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Telcos' Futures Depend on Catching 'Frontier' Technologies

Craig Matsumoto

PRAGUE -- 2020 Vision Executive Summit -- Think NFV is hard? Take a look into Steve Bell's world of Telecom Frontier Technologies, where adjacent markets and new tech combine in unpredictable ways.

The Heavy Reading analyst's point was that these unpredictable combinations represent new markets worth paying attention to, and telcos will need a new mode of thinking if they're going to keep up.

"We've got to realize that this is the dynamic of the world we live in. It's no longer a 'push' model, it's a 'pull' model as well," Bell said.

This is the world of what Bell calls Telecom Frontier Technologies, a futurist vision of the way technologies combine unpredictably to create an avalanche of change.

"Computer vision in the industrial space could mean that video traffic doubles all of a sudden overnight," Bell said, giving one of many examples in his talk. Going a step further, this also applies using analytics to interpret the visual data collected at the edge -- and that, in turn, has implications in other markets such as the enterprise and smart cities.

Finding these connections isn't easy for the telcos.

"You've got industry paradigms and mental models and cultural bias," all of which get in the way, Bell said. That's why it seems so often that things never change, he said; it's because people keep it that way.

The trick is to look for "toilet paper technologies," Bell said. The reference is to simple technologies that have enormous repercussions, and the name actually refers to paper in general. We talk about how the Gutenberg printing press changed society, but what made books go viral, so to speak, was the cheap availability of paper. Other examples would be shipping containers and bar codes -- simple innovations that shaped entire industries.

Chain reactions
Bell cited several examples of technologies that create change at a larger scope than expected.

Blockchain, for example, is being applied toward authentication, since the technology involves creating distributed and immutable records. That in turn, has led to blockchain-based smart contracts and micropayments. This could be a useful innovation for the Internet of Things.

Orange, incidentally, is looking at using blockchain when the GDPR laws take effect in Europe next year, according to Bell. The carrier is researching the use of blockchain for identity storage, so that instead of filling out ID forms on the web, you could refer the site to a blockchain-based identity, he said.

Blockchain could also be used as a transaction ledger for software-defined networking (SDN). A Heavy Reading survey of carriers found 19% looking at blockchain in that capacity, Bell said. (About half said they're looking into blockchain as a security mechanism; another 25% weren't exploring blockchain at all.)

Another example: Li-Fi, in which LED bulbs use invisible Morse code-like blinking as a communications link. This could have implications for office networking -- removing some Cat5 cabling, for instance. But it's got wider implications. Cars could use Li-Fi to create a peer-to-peer network, possibly creating an alternative to Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) communications, Bell said.

What's a service provider to do?
How do service providers insert themselves into these frontier technologies? Hanging out with startups would be a start, as the example of IoT shows, Bell said.

IoT is going to require systems-level thinking. While it does need some easily understood elements -- a network, a data layer and so on -- it's also going to require services such as management and security that cut across all those layers.

Startups recognize this, and they're emerging by the dozen to disaggregate this problem, focusing on pieces such as e-commerce logistics, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and last-mile delivery.

"It's not the big guys... that are going to change this. It's the small guys looking at disaggregating the industry," Bell said. Service providers could insert themselves into the equation by becoming the aggregators to put those pieces together.

The key is that service providers need to keep in touch with the startup ecosystem -- carriers' venture capital arms can be useful there -- and start breaking the "mental model" silos between technologies, Bell said.

— Craig Matsumoto, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Sabre
12/9/2017 | 11:29:40 PM
AI. Robots. Blockchain. These are the kinds of things that on a fundamentai level will still require telcos. The role of the telco has changed, but these organizations can slide into the role that is there. Especially when it comes to new cutting-edge tech. 
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