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6G does not exist, yet it is already here! – VIII

The thought provoking statement during Apple presentation of the new iPhone by the Chairman of Verizon: iPhone 12 makes 5G “real”!. Image taken from the Apple iPhone 12 event

All considered it may be unsurprising that devices like smartphones are driving service evolution. What is more surprising is that they are also driving the “physical network” evolution!

Watching the iPhone 12 presentation I noticed the statement of Hans Vestberg, Chairman and CEO of Verizon, stating that “5G just got real” because of the advent of iPhone 12. It is the device that makes 5G a reality not the other way round, the 5G network that allows the development of new devices!

This is not really new. For those that have been working for decades in telecommunications the shift took place at least 10 years ago. In the last century device producers looked at the Network Operators (and manufacturers) to understand what the future network could provide and based on that they designed their products. Now it is the other way round. Network Operators look at devices manufacturers to understand what kind of devices will be on the market (and their penetration) and based on that they will plan for new networks deployment. Seen in this light it may not be surprising that the Chair of Verizon considers the launch of the iPhone 12 (and the expected uptake from the market) as the sign of a real advent of 5G. It is no longer the dog wagging the tail, it is the tail wagging the dog.

It is not just a market issue, it is a technical issue. Smartphones (I refer to smartphone but it is more general, applying to all communications devices, like vehicle, robots… smartphones are handy since there are so many of them and they create “industrial volume” so that their chips are used to power other devices) are embedding more and more network functionalities, like coding, access network selection, … and more will be embedded in the future.

As networks are becoming more and more “softwarised”, both in terms of functionalities and control, it is obvious that a smartphone can pick up more and more functionalities that used to be confined to the network.

Telecom Operators have always been striving for optimisation of resources (to decrease CAPEX) and software/computers have been providing a tremendous support. Additionally, the possibility of automating many parts of network operation and management through software (thus decreasing OPEX) has resulted in self-configuration and self-management. Network equipment has become smarter and smarter and the network architecture has evolved (is evolving) to take advantage of that.

Of course telecommunication networks are complex systems comprising hundreds of thousands of parts and we can find new fully computerised parts along old electromechanical ones. In the last decade researchers and telecom engineers have found a way to cope with this diversity (up to a certain extent) by virtualising more and more functions thus being able to operate on a network composed of software. Specific interfaces (actuators) will take care of execution at the physical level, taking into account the variety of equipment. This approach is known as NFV, Network Function Virtualisation.

As network resources get virtualised or are basically computers with software implementing the desired functionality (as it is the case with the latest network equipment) it becomes possible to operate the whole network at a virtual level, in the cyberspace (this is the DX applied to network infrastructure). We can determine what resources are available and how to use them in the most effective way taking into account the demand for transport (and the need of services). In other words we can define the network via software: SDN – Software Defined Network.

Clearly, operating in the cyberspace provides many advantages, like a global visibility of resources and all the flexibility in the world (the cyberspace is “flat”), thus decreasing both CAPEX (better use of resources means that you need less of them) and OPEX (many activities can be performed automatically and autonomously by the virtual network). Obviously the smartness of the resulting network is further increased by applying machine learning and in general AI. Machine learning can “learn” how the resources are being requested, the traffic and service patterns and act accordingly in their reservation and assignment.

The network equipment used to be smarter in the core and “dumber” at the edges. The reason is simple: smarter equipment used to cost a lot of money, dumber one was cheaper. Hence, since you have fewer equipment in the core and more at the edges it made sense to make the core equipment smarter and have it to take care of the “dumber” edge.

However, the situation is now different. The decrease in cost of electronics and computers make smarter edge affordable, so now it is no longer true that the edge is necessarily dumb, it can participate in the global intelligence of the network. SDN can therefore be read in a different way, rather than Software Defined Network (with the Telco using it to allocate resources) it can become Software Defined Networking, i.e. the edge of the network defines how to use the resources. The core, in this sense, becomes a sort of warehouse of resources Which one to use and how to connect them can be decided by the edge. We are taking a step in the 6G direction.

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 Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. 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.