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AI/Automation

CommScope CTO: Here are the trends I'm watching in 2021

We saw a lot of COVID-related disruption in corporate and personal lives in 2020, and hopefully, 2021 will be the beginning of getting back to normal. Here's what we see in 2021 for trends in broadband networks, outdoor wireless networks, home networks, data centers and campus/building networks.

Broadband networks

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred service providers to adopt new broadband technologies at an accelerated pace in 2020, and this will continue in 2021.

The emergence of low-latency DOCSIS enables a new ecosystem of applications and services that can take advantage of latency as low as 5 to 10 milliseconds (and even lower in the future). By delivering consistently low latency that offers a high degree of reliability and a low level of jitter and delay variation in packet delivery, operators will be able to power a new generation of time-sensitive, mission-critical services. Gaming, in particular, continues to drive much of the interest in low-latency DOCSIS. We see it opening the door to broader consumer services like Augmented reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) as well as business services such as stock market trading, desktop-as-a-service, edge computing and cellular backhaul.

We expect to see network operators instituting higher frequency taps, followed by amp and node changes in preparation for DOCSIS 4.0 (D4.0) equipment. These phased upgrades leading to D4.0 are still important steps toward a 10G future. These upgrades will play on top of future decisions to pursue Extended Spectrum DOCSIS (ESD) or Full Duplex DOCSIS (FDX), which will be heavily influenced by individual HFC roadmaps. Still, the D4.0 specification allows the coexistence of both architectures. In the coming year, we'll see the beginning stages of that evolution as operators extend ESD frequency taps to 1.8GHz in the downstream.

Outdoor wireless networks

5G technology will continue rolling out globally, and operators will begin migrating to open RAN architectures to reduce costs and improve efficiency.

To support 5G smartphones like Samsung's Galaxy S20 and Apple's iPhone 12, we expect operators to focus on pragmatic implementations of 5G networks by assessing which deployments can benefit from active massive MIMO (multiple input/multiple output) deployments. From our perspective, massive MIMO deployments are optimally suited for dense urban deployments, while suburban deployments can benefit from passive antenna solutions. However, massive MIMO deployments face challenges even in urban environments, where upper floors of tall buildings may not be adequately covered if the most appropriate solution isn't selected.

In 2021, open RAN deployments will gain serious traction and usher in a new generation of products and innovative technology. According to Mobile Experts chief analyst Joe Madden, almost every company in the radio access market is "looking into" open RAN, which he expects will be the "choice solution" for coverage issues. As Madden notes, open RAN hardware and software can be cheaper while achieving similar coverage as traditional architectures. We see disaggregation of the RAN continuing in 2021 as open RAN deployments usher in a new generation of products and innovation such as the tighter integration of radios and antennas.

Home networks

While consumers have had access to Wi-Fi 6E routers for several months now, 2021 will be the beginning of service provider deployments of this technology in their home gateways.

By opening up the lanes on the 2.4Ghz and 5Ghz bands, Wi-Fi 6E will provide a better quality of service for users and support lower-latency, high-speeds and bookended services. Service providers are expected to deploy Wi-Fi 6E solutions at the end of 2021 or early 2022. We should see service providers drive Wi-Fi 6E adoption faster than the random addition of Wi-Fi 6E-capable clients to the home and take advantage of extending their deterministic DOCSIS 3.1 and XGS-PON access networks through the home to the end client applications. As Wi-Fi6E becomes more commonplace in the United States, it will open the door for a range of demanding, value-added services like gaming, security and e-health.

Smart televisions (connected to the home's Wi-Fi network) streaming the latest movie or show are one thing, but they should become something else in 2021. Service providers will have a huge opportunity to make a connected home into a smart home by delivering an integrated smart home experience by deploying smart media devices and connecting them to the home's television. As the deployment of Wi-Fi 6E continues, service providers are expected to invest and deploy more smart media devices in the home to simplify and streamline both the subscribers' entertainment and home control experience.

Data centers

Data centers saw new stresses from work-at-home and distance learning initiatives enacted in 2020, and they are adopting cloud, AI and IoT solutions to adapt.

In the absence of "business as usual," enterprises and small businesses are moving to the cloud, and this trend will accelerate in 2021 no matter what happens with the COVID-19 pandemic. Companies that were thinking about going to the cloud are accelerating adoptions by four or five years in some cases. And it's not all public cloud – we're seeing faster adoption of private cloud infrastructure because many companies need to keep financial, healthcare and other sensitive information in private clouds. Therefore, we see most enterprises adopting both public and private clouds for their applications and data as a standard form of practice.

Incorporation of artificial intelligence (AI) has been an ongoing trend for data centers, where AI is being used to drive safety and security applications like automatic temperature checks, touchless authorization, payment and control systems and traffic monitoring. AI is also being implemented for building management systems such as HVAC control and lighting. We expect the use of AI in data centers and building management systems to keep growing steadily all year long.

Campus/building networks

In 2021, we see companies embracing remote networking. Some companies asked employees to work remotely permanently, while others adjusted their offices to accommodate social distancing, meaning fewer employees back in the office. The network that connects those remote workers with their companies has become more important than ever. With a focus on employee and customer health and safety, building owners will continue to roll out secure VPN connections and manage their networks differently.

We also see a blurring of the traditional demarcation between OT (operational technologies such as HVAC, access control and lighting) and IT (networks and computers). OT teams will need to know, for the first time, how much bandwidth is available on the network and who is using it. In turn, IT teams must support a wider array of devices and user scenarios, so they are adopting new connectivity technologies like CBRS and private LTE to support them. We see these developments as the precursors to a convergence of OT and IT teams to unify network management.

To sum it up, we think 2021 will be a great year for networking as a wide variety of new technologies, applications and business models return to normal and, in some cases, hypergrowth.

Morgan Kurk, Executive Vice President, Chief Technology Officer and Segment Leader, Broadband Networks, CommScope. His previous column covered the good guesses and near-misses during 2020.

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