|Issue:||North America 2008|
|Topic:||A strategy for the wireless world|
|Author:||Dr Hassan Ahmed|
|Title:||Chairman, President and CEO|
Hassan Ahmed is the Chairman, President and CEO of Sonus Networks. Prior to joining Sonus, Dr Ahmed was Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Core Switching division of Ascend Communications. He served as CTO and Vice President of Engineering prior to Ascend’s acquisition of Cascade Communications. Previously, Dr Ahmed was President and founder of WaveAccess, a pioneer in high-speed wireless network products. Dr Ahmed has also held the positions of Product Engineering Manager, Analog Devices, and director, VSLI Systems, Motorola Codex. Additionally, he was an Associate Professor at the Graduate School of Management, Boston University. Hassan Ahmed earned BSEE and MSAE degrees from Carleton University and a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Stanford University.
Most personal communications will soon be wireless. Wireless broadband will bring a great variety of new services, but will also introduce a number of problems. Wireless broadband 3G/4G networks operate at higher frequencies than today’s 2G networks. At these frequencies the ability of the signal to penetrate walls is greatly reduced, so voice and data service quality will tend to degrade. Indoor picocells and femtocells provide a way to distribute signals indoors, while increasing both available bandwidth and quality.
The future of wireless communication is such that, in the future, we will not even think of it as wireless. It will be the natural order of things, like ‘running’ water or ‘colour’ television. And yet, for now, the nature of wireless technology is painfully visible – every time we walk indoors with our cell phone or suffer through slow email in a coffee shop, we’re reminded that even wireless has its limitations. I can see a day when wireless technology is truly invisible and the distinction between what is wired and what is not is irrelevant. We are witnessing that change happen right now in blended fixed and mobile networks, quad-play service bundles, universal number portability and broadband wireless. When I speak with fellow executives, the topic invariably turns to the profound and exciting changes like this taking place in our industry, and almost every discussion of the future takes a ubiquitous, wireless network for granted. With more than 100 per cent cellphone market penetration, you might ask, where is the room for wireless to grow? The answer is in the voice quality, the overall cost and the types of media-enhanced services you can deliver. As communications continue to be redefined with the increase in broadband speeds, carriers can now easily deliver new applications, such as social networking and entertainment to consumers in many forms. To do so, operators are beginning to launch more flexible infrastructures to ensure they can keep up with consumer demands for innovation and QoS (quality of service). As these new functionalities are introduced, the mobile phone is quickly becoming the user’s preferred tool for all their communication needs. It is estimated that 30 per cent of all cell phone calls are currently made indoors; this despite the fact that indoor wireless reception is historically poor and, with the advent of 3G and 4G, and their higher network frequencies the problem of indoor call quality is only intensifying. With 3G and 4G, signal strength is significantly reduced through walls and this can limit in-dwelling reception. Over the next four years, the demand for bandwidth will escalate because of the requirements for video and multimedia services. This must be evaluated against the background of only modest increases in average revenue per user, even when new data services are factored in. If mobile operators are to remain profitable then they must improve the efficiency of their networks. In addition to the call quality issue, most consumers still pay a premium for mobile phone minutes. Nevertheless, it is easy to imagine a future where cell phones sound as clear indoors as outdoors, with the same affordable flat-rate pricing seen in landline plans, and one can readily picture a cell phone in every hand. However, no one imagined that kind of future when wireless networks were first built. Their original purpose was to deliver wireless service to a select regional market, creating islands of wireless. As a result, we now have an archipelago of wireless networks connected by wireline networks – a workable solution for now, but not in the long-term. What the future requires is a single, seamless communications network where wireline, wireless, media and applications flow smoothly, evenly, collaboratively. That network will look a lot like the Internet of today, and it will use the same Internet Protocol (IP) as its common language. I believe that moving all telephony networks to IP will have a profound impact on the growth and global adoption of wireless voice services. An all-IP network effectively tears down the last barriers of resistance to wireless voice by making it more affordable, more portable, more reliable and more desirable as a universal media portal. Far from being ‘future talk’, IP-voice networks are already tearing down barriers facing operators, including that of backhaul. Backhaul is a major contributor to the high costs of building out and running a mobile network – estimated to be about 25-30 per cent of total operating expenses, yet it is vital to network sustainability. As the promise of wireless develops and we see new applications and multimedia services rolled out, operators must have effective backhaul solutions in place ahead of time to support this traffic. Many operators are using IP network peering to eliminate expensive backhaul costs for long-distance, resulting in reduced operating expenses and paving the way for affordable flat-rate pricing plans for their customers. The idea of wireless being more portable might seem like an oxymoron, but the reality is that today’s wireless phones have yet to become reliably portable. Users still experience outages in some areas, inconsistent signal strength, weak indoor reception and widely varying levels of bandwidth. Much of this inconsistency is the natural by-product of a patchwork of wireless networks. IP technology can fill in the gaps, break down the walls and open the floodgates of broadband wireless. One of the most exciting wireless technologies to come along in years is the femtocell/picocell. Essentially, these miniature transmitters work like tiny cell towers, broadcasting DSL or broadband cable connections over wireless signals for entire buildings (picocells) or to individual users (femtocells). The femtocell phenomenon opens up two opportunities for wireless providers: strong indoor wireless coverage and inexpensive broadband wireless. While femtocells do provide benefits to 2G users, their impact is far greater for the emerging 3G and 4G networks now being introduced. This is partly due to the greater reduction of 3G and 4G signals as they pass through the walls of buildings and partly because users are already seeking the higher bandwidth data services offered over next-gen networks. Femto brings a number of benefits to mobile operators and their customers including: • Reducing the cost of indoor coverage; • Avoiding incremental cost of expansion of MSC (mobile switching centre) or RAN (radio access network) and backhaul capacity; • Better voice quality and higher data rates; • Better customer satisfaction leading to reduction in churn; • Acceleration of fixed to mobile substitution; and • Potential to attract other users in the same home onto the operator’s network. Femtocells are a great example of the convergence we see happening in the networking world. By delivering broadband wireless over IP, femto/picocells are designed to deliver voice services as part of a rich mix of media. That mix will require increasingly larger pipelines and draw content from multiple applications: Web 2.0 services, telephony, video and more. In such a media mix, it will be IP that ties it all together for the content provider and the content buyer. Of course, convergence can also lead to complexity if it is not managed well. In our industry, number portability legislation is laying the groundwork for a more manageable, portable user experience. Initially, the concept of a vendor-independent phone identity was fuelled by free market ideals. In the future, however, number portability will be more about a location-independent identity that lets us access all our media services – voicemail, email, intranets, hard drives and more – from anywhere on any device over anyone’s network. That universalized experience leads us to the holy grail of telephony: Fixed-Mobile Convergence (FMC). With FMC every user will have one phone, one number, with one unbreakable session of communication from anywhere to anyone. In a sense, FMC is the culmination of everything that IP-voice enables: number portability, broadband voice, indoor wireless, flat rate pricing, etc. Telephony companies have nothing to fear from the future. Instead, the human need to communicate by voice and the universal appeal of telephones assures them an important role in that future. The greatest risk comes from ignoring the immovable wave of progress and innovation. Absolute mobility and media-enhanced voice services are the wave of tomorrow, a wave generated by a homogenized, international network running on IP. To borrow a phrase from the original network revolution, surf’s up!