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The many faces of Digital Transformation – The Enablers VII

The communication is becoming ever more pervasive involving many types of network infrastructures and supporting many types of users, in terms of numbers machines will take the lion’s share. The overall infrastructure would be better described in terms of a communication “fabric” with artificial intelligence at the core and connectivity taking palce among data. Image credit: A speculative study on 6G by Faisal Tariq

Evolution from (tele) communication infrastructures to communications fabric – I

The evolution of telecommunications infrastructures has followed the path of lower and lower hierarchy. From the very rigid structure of networks based on electromechanical exchanges (where the network structure dictates the routing of calls) to increased flexibility with electronic exchanges and further on with the separation of the control from the physical structure(intelligent network, service network).

The advent of wireless led to an even more flexible network from both the point of view of planning/deployment of network resources and of their allocation.

More recently, technologies like SDN (Software Defined Network) and NFV (Network Function Virtualisation) have provided the tools to further increase network flexibility in terms of resources allocation. The 5G standard goes hand in hand with Network Slicing capabilities allowing, in principle, the selection and allocation of resources on demand by the service (or service provider).

Network equipment manufacturers, and terminal manufacturers, have started implementing these functionalities although network Operators are still debating on their use. On the one hand, increasing flexibility to make better use of resources (leading to lower investment needs, lower CAPEX) is a no brainer but at the same time opening the network to third parties (service providers and end customers) is something that would go hand in hand with loss of control and most likely decreasing revenues.

However, the evolution of technology on one hand and economic pressure on the other are forcing Operators to reconsider their position, role and business models (shift towards wholesales).

In the past a Telco had a fully integrated vertical model, taking care of everything from digging trenches, deploying equipment, providing terminals to the end users, network operation, maintenance and service delivery (billing and charging for all of that goes without saying). Now we have seen that Telcos no longer have full control, most of the services we, as end users, are using (read apps) are not provided by the Operator and the Operator does not charge for their use (only for network access/usage and this is getting more and more an “all-you-can-eat” charge), nor we buy terminals (cellphone, media centre, television….) from the Operator.

Global Internet traffic growth in the last 27 years. From 50 TB in 1992 to 2 billion TB of last year. A 100 million fold increase. Image credit: Roadmap on Optical Communication, Erik Agrell and others

Today most Operators control the network resources and charge for the access. However, if we take a look “inside” Operators “factories” we would probably discover that they are renting part of the network resources (like radio towers or big intercontinental pipes), they have outsourced to third parties the development and maintenance of software (including planning, operation, billing…), and some have outsourced the operation of their networks (they are the first to make use of the “network-as-a-service” model). Although Telcos usually have and offer data centre resources, most of their clients are actually using third party data centres. In a “communication” that is more and more about connecting data it is clear the loss of grip from the Telcos.

At the same time, exactly as the Telcos were losing control, we have seen an incredible explosion in the pervasiveness of connectivity, of its capacity and in terms of services. In terms of capacity since 1992 we have seen over a 100 million fold increase, basically a doubling of the traffic each year, way faster than the Moore’s law.

Expected growth of mobile internet traffic. The orange bars include Machine generated traffic. Image credit: ITU

According to ITU Overall Mobile Data traffic forecast for the coming 10 years (2020-2029) we can expect the growth to continue from the 62EB of 2020 to 3.3 YB in 2029 (that is 62 million TB and 3.3 billion TB respectively: notice that you cannot compare this data with the global traffic on internet because that one includes fixed lines and big pipes duplicating traffic, in this statistic only originating traffic for mobile is considered, because this is the one giving the pulse of the use/need of communications by the end users).




About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.