5G: Bridging hype, reality and future promises

The 5G situation seems paradoxical

People in China and South Korea are buying 5G phones by the million, far more than initially expected, yet many western telcos are moving cautiously. Will your company also find demand? What’s the smart strategy while uncertainty remains? What actions are needed to lead in the 5G era? What questions must be answered?

New data requires new thinking. STL Partners 5G strategies: Lessons from the early movers presented the situation in late 2019, and in What will make or break 5G growth? we outlined the key drivers and inhibitors for 5G growth. This follow on report addresses what needs to happen next.

The report is informed by talks with executives of over three dozen companies and email contacts with many more, including 21 of the first 24 telcos who have deployed. This report covers considerations for the next three years (2020–2023) based on what we know today.

“Seize the 5G opportunity” says Ke Ruiwen, Chairman, China Telecom, and Chinese reports claimed 14 million sales by the end of 2019. Korea announced two million subscribers in July 2019 and by December 2019 approached five million. By early 2020, The Korean carriers were confident 30% of the market will be using 5G by the end of 2020. In the US, Verizon is selling 5G phones even in areas without 5G services,  With nine phone makers looking for market share, the price in China is US$285–$500 and falling, so the handset price barrier seems to be coming down fast.

Yet in many other markets, operators progress is significantly more tentative. So what is going on, and what should you do about it?

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5G technology works OK

22 of the first 24 operators to deploy are using mid-band radio frequencies.

Vodafone UK claims “5G will work at average speeds of 150–200 Mbps.” Speeds are typically 100 to 500 Mbps, rarely a gigabit. Latency is about 30 milliseconds, only about a third better than decent 4G. Mid-band reach is excellent. Sprint has demonstrated that simply upgrading existing base stations can provide substantial coverage.

5G has a draft business case now: people want to buy 5G phones. New use cases are mostly years away but the prospect of better mobile broadband is winning customers. The costs of radios, backhaul, and core are falling as five system vendors – Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, and ZTE – fight for market share. They’ve shipped over 600,000 radios. Many newcomers are gaining traction, for example Altiostar won a large contract from Rakuten and Mavenir is in trials with DT.

The high cost of 5G networks is an outdated myth. DT, Orange, Verizon, and AT&T are building 5G while cutting or keeping capex flat. Sprint’s results suggest a smart build can quickly reach half the country without a large increase in capital spending. Instead, the issue for operators is that it requires new spending with uncertain returns.

The technology works, mostly. Mid-band is performing as expected, with typical speeds of 100–500Mbps outdoors, though indoor performance is less clear yet. mmWave indoor is badly degraded. Some SDN, NFV, and other tools for automation have reached the field. However, 5G upstream is in limited use. Many carriers are combining 5G downstream with 4G upstream for now. However, each base station currently requires much more power than 4G bases, which leads to high opex. Dynamic spectrum sharing, which allows 5G to share unneeded 4G spectrum, is still in test. Many features of SDN and NFV are not yet ready.

So what should companies do? The next sections review go-to-market lessons, status on forward-looking applications, and technical considerations.

Early go-to-market lessons

Don’t oversell 5G

The continuing publicity for 5G is proving powerful, but variable. Because some customers are already convinced they want 5G, marketing and advertising do not always need to emphasise the value of 5G. For those customers, make clear why your company’s offering is the best compared to rivals’. However, the draw of 5G is not universal. Many remain sceptical, especially if their past experience with 4G has been lacklustre. They – and also a minority swayed by alarmist anti-5G rhetoric – will need far more nuanced and persuasive marketing.

Operators should be wary of overclaiming. 5G speed, although impressive, currently has few practical applications that don’t already work well over decent 4G. Fixed home broadband is a possible exception here. As the objective advantages of 5G in the near future are likely to be limited, operators should not hype features that are unrealistic today, no matter how glamorous. If you don’t have concrete selling propositions, do image advertising or use happy customer testimonials.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • 5G technology works OK
  • Early go-to-market lessons
    • Don’t oversell 5G
    • Price to match the experience
    • Deliver a valuable product
    • Concerns about new competition
    • Prepare for possible demand increases
    • The interdependencies of edge and 5G
  • Potential new applications
    • Large now and likely to grow in the 5G era
    • Near-term applications with possible major impact for 5G
    • Mid- and long-term 5G demand drivers
  • Technology choices, in summary
    • Backhaul and transport networks
    • When will 5G SA cores be needed (or available)?
    • 5G security? Nothing is perfect
    • Telco cloud: NFV, SDN, cloud native cores, and beyond
    • AI and automation in 5G
    • Power and heat

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What will make or break 5G growth?

5G is a long way from delivering on the hype

This report is a crib sheet outlining the 18 factors that STL Partners believes will have a significant impact on the development of the 5G market. We put forward our core assumption on how we expect each factor to affect the 5G market, and highlight the upside and downside risks to our assumption.

The purpose of the report is to pull together knowledge from across different areas – networks, enterprise services, consumer services, regulatory and commercial environments – to give a holistic view of what we think will influence 5G development. Although everyone in the industry has an eye on how 5G is developing, often this is from a relatively narrow view of the market. But the reality is that over the long term, 5G will not be just another G, but an amalgamation of many emerging and maturing network technologies, increasingly bespoke and fragmented enterprise and consumer demands, with high government expectations for contributions to economic growth. So to understand how quickly or slowly 5G will deliver on these promises, operators, vendors, customers and governments need to consider how a wide range of factors are playing out in their countries. By benchmarking their progress against our core assumptions, upside risks and downside risks, industry players can make a well-rounded assessment of whether they are ahead or behind in 5G development and identify ways to drive the market forward.

This report builds on STL’s extensive coverage of 5G and other enabling technologies:

Key factors influencing 5G development

We have organised the factors affecting 5G development into three categories:

  1. Primary drivers: We believe these will have the greatest impact on 5G development, owing to their influence over the cost and ease of deploying network infrastructure and services, and accessibility and value of 5G connectivity to end-users.
  2. Secondary drivers: These factors have a less direct impact on the 5G market development, especially over the short term, or will only influence a specific part of the market, such as fixed wireless access. However, in some instances telcos have more control over secondary factors than the primary ones, so depending on their strategies, secondary factors could have a disproportionate impact on 5G market development.
  3. Wildcards: These are factors which are less likely or predictable, but that if they do occur would have a decisive impact on how the 5G market (and wider telecoms industry) evolves.

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The 5G-aliser

Over the coming quarters, we will use these 5G factors as a means of measuring progress. The diagram below shows the inaugural 5G-aliser. The top row shows the supply and demand levels for 5G, the middle row shows the absolute level impact of each driver on 5G development, i.e. how important each driver is to 5G growth right now , and the bottom row shows the relative position of each driver. While our intention was to start all drivers at the same relative level, reflecting our core assumption as of March 2020, given the rapid escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have dropped this driver into the red already as we expect telcos’ first priority during the crisis to be on keeping their current operations running smoothly.

The 5G-aliser, March 2020

STL 5G-a-liser March 2020

Source: STL Partners

On a quarterly basis we will monitor the development of the 5G market and update the markers for each driver to reflect the emergence of upside or downside risks, and rising or falling importance of different growth drivers. Evidently, some factors are dependent on local market conditions, so we will also evaluate the drivers on a market by market basis, when important local developments occur.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Key takeaways
    • The 5G-aliser
  • Introduction
  • Key factors influencing 5G development
    • Primary drivers
    • Secondary factors
    • Wildcards
  • Conclusions

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The 5G core and NFV: Different sides of the same coin?

The 5G core is an instance of standardised, operationalised NFV

The 5G mobile core network as defined by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards body, along with the other network functions specific to 5G mobile networks (e.g. the Radio Access Network, or RAN), is intended to be ‘fully’ virtualised.

There are four main reasons for this, as set out below. The first two in the list relate more particularly to what we describe in this report as Phase 1 of the NFV project, as well as to the so-called Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G core. The last two reasons are dependent on capabilities being introduced as part of Phase 2 NFV and the Standalone (SA) mobile core:

  1. Scalability: to enable the capacity of the mobile core – particularly that of the data plane – to be scaled up flexibly and dynamically to support rapidly growing data volumes, both for existing 4G services and especially the much higher volumes expected with 5G.
  2. Cost: the replacement of dedicated hardware appliances supporting network functions by Virtual Machines (VMs) – and other modes of Virtualised Network Function (VNF), such as micro-services and containers – running over COTS hardware in theory enables that scaling of capacity to be carried out much more cost-efficiently.
  3. Latency: virtualisation, along with separation of the control and user plane within the core, allows that dynamically scalable data-plane capacity to be brought physically closer to the end user and application. This is important in the case of latency-critical services.
  4. Network slicing: to enable dynamic, automated network-slicing capabilities, which depend on being able to spin up end-to-end virtual networks – including the core – on demand, based on the variable networking requirements of individual clients and use cases.

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There are serious questions as to whether the first two objectives in the above list have yet been adequately achieved, even in the context of 4G core (Evolved Packet Core: EPC) virtualisation let alone the context of the NSA 5G core (5GC). And in respect of the last two items in the list, there are many outstanding questions regarding the eventual technical and commercial models that will be adopted to support low-latency services from the network edge, and about the business models for network slicing in all its possible forms.Nonetheless, in the 3GPP 5G core, the industry has at least – and at last – reached agreement on a set of NFV standards, and has begun deploying and operating them as commercial 5G networks are rolled out. This is in stark contrast to the broader NFV project, where alignment around a set of industry-wide standards has proved elusive, although some momentum has built up around open-source programmes such as the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) and the Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) in the past year or two.

The 5G networks that have been launched to date – which have all been done on the basis of the NSA core – are therefore an example of operationalised and standardised NFV that is finally delivering, albeit with the caveats expressed above.

3GPP has specified two 5G core standards: Non-standalone (NSA) and Standalone (SA)

In brief, 3GPP – and the many operators and vendors that have contributed to its work – have agreed on two 5GC standards. The first of these, the Non-Standalone (NSA) core (agreed as part of Release 15 of the standards, in December 2017), essentially involves using a virtualised and more ‘cloud-native’ version of the existing 4G core (or EPC) to support 5G New Radio (NR) wireless transmission in tandem with existing LTE services. This is illustrated in Figure 2 below:

NSA core and dual-mode LTE/5G NR operation

NSA Core and dual-mode LTE / 5G NR operation

Source: 3GPP

The purpose of the NSA core is to help facilitate a smooth and rapid introduction of 5G services by enabling telcos to reuse their existing virtual EPCs to support 5G NR, which in any case will be provided as a dual-band service – in combination with 4G, 3G and even 2G – for several years while 5G coverage is being built up.

The second of the 3GPP 5GC standards – the Standalone (SA) core – was first agreed in June 2018, also as part of Release 15. However, a further iteration of the SA specification is expected with Release 16, due in March 2020; and there may be further iterations in Release 17. As the name suggests, this is a completely new, 5G-only core. It has a simplified, ‘cloud-native’ and distributed architecture, and is designed to support services and functions such as network slicing, Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLLC) and enhanced Machine-Type Communications (eMTC, i.e. massive IoT).

Non-standalone 5G core basic architecture 

Non-standalone 5G core basic architecture

Source: 3GPP, STL Partners annotations in red

One major innovation compared with the 4G EPC is the decomposition of the Mobility Management Entity (MME) into two component parts: the Session Management Function (SMF) and the Access Management Function (AMF). This allows for optimisation of each of those functions to support increasingly complex use cases involving low-latency transmission of data, to and from multiple device types, across multiple network domains.

Each of the macro-level network functions illustrated in the above diagram are themselves composed of multiple ‘micro-services’ (smaller segments of software-based functionality) as part of the 5G core’s ‘cloud-native’ character. There are many formal, technical definitions of what ‘cloud-native’ means; but for our purposes, we take this term to mean that the software components forming part of a network function are disaggregated: broken up into loosely coupled ‘micro-services’ – containerised or otherwise – that are able in theory to be deployed, separately scaled and upgraded, orchestrated, and managed in innumerable permutations, configurations and distributions to support the demands of different use cases.

This means that not only the macro-level functions illustrated in the above diagram, but also the underlying micro-services, can in theory be adapted, recombined or exchanged with comparable micro-services from other vendors, to support the data-processing, security or mobility requirements of different use cases – although in the 3GPP standards, this can happen only within certain parameters in order not to compromise the integrity of specified services such as URLLC or eMTC.

The 5G core standards are designed for the ‘core’ telco business

The 3GPP standardisation effort has been driven by the desire to define and assure 5G network functionality, especially those aspects that relate to the ‘core’ telco business: connectivity. This is connectivity:

  • either as a service in its own right, e.g.
    • IP-based voice communications (as enabled by micro-services carrying forward the functionality of the current IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) in 3G and 4G networks), and
    • Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB: the much higher-speed broadband services of 5G compared with 4G).

These are classic, core telco services of the first and second ‘ages’ of telecoms (the Communications Age and Information Age respectively), as described in a recent STL Partners report

  • or as the delivery mechanism for services created and monetised by others, e.g.
    • URLLC-dependent content services such as AR / VR, or
    • URLLC- and eMTC-dependent IoT / process optimisation services.

These IoT / process-optimisation use cases represent services of the ‘third’ telco age (the Coordination Age), while digital content-rich services such as AR and VR can be viewed as advanced Information Age services.

In other words, the 5G core standards embody and perpetuate the view that the core (fundamental) telco business is providing standardised, commoditised, universally available and accessible connectivity services and platforms, over which predominantly third parties – as opposed to telcos themselves – develop and deliver useful and entertaining, value-generating, digital and coordination services. The 5G standards are for standard telcos – but we believe the potential of 5G for telcos can eventually be much more.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • The 5G core is an instance of standardised, operationalised NFV
    • 3GPP has specified two 5G core standards: Non-standalone (NSA) and Standalone (SA)
    • The 5G core standards are designed for the ‘core’ telco business
    • The 5G core standards are also defined with vendors’ interests very much to the fore
    • But the 5G core standards are in some respects inconsistent with the goals, status and methodology of the broader NFV project
    • Rakuten Mobile: The tension between cloud-nativity and operational NFV pragmatism
  • Rakuten Mobile: A case of (not quite yet) operational NFV – but not as virtualised and cloud-native as claimed
    • Is Rakuten’s network truly cloud-native, multi-vendor and fully virtualised?
    • The Rakuten Cloud Platform is a medium-term, pragmatic compromise – but not a long-term blueprint
  • An alternative, NFV-driven approach to 5G: What, how and when?
    • Alternative thinking: Telco-specific cores for new services and use cases
    • Telcos must adopt a ‘third age’ approach to 5G, not a ‘first age’ one
  • Conclusion: 5G and NFV – head and tail of the same coin?

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Mobile Broadband 2.0: The Top Disruptive Innovations

Summary: Key trends, tactics, and technologies for mobile broadband networks and services that will influence mid-term revenue opportunities, cost structures and competitive threats. Includes consideration of LTE, network sharing, WiFi, next-gen IP (EPC), small cells, CDNs, policy control, business model enablers and more.(March 2012, Executive Briefing Service, Future of the Networks Stream).

Trends in European data usage

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Below is an extract from this 44 page Telco 2.0 Report that can be downloaded in full in PDF format by members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing service and Future Networks Stream here. Non-members can subscribe here, buy a Single User license for this report online here for £795 (+VAT for UK buyers), or for multi-user licenses or other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003. We’ll also be discussing our findings and more on Facebook at the Silicon Valley (27-28 March) and London (12-13 June) New Digital Economics Brainstorms.

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Introduction

Telco 2.0 has previously published a wide variety of documents and blog posts on mobile broadband topics – content delivery networks (CDNs), mobile CDNs, WiFi offloading, Public WiFi, network outsourcing (“‘Under-The-Floor’ (UTF) Players: threat or opportunity? ”) and so forth. Our conferences have featured speakers and panellists discussing operator data-plan pricing strategies, tablets, network policy and numerous other angles. We’ve also featured guest material such as Arete Research’s report LTE: Late, Tempting, and Elusive.

In our recent ‘Under the Floor (UTF) Players‘ Briefing we looked at strategies to deal with some of of the challenges facing operators’ resulting from market structure and outsourcing

Under The Floor (UTF) Players Telco 2.0

This Executive Briefing is intended to complement and extend those efforts, looking specifically at those technical and business trends which are truly “disruptive”, either immediately or in the medium-term future. In essence, the document can be thought of as a checklist for strategists – pointing out key technologies or trends around mobile broadband networks and services that will influence mid-term revenue opportunities and threats. Some of those checklist items are relatively well-known, others more obscure but nonetheless important. What this document doesn’t cover is more straightforward concepts around pricing, customer service, segmentation and so forth – all important to get right, but rarely disruptive in nature.

During 2012, Telco 2.0 will be rolling out a new MBB workshop concept, which will audit operators’ existing technology strategy and planning around mobile data services and infrastructure. This briefing document is a roundup of some of the critical issues we will be advising on, as well as our top-level thinking on the importance of each trend.

It starts by discussing some of the issues which determine the extent of any disruption:

  • Growth in mobile data usage – and whether the much-vaunted “tsunami” of traffic may be slowing down
  • The role of standardisation , and whether it is a facilitator or inhibitor of disruption
  • Whether the most important MBB disruptions are likely to be telco-driven, or will stem from other actors such as device suppliers, IT companies or Internet firms.

The report then drills into a few particular domains where technology is evolving, looking at some of the most interesting and far-reaching trends and innovations. These are split broadly between:

  • Network infrastructure evolution (radio and core)
  • Control and policy functions, and business-model enablers

It is not feasible for us to cover all these areas in huge depth in a briefing paper such as this. Some areas such as CDNs and LTE have already been subject to other Telco 2.0 analysis, and this will be linked to where appropriate. Instead, we have drilled down into certain aspects we feel are especially interesting, particularly where these are outside the mainstream of industry awareness and thinking – and tried to map technical evolution paths onto potential business model opportunities and threats.

This report cannot be truly exhaustive – it doesn’t look at the nitty-gritty of silicon components, or antenna design, for example. It also treads a fine line between technological accuracy and ease-of-understanding for the knowledgeable but business-focused reader. For more detail or clarification on any area, please get in touch with us – email mailto:contact@stlpartners.com or call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

Telco-driven disruption vs. external trends

There are various potential sources of disruption for the mobile broadband marketplace:

  • New technologies and business models implemented by telcos, which increase revenues, decrease costs, improve performance or alter the competitive dynamics between service providers.
  • 3rd party developments that can either bolster or undermine the operators’ broadband strategies. This includes both direct MBB innovations (new uses of WiFi, for example), or bleed-over from adjacent related marketplaces such as device creation or content/application provision.
  • External, non-technology effects such as changing regulation, economic backdrop or consumer behaviour.

The majority of this report covers “official” telco-centric innovations – LTE networks, new forms of policy control and so on,

External disruptions to monitor

But the most dangerous form of innovation is that from third parties, which can undermine assumptions about the ways mobile broadband can be used, introducing new mechanisms for arbitrage, or somehow subvert operators’ pricing plans or network controls. 

In the voice communications world, there are often regulations in place to protect service providers – such as banning the use of “SIM boxes” to terminate calls and reduce interconnection payments. But in the data environment, it is far less obvious that many work-arounds can either be seen as illegal, or even outside the scope of fair-usage conditions. That said, we have already seen some attempts by telcos to manage these effects – such as charging extra for “tethering” on smartphones.

It is not really possible to predict all possible disruptions of this type – such is the nature of innovation. But by describing a few examples, market participants can gauge their level of awareness, as well as gain motivation for ongoing “scanning” of new developments.

Some of the areas being followed by Telco 2.0 include:

  • Connection-sharing. This is where users might link devices together locally, perhaps through WiFi or Bluetooth, and share multiple cellular data connections. This is essentially “multi-tethering” – for example, 3 smartphones discovering each other nearby, perhaps each with a different 3G/4G provider, and pooling their connections together for shared use. From the user’s point of view it could improve effective coverage and maximum/average throughput speed. But from the operators’ view it would break the link between user identity and subscription, and essentially offload traffic from poor-quality networks on to better ones.
  • SoftSIM or SIM-free wireless. Over the last five years, various attempts have been made to decouple mobile data connections from SIM-based authentication. In some ways this is not new – WiFi doesn’t need a SIM, while it’s optional for WiMAX, and CDMA devices have typically been “hard-coded” to just register on a specific operator network. But the GSM/UMTS/LTE world has always relied on subscriber identification through a physical card. At one level, it s very good – SIMs are distributed easily and have enabled a successful prepay ecosystem to evolve. They provide operator control points and the ability to host secure applications on the card itself. However, the need to obtain a physical card restricts business models, especially for transient/temporary use such as a “one day pass”. But the most dangerous potential change is a move to a “soft” SIM, embedded in the device software stack. Companies such as Apple have long dreamed of acting as a virtual network provider, brokering between user and multiple networks. There is even a patent for encouraging bidding per-call (or perhaps per data-connection) with telcos competing head to head on price/quality grounds. Telco 2.0 views this type of least-cost routing as a major potential risk for operators, especially for mobile data – although it also possible enables some new business models that have been difficult to achieve in the past.
  • Encryption. Various of the new business models and technology deployment intentions of operators, vendors and standards bodies are predicated on analysing data flows. Deep packet inspection (DPI) is expected to be used to identify applications or traffic types, enabling differential treatment in the network, or different charging models to be employed. Yet this is rendered largely useless (or at least severely limited) when various types of encryption are used. Various content and application types already secure data in this way – content DRM, BlackBerry traffic, corporate VPN connections and so on. But increasingly, we will see major Internet companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft using such techniques both for their own users’ security, but also because it hides precise indicators of usage from the network operators. If a future Android phone sends all its mobile data back via a VPN tunnel and breaks it out in Mountain View, California, operators will be unable to discern YouTube video from search of VoIP traffic. This is one of the reasons why application-based charging models – one- or two-sided – are difficult to implement.
  • Application evolution speed. One of the largest challenges for operators is the pace of change of mobile applications. The growing penetration of smartphones, appstores and ease of “viral” adoption of new services causes a fundamental problem – applications emerge and evolve on a month-by-month or even week-by-week basis. This is faster than any realistic internal telco processes for developing new pricing plans, or changing network policies. Worse, the nature of “applications” is itself changing, with the advent of HTML5 web-apps, and the ability to “mash up” multiple functions in one app “wrapper”. Is a YouTube video shared and embedded in a Facebook page a “video service”, or “social networking”?

It is also really important to recognise that certain procedures and technologies used in policy and traffic management will likely have some unanticipated side-effects. Users, devices and applications are likely to respond to controls that limit their actions, while other developments may result in “emergent behaviours” spontaneously. For instance, there is a risk that too-strict data caps might change usage models for smartphones and make users just connect to the network when absolutely necessary. This is likely to be at the same times and places when other users also feel it necessary, with the unfortunate implication that peaks of usage get “spikier” rather than being ironed-out.

There is no easy answer to addressing these type of external threats. Operator strategists and planners simply need to keep watch on emerging trends, and perhaps stress-test their assumptions and forecasts with market observers who keep tabs on such developments.

The mobile data explosion… or maybe not?

It is an undisputed fact that mobile data is growing exponentially around the world. Or is it?

A J-curve or an S-curve?

Telco 2.0 certainly thinks that growth in data usage is occurring, but is starting to see signs that the smooth curves that drive so many other decisions might not be so smooth – or so steep – after all. If this proves to be the case, it could be far more disruptive to operators and vendors than any of the individual technologies discussed later in the report. If operator strategists are not at least scenario-planning for lower data growth rates, they may find themselves in a very uncomfortable position in a year’s time.

In its most recent study of mobile operators’ traffic patterns, Ericsson concluded that Q2 2011 data growth was just 8% globally, quarter-on-quarter, a far cry from the 20%+ growths seen previously, and leaving a chart that looks distinctly like the beginning of an S-curve rather than a continued “hockey stick”. Given that the 8% includes a sizeable contribution from undoubted high-growth developing markets like China, it suggests that other markets are maturing quickly. (We are rather sceptical of Ericsson’s suggestion of seasonality in the data). Other data points come from O2 in the UK , which appears to have had essentially zero traffic growth for the past few quarters, or Vodafone which now cites European data traffic to be growing more slowly (19% year-on-year) than its data revenues (21%). Our view is that current global growth is c.60-70%, c.40% in mature markets and 100%+ in developing markets.

Figure 1 – Trends in European data usage

 Trends in European Data Usage
 

Now it is possible that various one-off factors are at play here – the shift from unlimited to tiered pricing plans, the stronger enforcement of “fair-use” plans and the removal of particularly egregious heavy users. Certainly, other operators are still reporting strong growth in traffic levels. We may see resumption in growth, for example if cellular-connected tablets start to be used widely for streaming video. 

But we should also consider the potential market disruption, if the picture is less straightforward than the famous exponential charts. Even if the chart looks like a 2-stage S, or a “kinked” exponential, the gap may have implications, like a short recession in the economy. Many of the technical and business model innovations in recent years have been responses to the expected continual upward spiral of demand – either controlling users’ access to network resources, pricing it more highly and with greater granularity, or building out extra capacity at a lower price. Even leaving aside the fact that raw, aggregated “traffic” levels are a poor indicator of cost or congestion, any interruption or slow-down of the growth will invalidate a lot of assumptions and plans.

Our view is that the scary forecasts of “explosions” and “tsunamis” have led virtually all parts of the industry to create solutions to the problem. We can probably list more than 20 approaches, most of them standalone “silos”.

Figure 2 – A plethora of mobile data traffic management solutions

A Plethora of Mobile Data Traffic Management Solutions

What seems to have happened is that at least 10 of those approaches have worked – caps/tiers, video optimisation, WiFi offload, network densification and optimisation, collaboration with application firms to create “network-friendly” software and so forth. Taken collectively, there is actually a risk that they have worked “too well”, to the extent that some previous forecasts have turned into “self-denying prophesies”.

There is also another common forecasting problem occurring – the assumption that later adopters of a technology will have similar behaviour to earlier users. In many markets we are now reaching 30-50% smartphone penetration. That means that all the most enthusiastic users are already connected, and we’re left with those that are (largely) ambivalent and probably quite light users of data. That will bring the averages down, even if each individual user is still increasing their consumption over time. But even that assumption may be flawed, as caps have made people concentrate much more on their usage, offloading to WiFi and restricting their data flows. There is also some evidence that the growing numbers of free WiFi points is also reducing laptop use of mobile data, which accounts for 70-80% of the total in some markets, while the much-hyped shift to tablets isn’t driving much extra mobile data as most are WiFi-only.

So has the industry over-reacted to the threat of a “capacity crunch”? What might be the implications?

The problem is that focusing on a single, narrow metric “GB of data across the network” ignores some important nuances and finer detail. From an economics standpoint, network costs tend to be driven by two main criteria:

  • Network coverage in terms of area or population
  • Network capacity at the busiest places/times

Coverage is (generally) therefore driven by factors other than data traffic volumes. Many cells have to be built and run anyway, irrespective of whether there’s actually much load – the operators all want to claim good footprints and may be subject to regulatory rollout requirements. Peak capacity in the most popular locations, however, is a different matter. That is where issues such as spectrum availability, cell site locations and the latest high-speed networks become much more important – and hence costs do indeed rise. However, it is far from obvious that the problems at those “busy hours” are always caused by “data hogs” rather than sheer numbers of people each using a small amount of data. (There is also another issue around signalling traffic, discussed later). 

Yes, there is a generally positive correlation between network-wide volume growth and costs, but it is far from perfect, and certainly not a direct causal relationship.

So let’s hypothesise briefly about what might occur if data traffic growth does tail off, at least in mature markets.

  • Delays to LTE rollout – if 3G networks are filling up less quickly than expected, the urgency of 4G deployment is reduced.
  • The focus of policy and pricing for mobile data may switch back to encouraging use rather than discouraging/controlling it. Capacity utilisation may become an important metric, given the high fixed costs and low marginal ones. Expect more loyalty-type schemes, plus various methods to drive more usage in quiet cells or off-peak times.
  • Regulators may start to take different views of traffic management or predicted spectrum requirements.
  • Prices for mobile data might start to fall again, after a period where we have seen them rise. Some operators might be tempted back to unlimited plans, for example if they offer “unlimited off-peak” or similar options.
  • Many of the more complex and commercially-risky approaches to tariffing mobile data might be deprioritised. For example, application-specific pricing involving packet-inspection and filtering might get pushed back down the agenda.
  • In some cases, we may even end up with overcapacity on cellular data networks – not to the degree we saw in fibre in 2001-2004, but there might still be an “overhang” in some places, especially if there are multiple 4G networks.
  • Steady growth of (say) 20-30% peak data per annum should be manageable with the current trends in price/performance improvement. It should be possible to deploy and run networks to meet that demand with reducing unit “production cost”, for example through use of small cells. That may reduce the pressure to fill the “revenue gap” on the infamous scissors-diagram chart.

Overall, it is still a little too early to declare shifting growth patterns for mobile data as a “disruption”. There is a lack of clarity on what is happening, especially in terms of responses to the new controls, pricing and management technologies put recently in place. But operators need to watch extremely closely what is going on – and plan for multiple scenarios.

Specific recommendations will depend on an individual operator’s circumstances – user base, market maturity, spectrum assets, competition and so on. But broadly, we see three scenarios and implications for operators:

  • “All hands on deck!”: Continued strong growth (perhaps with a small “blip”) which maintains the pressure on networks, threatens congestion, and drives the need for additional capacity, spectrum and capex.
    • Operators should continue with current multiple strategies for dealing with data traffic – acquiring new spectrum, upgrading backhaul, exploring massive capacity enhancement with small cells and examining a variety of offload and optimisation techniques. Where possible, they should explore two-sided models for charging and use advanced pricing, policy or segmentation techniques to rein in abusers and reward those customers and applications that are parsimonious with their data use. Vigorous lobbying activities will be needed, for gaining more spectrum, relaxing Net Neutrality rules and perhaps “taxing” content/Internet companies for traffic injected onto networks.
  • “Panic over”: Moderating and patchy growth, which settles to a manageable rate – comparable with the patterns seen in the fixed broadband marketplace
    • This will mean that operators can “relax” a little, with the respite in explosive growth meaning that the continued capex cycles should be more modest and predictable. Extension of today’s pricing and segmentation strategies should improve margins, with continued innovation in business models able to proceed without rush, and without risking confrontation with Internet/content companies over traffic management techniques. Focus can shift towards monetising customer insight, ensuring that LTE rollouts are strategic rather than tactical, and exploring new content and communications services that exploit the improving capabilities of the network.
  • “Hangover”: Growth flattens off rapidly, leaving operators with unused capacity and threatening brutal price competition between telcos.
    • This scenario could prove painful, reminiscent of early-2000s experience in the fixed-broadband marketplace. Wholesale business models could help generate incremental traffic and revenue, while the emphasis will be on fixed-cost minimisation. Some operators will scale back 4G rollouts until cost and maturity go past the tipping-point for outright replacement of 3G. Restrictive policies on bandwidth use will be lifted, as operators compete to give customers the fastest / most-open access to the Internet on mobile devices. Consolidation – and perhaps bankruptcies – may ensure as declining data prices may coincide with substitution of core voice and messaging business

To read the note in full, including the following analysis…

  • Introduction
  • Telco-driven disruption vs. external trends
  • External disruptions to monitor
  • The mobile data explosion… or maybe not?
  • A J-curve or an S-curve?
  • Evolving the mobile network
  • Overview
  • LTE
  • Network sharing, wholesale and outsourcing
  • WiFi
  • Next-gen IP core networks (EPC)
  • Femtocells / small cells / “cloud RANs”
  • HetNets
  • Advanced offload: LIPA, SIPTO & others
  • Peer-to-peer connectivity
  • Self optimising networks (SON)
  • M2M-specific broadband innovations
  • Policy, control & business model enablers
  • The internal politics of mobile broadband & policy
  • Two sided business-model enablement
  • Congestion exposure
  • Mobile video networking and CDNs
  • Controlling signalling traffic
  • Device intelligence
  • Analytics & QoE awareness
  • Conclusions & recommendations
  • Index

…and the following figures…

  • Figure 1 – Trends in European data usage
  • Figure 2 – A plethora of mobile data traffic management solutions
  • Figure 3 – Not all operator WiFi is “offload” – other use cases include “onload”
  • Figure 4 – Internal ‘power tensions’ over managing mobile broadband
  • Figure 5 – How a congestion API could work
  • Figure 6 – Relative Maturity of MBB Management Solutions
  • Figure 7 – Laptops generate traffic volume, smartphones create signalling load
  • Figure 8 – Measuring Quality of Experience
  • Figure 9 – Summary of disruptive network innovations

Members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing Subscription Service and Future Networks Stream can download the full 44 page report in PDF format hereNon-Members, please subscribe here, buy a Single User license for this report online here for £795 (+VAT for UK buyers), or for multi-user licenses or other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

Organisations, geographies, people and products referenced: 3GPP, Aero2, Alcatel Lucent, AllJoyn, ALU, Amazon, Amdocs, Android, Apple, AT&T, ATIS, BBC, BlackBerry, Bridgewater, CarrierIQ, China, China Mobile, China Unicom, Clearwire, Conex, DoCoMo, Ericsson, Europe, EverythingEverywhere, Facebook, Femto Forum, FlashLinq, Free, Germany, Google, GSMA, H3G, Huawei, IETF, IMEI, IMSI, InterDigital, iPhones,Kenya, Kindle, Light Radio, LightSquared, Los Angeles, MBNL, Microsoft, Mobily, Netflix, NGMN, Norway, NSN, O2, WiFi, Openet, Qualcomm, Radisys, Russia, Saudi Arabia, SoftBank, Sony, Stoke, Telefonica, Telenor, Time Warner Cable, T-Mobile, UK, US, Verizon, Vita, Vodafone, WhatsApp, Yota, YouTube, ZTE.

Technologies and industry terms referenced: 2G, 3G, 4.5G, 4G, Adaptive bitrate streaming, ANDSF (Access Network Discovery and Selection Function), API, backhaul, Bluetooth, BSS, capacity crunch, capex, caps/tiers, CDMA, CDN, CDNs, Cloud RAN, content delivery networks (CDNs), Continuous Computing, Deep packet inspection (DPI), DPI, DRM, Encryption, Enhanced video, EPC, ePDG (Evolved Packet Data Gateway), Evolved Packet System, Femtocells, GGSN, GPS, GSM, Heterogeneous Network (HetNet), Heterogeneous Networks (HetNets), HLRs, hotspots, HSPA, HSS (Home Subscriber Server), HTML5, HTTP Live Streaming, IFOM (IP Flow Mobility and Seamless Offload), IMS, IPR, IPv4, IPv6, LIPA (Local IP Access), LTE, M2M, M2M network enhancements, metro-cells, MiFi, MIMO (multiple in, MME (Mobility Management Entity), mobile CDNs, mobile data, MOSAP, MSISDN, MVNAs (mobile virtual network aggregators)., MVNO, Net Neutrality, network outsourcing, Network sharing, Next-generation core networks, NFC, NodeBs, offload, OSS, outsourcing, P2P, Peer-to-peer connectivity, PGW (PDN Gateway), picocells, policy, Policy and Charging Rules Function (PCRF), Pre-cached video, pricing, Proximity networks, Public WiFi, QoE, QoS, RAN optimisation, RCS, remote radio heads, RFID, self-optimising network technology (SON), Self-optimising networks (SON), SGW (Serving Gateway), SIM-free wireless, single RANs, SIPTO (Selective IP Traffic Offload), SMS, SoftSIM, spectrum, super-femtos, Telco 2.0 Happy Pipe, Transparent optimisation, UMTS, ‘Under-The-Floor’ (UTF) Players, video optimisation, VoIP, VoLTE, VPN, White space, WiFi, WiFi Direct, WiFi offloading, WiMAX, WLAN.

CDNs 2.0: should telcos compete with Akamai?

Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) such as Akamai’s are used to improve the quality and reduce costs of delivering digital content at volume. What role should telcos now play in CDNs? (September 2011, Executive Briefing Service, Future of the Networks Stream).

Should telcos compete with Akamai?

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Below is an extract from this 19 page Telco 2.0 Report that can be downloaded in full in PDF format by members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing service and Future Networks Stream here. Non-members can subscribe here, buy a Single User license for this report online here for £795 (+VAT), or for multi-user licenses or other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

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Introduction

We’ve written about Akamai’s technology strategy for global CDN before as a fine example of the best practice in online video distribution and a case study in two-sided business models, to say nothing of being a company that knows how to work with the grain of the Internet. Recently, Akamai published a paper which gives an overview of its network and how it works. It’s a great paper, if something of a serious read. Having ourselves read, enjoyed and digested it, we’ve distilled the main elements in the following analysis, and used that as a basis to look at telcos’ opportunities in the CDN market.

Related Telco 2.0 Research

In the strategy report Mobile, Fixed and Wholesale Broadband Business Models – Best Practice Innovation, ‘Telco 2.0′ Opportunities, Forecasts and Future Scenarios we examined a number of different options for telcos to reduce costs and improve the quality of content delivery, including Content Delivery Networks (CDNs).

This followed on from Future Broadband Business Models – Beyond Bundling: winning the new $250Bn delivery game in which we looked at long term trends in network architectures, including the continuing move of intelligence and storage towards the edge of the network. Most recently, in Broadband 2.0: Delivering Video and Mobile CDNs we looked at whether there is now a compelling need for Mobile CDNs, and if so, should operators partner with existing players or build / buy their own?

We’ll also be looking in depth at the opportunities in mobile CDNs at the EMEA Executive Brainstorm in London on 9-10th November 2011.

Why have a CDN anyway?

The basic CDN concept is simple. Rather than sending one copy of a video stream, software update or JavaScript library over the Internet to each user who wants it, the content is stored inside their service provider’s network, typically at the POP level in a fixed ISP.

That way, there are savings on interconnect traffic (whether in terms of paid-for transit, capex, or stress on peering relationships), and by locating the servers strategically, savings are also possible on internal backhaul traffic. Users and content providers benefit from lower latency, and therefore faster download times, snappier user interface response, and also from higher reliability because the content servers are no longer a single point of failure.

What can be done with content can also be done with code. As well as simple file servers and media streaming servers, applications servers can be deployed in a CDN in order to bring the same benefits to Web applications. Because the content providers are customers of the CDN, it is possible to also apply content optimisation with their agreement at the time it is uploaded to the CDN. This makes it possible to save further traffic, and to avoid nasty accidents like this one.

Once the CDN servers are deployed, to make the network efficient, they need to be filled up with content and located so they are used effectively – so they need to be located in the right places. An important point of a CDN, and one that may play to telcos’ strengths, is that location is important.

Figure 1: With higher speeds, geography starts to dominate download times

CDN Akamai table distance throughput time Oct 2011 Telco 2.0

Source: Akamai

CDN Player Strategies

Market Overview

CDNs are a diverse group of businesses, with several major players, notably Akamai, the market leader, EdgeCast, and Limelight Networks, all of which are pure-play CDNs, and also a number of players that are part of either carriers or Web 2.0 majors. Level(3), which is widely expected to acquire the LimeLight CDN, is better known as a massive Internet backbone operator. BT Group and Telefonica both have CDN products. On the other hand, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft operate their own, very substantial CDNs in support of their own businesses. Amazon also provides a basic CDN service to third parties. Beyond these, there are a substantial number of small players.

Akamai is by far the biggest; Arbor Networks estimated that it might account for as much as 15% of Internet traffic once the actual CDN traffic was counted in, while the top five CDNs accounted for 10% of inter-domain traffic. The distinction is itself a testament to the effectiveness of CDN as a methodology.

The impact of CDN

As an example of the benefits of their CDN, above and beyond ‘a better viewing experience’, Akamai claim that they can demonstrate a 15% increase in completed transactions on an e-commerce site by using their application acceleration product. This doesn’t seem out of court, as Amazon.com has cited similar numbers in the past, in their case by reducing the volume of data needed to deliver a given web page rather than by accelerating its delivery.

As a consequence of these benefits, and the predicted growth in internet traffic, Akamai expect traffic on their platform to reach levels equivalent to the throughput of a US national broadcast TV station within 2-5 years. In the fixed world, Akamai claims offload rates of as much as 90%. The Jetstream CDN  blog points out that mobile operators might be able to offload as much as 65% of their traffic into the CDN. These numbers refer only to traffic sources that are customers of the CDN, but it ought to be obvious that offloading 90% of the YouTube or BBC iPlayer traffic is worth having.

In Broadband 2.0: Mobile CDNs and video distribution we looked at the early prospects for Mobile CDN, and indeed, Akamai’s own move into the mobile industry is only beginning. However, Telefonica recently announced that its internal, group-wide CDN has reached an initial capability, with service available in Europe and in Argentina. They intend to expand across their entire footprint. We are aware of at least one other mobile operator which is actively investing in CDN capabilities. The degree to which CDN capabilities can be integrated into mobile networks is dependent on the operator’s choice of network architecture, which we discuss later in this note.

It’s also worth noting that one of Akamai’s unique selling points is that it is very much a global operator. As usual, there’s a problem for operators, especially mobile operators, in that the big Internet platforms are global and operators are regional. Content owners can deal with one CDN for their services all around the world – they can’t deal with one telco. Also, big video sources like national TV broadcasters can usually deal with one ex-incumbent fixed operator and cover much of the market, but must deal with several mobile operators.

Application Delivery: the frontier of CDN

Akamai is already doing a lot of what we call “ADN” (Application-Delivery Networking) by analogy to CDN. In a CDN, content is served up near the network edge. In an ADN, applications are hosted in the same way in order to deliver them faster and more reliably. (Of course, the media server in a CDN node is itself a software application.) And the numbers we cited above regarding improved transaction completion rates are compelling.

However, we were a little under-whelmed by the details given of their Edge Computing product. It is restricted to J2EE and XSLT applications, and it seems quite limited in the power and flexibility it offers compared to the state of the art in cloud computing. Google App Engine and Amazon EC2 look far more interesting from a developer point of view. Obviously, they’re going for a different market. But we heartily agree with Dan Rayburn that the future of CDN is applications acceleration, and that this goes double for mobile with its relatively higher background levels of latency.

Interestingly, some of Akamai’s ADN customers aren’t actually distributing their code out to the ADN servers, but only making use of Akamai’s overlay network to route their traffic. Relatively small optimisations to the transport network can have significant benefits in business terms even before app servers are physically forward-deployed.

Other industry developments to watch

There are some shifts underway in the CDN landscape. Notably, as we mentioned earlier, there are rumours that Limelight Networks wants to exit the packet-pushing element of it in favour of the media services side – ingestion, transcoding, reporting and analytics. The most likely route is probably a sale or joint venture with Level(3). Their massive network footprint gives them both the opportunity to do global CDNing, and also very good reasons to do so internally. Being a late entrant, they have been very aggressive on price in building up a customer base (you may remember their role in the great Comcast peering war). They will be a formidable competitor and will probably want to move from macro-CDN to a more Akamai-like forward deployed model.

To read the note in full, including the following additional analysis…

  • Akamai’s technology strategy for a global CDN
  • Can Telcos compete with CDN Players?
  • Potential Telco Leverage Points
  • Global vs. local CDN strategies
  • The ‘fat head’ of content is local
  • The challenges of scale and experience
  • Strategic Options for Telcos
  • Cooperating with Akamai
  • Partnering with a Vendor Network
  • Part of the global IT operation?
  • National-TV-centred CDNs
  • A specialist, wholesale CDN role for challengers?
  • Federated CDN
  • Conclusion

…and the following charts…

  • Figure 1: With higher speeds, geography starts to dominate download times
  • Figure 2: Akamai’s network architecture
  • Figure 3: Architectural options for CDN in 3GPP networks
  • Figure 4: Mapping CDN strategic options

Members of the Telco 2.0 Executive Briefing Subscription Service and Future Networks Stream can download the full 19 page report in PDF format here. Non-Members, please subscribe here, buy a Single User license for this report online here for £795 (+VAT), or for multi-user licenses or other enquiries, please email contact@telco2.net / call +44 (0) 207 247 5003.

Organisations, people and products referenced: 3UK, Akamai, Alcatel-Lucent, Amazon, Arbor Networks, BBC, BBC iPlayer, BitTorrent, BT, Cisco, Dan Rayburn, EC2, EdgeCast, Ericsson, Google, GSM, Internet HSPA, Jetstream, Level(3), Limelight Networks, MBNL, Microsoft, Motorola, MOVE, Nokia Siemens Networks, Orange, TalkTalk, Telefonica, T-Mobile, Velocix, YouTube.

Technologies and industry terms referenced: 3GPP, ADSL, App Engine, backhaul, Carrier-Ethernet, Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), DNS, DOCSIS 3, edge computing, FTTx, GGSN, Gi interface, HFC, HSPA+, interconnect, IT, JavaScript, latency, LTE, Mobile CDNs, online, peering, POPs (Points of Presence), RNC, SQL, UMTS, VPN, WLAN.