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The future of any part of the vast, disorderly technology space is determined by the interplay between problems and opportunities that create customer demand and the technology developments that rebuild the framework of supply. The telecommunications industry is no exception. And despite the general vastness and disorder of the industry, a big part of telecommunication's future will depend on how two technology advances -- 5G wireless and event-driven networking -- intersect the problem-and-opportunity space.
The most multifaceted, least-understood piece of the puzzle has to be 5G wireless technology. Wireless infrastructure has advanced through a series of generational changes for decades, and 5G will certainly not be the last. But 5G will be the most different generation, because a big part of 5G focuses on erasing the differences between wireline and wireless networking to accommodate the exploding mobility of network users.
The radio-network side of 5G wireless technology is a given. The 5G New Radio specifications are advancing the fastest of all the 5G elements. At the head of the group are the millimeter-wave applications of 5G as a replacement for traditional copper loop in fiber-to-the-node (FTTN) deployments. Operators are already committed to 5G-FTTN hybrid deployments in 2018. And, eventually, that will make 5G wireless technology a critical component in what will probably still be called wireline broadband.
The next generation of wireless still won't fully unite wireless and wireline, however. Today's wireless networks already use many of the same devices as wireline for transport connectivity and wireless backhaul. But because mobile users move both geographically and from cell to cell in a wireless network, special accommodation is needed to maintain a user's connection to services as they move around. The Evolved Packet Core (EPC) is such an accommodation, and 5G plans to replace or evolve that into the Next Generation Core (NGC).
The Next Generation Core has the mobility-management mission of EPC, as well as the mission of converging both services and infrastructure in a 5G future. Next Generation Core isn't as far along in specification terms as other aspects of 5G, largely because everything else about 5G has to come together in the NGC. The purpose of Next Generation Core is to build network infrastructure and services from cloud components, rather than from specialized devices. In that sense, an NGC will help converge wireless and wireline. But to gain the full potential of that convergence, 5G will have to separate service from infrastructure to the point where roaming between wireless and wireline will be possible. That may be more a Wi-Fi issue than a 5G issue.
Needed: 5G wireless technology support for event-driven networks
The next mission for 5G -- support for internet of things (IoT) -- is complicated because it's more than providing simple support for many wireless devices. Security is perhaps the key technical problem, and a specific feature of 5G, network slicing, would provide a way to separate sensor-control networks from other wireless users. That could be a giant step in providing security for IoT. Network slicing is another part of 5G wireless technology that is hanging back in terms of progress.
Two other issues complicate things further in terms of 5G's IoT support. One is creating a model to integrate services across wireline and wireless connections, a kind of full-network virtualization. The second is to address how to process IoT events.
Events are useless unless you can do something with them. Control networks have a feedback loop -- the time required for an event to reach a processing point, for the process to run and for a response to be generated to the control device. If the feedback loop is too long, the delay may interfere with the IoT application. Think of a gate controlled by a motion sensor in which the opening is delayed so long that an arriving vehicle either has to hit the gate or hit the brakes. Feedback-loop length is influenced by a number of factors, but an important one is the distance between the sensor or controller and the process points.
Short feedback loops demand minimal network latency, which is both a function of connection speed and the number of network elements in the path. Every switch or router introduces latency as it handles a packet, and it's easy for complicated routes to eat up the entire delay budget of an application. Hosting at the edge that places event processing close to the place where the sensor and controller connections terminate will reduce handling delay and the normal propagation delay associated with any connection.
Serverless computing could offer event-processing answers
While edge hosting solves one problem, it may create another. IoT systems may process only a few events in a day. To have a dedicated system or even a cloud-hosted process running permanently, waiting for an event isn't cost-effective. Event processing has created a whole new model of cloud computing, called Serverless computing -- also called functional or lambda programming -- to allow processes to be spun up on demand to handle events.
Even this approach has challenges. Any delay in getting a process loaded and running can eat up the delay budget and compromise the application. Support for IoT apps where the sensors are in one area and the controllers are in another is another problem. The edge-processing centers of the future will have to be meshed with fiber to reduce handling delay for these applications.
The convergence of wireless and wireline in services and infrastructure, combined with an effective edge-hosted, event-driven cloud, could transform telecommunications at every level. The goal isn't impossible to achieve; it's just difficult. Can the industry converge technology trends when they seem to be evolving in complete isolation? Who thinks about 5G wireless technology and edge hosting or event processing? Everyone should think about it, because it's the sum of the technology steps that lead us to the future of telecommunications.