little "bandwidth" left to think about genuine voice innovation, especially given wider emphasis on NFV. What limited resources are left may get squandered on RCS or "video-calling". 

Fixed and cable operators are in a slightly better position - they have long had hybrid business models partnering with PBX/UC vendors for businesses and can monetise various solutions, especially where they bundle with enterprise connectivity. For fixed home telephony, most operators have long viewed basic calls as a commodity, and are either protected by regulators via line-rental and emergency-call requirements, or can outsource provision to third parties.

In my view, there are many other questions that can be asked and answered - and that is where the value lies for the future of voice communications. None are easy to achieve, but then they wouldn't be valuable if they were:
  • Why is the call occurring? (To buy something, ask a question, catch up with a friend, arrange a meeting or 100 other underlying purposes)
  • Where is the call being made and received (physically)? For instance indoors, in a noisy bar, on a beach with crashing waves, in a car, in a location with eavesdroppers?
  • Is the communication embedded in an app, website or business process? 
  • Is the call part of an ongoing (multi-occasion) conversation or relationship?
  • Is a "call" the right format, with interruptive ringing and no pre-announcement? Is a push-to-talk, one-way, "whisper mode", broadcast, team or other form more appropriate?
  • Are both/all parties human, or is a machine involved as well?
  • What device(s) are being used? (eg headset, car, wearable, TV, Echo, whiteboard?)
  • Who gets to record the call, and own/delete/transcribe the recording?
  • Are the call records secure, and can they be tampered with?
  • What's the most effective style of the call? (Business-like, genial, brusque, get-to-the-point-quickly etc)
  • What languages and accents are being spoken? Can these be adjusted for better understanding? What about background noise - is that helpful or hindering?
  • Can the call add/drop other parties? Are these pre-arranged, or can they be suggested by the system in context?
  • Are the participants displaying emotion? (Happiness, anger, eagerness, impatience, boredom etc) . How can this be measured, and if necessary, managed?
  • Is there a role for ultrasound and/or data-over-sound signalling before or during the call?
  • How can the call be better scheduled / postponed / rescheduled?
  • Is a normal phone number the best "identifier"? What about a different number, or a social / enterprise / gaming / secure identity?
  • Are there multiple networks involved/available for connection, or just one? What happens when there are multiple choices of access or transit providers? What happens where the last 10m is over WiFi or Bluetooth beyond the SP's visibility?
  • Is encryption needed? Whose?
  • What solutions are needed to meet the needs of specific vertical-markets or other user groups? (Banking, healthcare, hospitality, gaming etc)
  • What are the desired/undesired psychological effects of the communications event? How can the user interface and experience by improved?
  • Did the call meet the underlying objectives of all parties? How could a similar call be improved the next time?
  • How do we track, monetise and bill any of this?
In my view it is these - and many other - questions that determines the real value of voice communications. Codec choice and network QoS are certainly useful, as is (sometimes) interoperability. Network coverage is clearly paramount for mobile communications. But these should not be put on a pedestal, above all the other ways in which value can be derived from something seemingly simple - people speaking to each other.

I'm seeing various answers to some of these questions - for example, contact-centre solutions seem to be most advanced on some of the emotional analysis, language-detection and other aspects. There are some interesting human-driven psychology considerations being built into new codec designs like EVS (eg uncomfortable silences between words). MVNOs and cPaaS players are doing cool things to "program" telephony for different applications and devices. The notion of "hypervoice" was a good start, but hasn't had the traction it deserved (link). Machine-learning is being applied to help answer some of these questions - most obviously with Alexa/Siri/Assistant voice products, but also behind the scenes in some UC and contact-centre applications.

But we still lack any consistent recognition that voice is "more than calls". 99% of effort still seems to go on "person A calls person B for X minutes". Very little is being done around intention and purpose - ask a CSP "Why do people make phone calls?" and most can't give a list of the top-10 uses for a "minute". Most people still use "voice" and "telephony" synonymously - a sure-fire indicator they don't understand the depth of possibility here. And we still get hung up on replacing voice with video (they have a Venn overlap, but most uses are still voice-centric or video-centric).

Until both the telco and traditional enterprise solutions marketplaces expand their views of voice (and entrench that vision among employees, vendors and partners), we should continue to expect Internet- and IoT-based innovators to accelerate past the humble, 140yr-old phone call. Start asking the right questions, and look for ways to provide answers.

Monday, March 27, 2017

SaaS & UCaaS - aiming for Enterprise Eyeballs

I'm at Enterprise Connect in Orlando this week, talking to people about trends in business communications, notably UC, conferencing, cPaaS and contact centres. I'm curious to see the current real-world adoption of WebRTC, shifts around enterprise mobility/wireless, integration with VoLTE, and adjacent technologies such as SD-WAN, machine-learning and IoT integration.

One unexpected thing has become clear from Day 1: the enterprise market is following the consumer web insofar as every vendor and service provider wants to maximise share of users' attention, or "eyeballs".

While in the consumer world, this is all about advertising and data - spending hours on Facebook translates to more chances to see ads, as with TV - in the business world it's a bit different. 

Because software has license fees or XaaS subscription revenues, all the vendors want to create "platforms" in which customers' employees "spend their day", at least when they're in front of a PC or mobile device. More time potentially equates for higher per-seat fees, plus more chance for selling extra modules of software.

So a UC or UCaaS provider wants to be the hub for calls, chat, conferencing, collaboration, "enterprise social", customer interation, productivity and so forth. Cisco, Broadsoft, RingCentral, even Amazon with its new Chime app, all have pretensions to being where you spend hours a day "doing work". 

An office suite provider like Microsoft wants the same thing - you should be sending emails and doing presentations, and communicating from there. One speaker today described workers having different "jumping-off points" for setting up meetings or collaborating. One employee might have a Salesforce interaction as a trigger, others could be inside Slack or Outlook or a call-centre front-end (or various vertical-specific applications).

Obviously many jobs only have a few minutes a day in front of a screen or on a phone, but others (knowledge workers) involve hours. There's probably a big-data and machine-learning play emerging here as well, where increased eyeball-minutes can yield insights into worker productivity and process efficiency. Arguably Google scores extra points here too, if you're logged in and using Chrome for some of your work.

As far as I know there's no business-world equivalent of TV viewing-habits or web-browsing statistics. But there's certainly a rush for different vendors and XaaS providers to drive up their ratings. I expect we'll see a much broader focus on "enterprise eyeballs" through 2017 and beyond.

EDIT: A good point from a commenter on my LinkedIn, that other players here are workflow & ERP providers. A lot of people will "live" primarily in SAP, Oracle etc during their day - those could also be the hub for UC and collaboration as well. Also, for the consumer space, ComScore have just published research (link) on how people spend their "digital minutes" (ugh, horrible expression) - a business-user version would be fascinating.

Friday, March 10, 2017

No, 5G won't kill WiFi (or absorb it)

I've seen two things today that are trying to suggest that 5G (or even 4G) are going to cause problems for WiFi, or even "kill it".

Ignore them.

Firstly, this piece by Bloomberg (link) suggests that a combination of mobile operators' renewed flat-rate data plans, along with LTE-U, could render WiFi obsolete. It's one of the worst pieces of technology "journalism" I've read in ages.

Secondly a discussion on Twitter led to a 3GPP document about "New Services and Markets" from a year ago, which talks about "Mobile Broadband for Indoor Scenario" in section 5.5  (link). That seems to suggest that 4G/5G could replace office WiFi or even wired LANs.

Needless to say, both are total nonsense. There is a longstanding strain of thought among some "cellular fundamentalists" that WiFi is just a step away from being replaced by mobile operators' services. It is wishful thinking, verging on delusion. (It won't be subsumed as a mere secondary part of 5G, either - although that's a separate post).

While there are some corner-cases that might swing one way or the other, based on pricing and perhaps neutral-host cellular using LTE in unlicensed bands (perhaps in MuLTEfire guise rather than the anti-competitive LTE-U and LAA variants), those are rare exceptions.

In home, offices, and public spaces, there is essentially zero chance that owned WiFi or fixed ethernet are going to be replaced in large quantity, by 5G operators acting as LANaaS providers.

There are many reasons for this, but some of them are:
  • Billions of WiFi-only devices, from PCs and tablets, to TVs, printers and a broad array of consumer and industrial products.
  • Billions more WiFi-only devices in future (no, not everything will have a cellular module & eSIM - it's way more expensive and limiting - see my report link)
  • The ability for WiFi to operate easily in "service", "subscription", "amenity", "owned", "free", "local", "sponsored", "venue-provided", "ad-supported" and many other business models. Cellular connectivity - reliant on SIM or eSIM - generally enshrines "subscription" and a service model as the only option.
  • Ability of venue-owners to control and police WiFi network access (eg a cafe-owner or conference organiser can give the codes to their choice of user, under their conditions)
  • Use of WiFi Direct for P2P connectivity
  • Integration of WiFi in businesses with LAN and security systems
  • Preferential use of WiFi in-built to smartphone OS's and connection-management tools
  • Large % of people who are not using flat-rate mobile data plans, especially prepay users in most of the world
  • A broad view that WiFi is not only "free" but also *different* as it isn't owned / metered / tracked by a service providers. (We all recognise that amended Maslow Hierarchy of Needs picture, with WiFi scrawled as a tier beneath food & shelter)
  • Anonymity of most WiFi hotspots
  • Huge push of WiFi by cable, fixed-broadband and some WiFi-first MVNO providers, including to outdoor / metropolitan zones and being built-into 500 million or more home gateways around the world
  • Use of WiFi in public transport (buses, trains, planes) - even if backhauled by 4G and/or satellite, plus increasing use of WiFi hotspots in cars (again, linked via LTE to the network)
  • Poor penetration of cellular for deep-inbuilding use without DAS or small cell coverage, which is often impractical
  • Lower costs of infrastructure, especially given the heavy IPR load associated with 4G modems and base stations. 
  • Enterprise desire to use multiple connections for cloud/WAN access, eg via SD-WAN

I think the most risible line in the Bloomberg piece is this "Wi-Fi also helps fill in gaps in some office buildings and homes that have spotty cellphone coverage" - in many ways, it's the complete opposite of the way many users view the two technologies.

Every analysis I've seen has suggested that WiFi use is generally growing faster than cellular data consumption, and there is very little reason to expect it to change. In many ways, I'd expect WiFi - and also other unlicensed band technologies for LPWAN and IoT - to outstrip coming cellular use-cases, especially indoors but also for the wide area.

A less-virulent strain of the same bad idea is that 5G will absorb or subsume WiFi, as part of its amazing network-slicing / HetNet / integrated architecture. That's wrong too - although some cellular networks are fairly-well integrated with some WiFi, there is a very large universe that isn't, and for many of the same reasons won't be in the future either. The notion that 5G is some sort of magical wireless umbrella (or Borg) that will assimilate all others is just a "mobile industry establishment" fantasy and lobbying hook. 

One last thing I'd add - I'm seeing an increased amount of interest in the opposite to LTE-U and LAA - the idea of running WiFi in licensed bands, either with new forms of spectrum-sharing, or perhaps even with adventurous regulators looking at getting more usage out of existing spectrum. After all, if the technical work suggests that LTE-U doesn't compromise or interfere with WiFi, then the converse is true as well, especially at lower power in regions with no cellular coverage, or indoors.

Overall: Ignore any reports of WiFi's demise, or the ability of 4G/5G to replace it in the future. It's simply not going to happen, except in a couple of tiny overlaps on the big wireless Venn diagram. WiFi puts downward pricing pressure on cellular data - it's probably part of the reason for the return of flatrate data in the first place. It's also a prime example of "network diversity" which would be worthy of protection against creeping "network monoculture" even if it wasn't already guaranteed a healthy future.

If you're interested in the dynamics of 4G, 5G, WiFi, network diversity & spectrum policy, please get in touch with me. I advise operators, vendors, regulators & investors. I'll also be speaking at the WiFi Now conference in Washington DC in April 2017 (link).

Monday, February 27, 2017

Quick thoughts on MWC from afar

I'm not in Barcelona this week.

I stopped going to MWC a few years ago, when the hassle and costs involved started outweighing the benefits. One year I had 400 requests for meetings, and it took me a solid 2 weeks of email just to sort my diary. No more - I prefer smaller events, which have the added benefit of fewer "messages" being hammered into my skull by stressed marketing execs and their PR/AR minders.

But I am watching from afar, scanning Twitter and a few webcasts for nuggets of insight, from the comfort of my sofa, bed or local artisan coffee place.

A couple of quick observations so far:
  • The most intriguing announcement is the Cisco/Ericsson blending of VoLTE and Cisco's Spark collaboration and messaging app (link). Although the PR is carrier-focused and around selling UCaaS, I suspect the real story is yet to come. Both companies also have close relationships with Apple and IBM. And I suspect that a future enterprise-centric solution could combine private (or virtual-private) mobile networks, optimised iPhone/iPad experience, maybe eSIM, Siri, Watson integration and more. Let's see if there's any different messaging, or more detail, at Enterprise Connect next month, the big UC/UCaaS shindig in Orlando. I'll be there, unlike MWC, as it gets the signal/noise ratio right. [Sidenote: if anyone at Ericsson or Cisco is now thinking "hmm, sounds interesting.... why haven't we thought of that?" then get in touch with me!]
  • Nokia's reinvention continues. On its analyst/press webcast yesterday, it made a big deal about verticals and enterprise-related activities too. Utilities, transport, public sector and "webscale" companies were namechecked, including (again) private cellular either standalone or in partnership with classical MNOs. It also highlighted optical and IP networks (which came with the ALU acquisition) which was an interesting choice for a mobile event. Props to CEO Rajeev Suri for using "Webscale" instead of the pejorative "OTT": much more mature and inclusive language. 
  • There's an awful of of 5G-washing going on, unsurprisingly, with plenty of references to its supposedly world-changing abilities. Governments and policymakers have all swallowed the 5G spin, without realising it's mostly just a pitch for more spectrum. Yet the GSMA head Mats Granryd talked in his keynote about 1.1 billion users in 2025. Given half of those (or more) are likely to be smartphones, that suggests that maybe 500m, at most, will be 5G IoT devices. Which, depending on your preferred overhyped forecast number, implies about 1-4% of the total IoT universe in 2025 - hardly the most indispensable enabler of the overall automated society of the future, nor an indicator that a spectrum monoculture policy is desirable. Doesn't suggest billions in new value from network-slicing capabilities, either. In a nutshell, 5G is important, but it's not the gamechanger many assert. Use the hashtag #5Gwash to call people out on it.
  • The most-discussed new handset is HMD Global's new take on the classic Nokia 3310. As well as its retro looks, it sports a month-long battery, the Snake game, and a whole two (count 'em!) generations of cellular technology. That's right, it's a good-ole 2G GSM, calls+SMS device. Plus, it comes in a dual-SIM version. That's proper plastic SIMs, naturally, not this newfangled eSIM stuff. Sounds like a great backup device for 2-factor authentication when your main phone breaks or gets stolen.  
  • GSMA published an eBook on "Messaging as a Platform" (link), tying its MaaP vision to RCS. There's a lot of generic stuff about chatbots, AI and "conversational commerce" in there, without explaining how it relates to a useless messaging service which isn't even a successful product, nor has any form of unifed API. Unless, as I suspect, it's aimed at making MNOs the distribution channel for Google's chat interface, Assistant and voice-recognition tools. Maybe there's a Google API / PaaS play to look forward to?  As I wrote last week, operators should ignore RCS and So-Called Advanced Messaging (yes, I like the acronym) and do more-relevant things instead. The same applies to contact-centre and multi-channel vendors: there are plenty of more-urgent things to look at. The GSMA's continued use of a Twitter SnapChat avatar points to the fact that platform status is earned not just imposed.
  • The "official" announcement that Deutsche Telekom's immmr VoIP/messaging spin-off is using GenBand's Kandy cPaaS is interesting (link), although it was talked about informally last year at TADSummit (link). Looks like it's Internet/WebRTC-based and very much a good example of "post-IMS" mobile communications, with iOS and Android apps as well as browser access. No RCS nonsense visible, although I can imagine that DT's network-fundamentalist wing might have something to say about in future.
More MWC de-spinning if I get a chance over the next couple of days.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

A Core Problem for Telcos: One Network, or Many?

In my view the central question - maybe an existential dilemma - facing the telecoms industry is this:

Is it better to have one integrated, centrally-managed and feature-rich network, or several less feature-rich ones, operated independently?

Most of the telecoms "establishment" - operators, large vendors, billing/OSS suppliers, industry bodies - tends to prefer the first option. So we get notions of networks with differentiated QoS levels, embedding applications in-network with NFV and mobile edge computing (MEC) and perhaps "slicing" future 5G networks, with external customer groups or applications becoming virtual operators. There is an assumption that all the various standards are tightly coupled - radio, core network, so-called "telco cloud", IMS and so on. Everything is provided as a "network function" or "network service" in integrated fashion, and monetised by a single CSP.

It's not just the old guard either. New "non-establishment" approaches to managing quality also appear, such as my colleague Martin Geddes' views on clever and deterministic contention-management mechanisms (link). That takes a fresh look at statistical multiplexing.

Yet users, device vendors and cloud/Internet application providers often prefer a different approach. Using multiple network connections, either concurrently or being able to switch between them easily, is seen to help reduce costs, improve coverage and spread risks better. I've written before about using independent connections to create "Quasi-QoS" (link), especially in fixed networks with SD-WAN. In mobile, hundreds of millions of users have multi-SIM handsets, while (especially in IoT) we see multi-IMSI SIM cards that can be combined with roaming deals to give access to all mobile networks in a given country, or optimise for costs/performance in other ways. Google's Fi service famously combines multiple MVNO deals, as well as WiFi. Others are looking to blend LPWAN with cellular, or satellite and so on. The incremental cost of adding another connection (especially wireless) is getting ever lower. At the other end of the spectrum, data centres will often want redundant fibre connections from different providers, to offset the risk of a digger cutting a duct, as well as the ability to arbitrage on pricing or performance.

I have spoken to "connected car" specialists who want their vehicles to have access not just to (multiple) cellular networks, but also satellite, WiFi in some locations - and also work OK in offline mode as well. Many software developers create apps which are "network aware", with connectivity preferences and fallbacks. We can expect future AI-based systems to be much smarter as well - perhaps your car will know that your regular route to work has 10 miles of poor 4G coverage, so it learns to pre-cache data, or uses a temporary secondary cellular link from a different provider.

There are some middle grounds as well. Technologies such as MIMO in wireless networks give "managed multiplicity", using bouncing radio signals and multiple antennas. Plenty of operators offer 4G backups for fixed connections, or integrate WiFi into their same core infrastructure. The question then is whether the convergence occurs in the network, or perhaps just in the billing system. Is there a single point of control (or failure)?

The problem for the industry is this: multi-network users want all the other features of the network (security, identity, applications etc) to work irrespective of their connection. Smartphone users want to be able to use WiFi wherever they are, and get access to the same cloud services - not just the ones delivered by their "official" network operator. They also want to be able to switch provider and keep access - the exact opposite of the type of "lock-in" that many in the telecoms industry would prefer. Google Fi does this, as it can act as an intermediary platform. That's also true for various international MVNO/MNO operators like Truphone.

A similar problem occurs at an application level: can operators push customers to be loyal to a single network-resident service such as telephony, SMS or (cough) RCS? Or are alternative forces pushing customers to choose multiple different services, either functionally-identical or more distant substitutes? It's pretty clear that the low marginal cost of adding another VoIP or IM or social network cost outweighs the benefits of having one "service to rule them all", no matter how smart it is. In this case, it's not just redundancy and arbitrage, but the ability to choose fine-grained features and user-experience elements.

In the past, the trump card for the mono-network approach has been QoS and guarantees. But ironically, the shift to mobile usage has reduced the potential here - operators cannot really guarantee QoS on wireless networks, as they are not in control of local interference, mobility or propagation risks. You couldn't imagine an SLA that guaranteed network connection quality, or application performance - just as long as it wasn't raining, or there wasn't a crowd of people outside your house. 

In other words, the overall balance is shifting towards multiplicity of networks. This tends to pain many engineers, as it means networks will (often) be less-deterministic as they are (effectively) inverse-multiplexed. Rather than one network being shared between many users/applications, we will see one user/device sharing many networks. 

While there will still be many use-cases for well-managed networks - even if users ultimately combine several of them - this means that future developments around NFV and network-slicing need to be realistic, rather than utopian. Your "slice" or QoS-managed network may only be used a % of them time, rather than exclusively. It's also likely that your "customer" will be an AI or smart application, rather than an end-user susceptible to being offered loyalty incentives. That has significant implications for pricing and value-chain - for example, meaning that aggregators and brokers will become much more important in future.

My view is that there are various options open to operators to mitigate the risks. But they need to be realistic and assume that a good % of their customers will, inevitably, be "promiscuous". They need to think more about competing for a larger share of a user's/device's connectivity, and less about loading up each connection with lots of QoS machinery which adds cost rather than agility. Nobody will pay for QoS (or a dedicated slice) only 70% of the time. Some users will be happy with a mono-connection option. But those need to be identified and specifically-relevant solutions developed accordingly. Hoping that software-defined arbitrage and multi-connection devices simply disappear is wishful (and harmful) thinking. Machiavellian approaches to stopping multi-connection won't work either - forget about switching off WiFi remotely, or connecting to a different network than the one the user prefer.

This is one of the megatrends and disruptions I often discuss in workshops with telco and vendor clients. If you would like to arrange a private Telecoms Strategic Disruptions session or custom advisory project, please get in touch with me via information AT disruptive-analysis DOT com.