|Topic:||A new access paradigm|
Michael Curran is the Vice President of Sales at Aepona. Prior to joining Aepona, Mr Curran was Vice President of Customer Operations for Openwave in EMEA – previously Phone.com. Mr Curran possesses Bachelor of Engineering and Master of Science degrees from Queenís University, Belfast.
The demand for bandwidth is forcing operators the world over to seek ways to meet the demand. There is no single solution that works everywhere. In some regions, fibre-to-the-home is economically viable; in others, it might bankrupt the operator. Wireless – especially WiMAX, mobile WiMAX and WiFi – is the solution of choice in remote regions. The Internet Protocol, IP, which facilitates the transmission of any sort of traffic over a single network, is central to most operatorsí future planning.
As business and consumer demand for bandwidth increases, and the bandwidth glut of the early 21st century quickly disappears, operators and regulators across the globe are struggling with the new paradigm for accommodating this growth. Current copper networks from the past decade of telephones and dial-up connections are quickly becoming too narrow to feed the high-speed addiction of todayís information explosion. GSM networks have jumped from GPRS to EDGE to 3G and 3.5G in a short span of years, and still analysts predict the mass adoption of mobile broadband will bring these next-generation networks to a painful bottleneck. The Internet and convergence These modern network challenges are the result of the rise of Internet Protocol, IP. IP technology has challenged, and changed, our understanding of how networks operate. Previously, dedicated networks were built for a single purpose – copper networks for fixed voice, specialized wireless networks for the transmission of mobile voice, satellite arrays to transmit and receive television signals. By leveraging IP as a common protocol for the transmission of data, all sorts of information – from voice, to video and text – can be encoded digitally and transmitted by the underlying transmission network. The advent of this IP layer within the network has made packets of data indifferent to the physical infrastructure they travel on and fuelled the convergence of our previously separate networks. The ability to deliver triple-play (voice, video and data) services over an IP-enabled network means that any existing network infrastructures can now, technically, be the vehicle for a variety of content, from making and receiving phone calls to surfing the web and streaming video. This creates an exponentially larger load on networks not originally designed to handle the speed and bandwidth that these triple-play services require. Access networks It is clear that new access infrastructure is required to accommodate this predicted explosion of IP traffic. Across Europe, a number of technologies are being considered. Fibre-To-The-Premise, FTTP, offers one possible solution. Offered in both active (powered) and passive (un-powered) modes, this point-to-multipoint architecture aims to push fibre-optic connections all the way through the last mile, right into the subscriberís home. Fibre optics allows the delivery of highspeed, high-bandwidth broadband, capable of meeting the requirements of triple-play services, and has been deployed in numerous metro projects across Europe, America and parts of the Middle East and Asia. While fibre makes the best economic sense in green-field deployments, there are some challenges involved in providing fibre to each household, including the difficulty inherent in burying kilometers of fibre in built-up areas. Delivering fibre to isolated or rural areas also presents challenges in recovering capital expenditure. Another possible solution is to reuse as much of the existing infrastructure, the maze of copper from traditional telephony, or the footprint of cell phone towers, for the delivery of broadband. Recent advances in technology allow operators to squeeze even more bandwidth from these legacy networks, reducing the need for extensive investment in new infrastructure. Although the technology exists, itís not clear if these methods will be able to sustain the anticipated growth in broadband adoption, or if these methods are just a stopgap measure. Yet others will point to a blended architecture of WiMAX and WiFi, or even the as-yet-untested Mobile WiMAX, as the most effective means of meeting the demand of a highly connected Europe. Any investment in new network technologies will ultimately be subjected to a number of different criteria for selection. Capital expenditure, expected operational expenditure and the amount of legacy infrastructure rendered redundant will influence the final choice of access models. ARPU, average revenue per user, subscriber density, the landscape and even the weather will play a part. Given the complicated nature of these choices, itís unlikely that a homogenous network will emerge. Instead, access networks will be rolled out in smaller, localized deployments as physical and economic factors dictate. Barriers to convergence While a disparate access network presents few problems in fixed deployments, a number of challenges are raised when it comes to nomadic and truly mobile access – and the ability to roam is an important part of the highspeed broadband puzzle. In fixed deployments, connections are made from point-to-point, from the device to an exchange, with few variables complicating the process. In nomadic or truly mobile deployments, roaming across different networks will require multi-mode devices that can make simultaneous connections to the available networks – whether 3G, WiFi or WiMAX. With a widely disparate network landscape, end-user devices will become fatter and more costly. There are also operator-side concerns. Enabling devices to connect in different modes still leaves the problem of delivering consistent services to these end-user devices. For example, with a dual-mode WiFi and GSM mobile phone, running a voice service over the IP layer should ideally be able to transition from one network to another without interrupting the quality of the call. IP technology provides a common language for the transport of data packets, but the individual services are still locked to their home networks – to the complicated backend servers that handle the functions that are critical to the delivery of services. Going back to the earlier example, just to place a call, running a simple voice service, involves a set of instructions that identify the origination, termination and billing account. As the device roams, these instructions need to be understood by the receiving network, while new instructions are issued to ensure call continuity and quality in the handoff – all of which needs to be transparent to the user. With more advanced services, this process gets progressively more complicated. To address this, another layer of convergence is needed. Just as IP has merged the transport layer, a universal platform is needed to merge the service layer. The new access paradigm Although these challenges have yet to become sufficiently worrisome to force the hand of regulators and operators across Europe, itís not hard to see the finishing line. For the consumer, the new access paradigm means having the services they want, when they want them, with the best possible user experience. For the operator, the new access paradigm is about disentangling the IP and service layers from the underlying access network. Whatever we believe about network access today, itís clear that in the near future access technologies will be agnostic. Understanding and preparing for this eventuality will be a strong determinant of future success. In particular, operators will need to evolve their service platforms to become more accessagnostic, and ensure these platforms are able to cope with the increased complexity of offering a truly converged user experience across different terminals, devices and access technologies.