As infrastructure improvements to both mobile and broadband technologies continue, the global telecommunication sector continues its transformation process in the upcoming year as well. Throughout 2016, the industry has been focused on plotting the future of 5G. Whilst standards are yet to be defined, we have seen a number of operators and vendors moving aggressively to conduct trials of the technology, as they look to shape how it will be introduced to the market. 4G has also continued to evolve, with LTE-Advanced Pro deploying new features such as higher levels of carrier aggregation and interference management, which provide faster data rates and better performance at the cell edges.
Cellular communication is now being considered by many operators as the fourth utility, meaning that reliable coverage is not only needed, it’s expected. In 2016, the world’s LTE footprint has continued to expand in line with today’s demand for reliable fast data access needed by businesses and consumers. This has played an important role in providing people with mobile connectivity at some of the world’s largest events, including the Rio Olympics.
The key global trends impacting the telecoms sector in 2017 and beyond are:
- Development in 5G technology: 5G is a very important area of development for telecom and wireless companies. 5G has been predicated as an enabler of next-generation IoT and M2M applications such as autonomous vehicles and virtual or augmented reality, which will need the low latency it promises. 5G will also be necessary to meet the ever-increasing demand for higher data rates and capacity. The new use cases that will be supported by 5G will depend on proving that new radio interface technologies can deliver the throughput, latency and capacity that will be required, and therefore validating the user experience for new applications will be a key consideration. New and sophisticated testing and validation techniques are already being developed for both the network infrastructure and the interoperability of the devices themselves. By adopting the ‘testing by design’ methodology, it is possible to build in quality and an understanding of system design and performance right from the start.
- Operators accelerate the deployment of NB-IoT: In 2017, we will see major operators and standards bodies pushing forward with the commercialization of narrowband IoT (NB-IoT). This is a Low Power Wide Area (LPWA) technology that transmits data intermittently, enabling connected devices that use only a small amount of data to operate with low current consumption. This can greatly improve the battery life of IoT devices.
Compared to propriety LPWA technology such as LoRa and Sigfox which operate in the unlicensed spectrum, NB-IoT operates either in the LTE licensed spectrum or in re-farmed GSM spectrum. This means it uses only a narrow bandwidth, leading to spectral efficiency and allowing carriers to prioritize data-intensive internet services and applications. Testing will play a vital role in ensuring the delivery of a high quality service that operates effectively within LTE bands, while mitigating interference from other devices.
As a cellular-based standard, it is critical to ensure the ability of the network to cope with the huge number of additional devices, potentially exceeding that of current networks by an order of magnitude or more. NB-IoT devices can be flexibly deployed and scheduled within any legacy LTE system, sharing capacity and cell-site resources with other connected devices, and even using re-farmed GSM frequencies. This introduces new test challenges due to the diverse frequencies and the potential to interfere with other LTE traffic, as well as a proliferation of IoT device types with very different traffic and application profiles.
- The cyber security war on IoT devices hits closer to home: In 2017, the number of DDoS attacks targeting IoT devices will increase, as hackers look to exploit service provider and business networks. The recent DDoS attack on DNS provider Dyn, driven by the MIRAI malware, was the world’s largest orchestrated hack via IoT devices. It brought down Twitter, Spotify and Reddit. However, next year will likely see an escalation of DDoS attacks, with hackers targeting higher risk services and institutions with far more severe consequences.
Imagine hospitals being cut off from internet-enabled life-saving devices, or power grids plunged into darkness, leaving towns and cities without access to crucial utilities like heating and electricity. Public transport systems could grind to a halt, and traffic light systems could stop working, causing havoc on roads. However, service providers and enterprises can put measures in place to prevent attacks of this scale. This can be achieved by implementing a modern security strategy which involves stress testing networks using the emulation of malware threats to identify weaknesses which would be targeted by cyber hackers. As a result, firms can protect themselves and their customers from IoT-driven threats.
- Virtualization accelerates the ‘Lab-as-a-Service’ market: Virtualization has taken the telecoms industry by storm this year, enabling business to leverage the ability of host software solutions in the cloud. It enables companies to break free from the shackles of rigid hardware solutions, which are typically expensive and a scarce resource. Conversely, virtualized software solutions can be accessed from anywhere at a much cheaper price point, and also have the flexibility to be adapted based on the requirements of a business. These benefits will be reaped by network equipment providers and operators in 2017, particularly when it comes to testing their networks and solutions.
Virtual testing solutions will create demand for ‘Lab-as-as-Service’ solutions, where operators and NEMs can license testing solutions on a subscription basis, rather than paying for physical equipment. This can enable them to centrally manage and allocate their testing resources in a data center or cloud environment, testing services rapidly and cheaply, meaning developments can progress in parallel. It will also enable them to frequently test their networks against cybersecurity threats, preventing potential damage to their businesses. We can expect some of the biggest operators in the world to move away from fixed lab environments and take advantage of emerging Lab-as-a-Service solutions as they look to reduce costs and centrally manage their resources.
- LTE for public safety: During 2017, the public safety industry will continue to work towards making LTE the long term answer for emergency services communication. The US has already begun planning for the introduction of LTE to deliver public safety applications, recognizing the success that the technology has had for business and consumer communication. Although there will not be an operational LTE public safety network in place in 2017, it is likely that a lot of the standards and regulations will be implemented in advance of a possible 2018 deployment.
Other countries will follow in the footsteps next year, by leveraging LTE to deliver critical communications applications such as facial recognition capabilities to aid police officers in finding out if someone has a criminal record. One major consideration is that operators will not want to give up their valuable LTE spectrum which is needed for data hungry business and consumer customers. However, we may see countries explore alternative options as they look to leverage the LTE spectrum, with minimal interference to today’s communication services. Until these vital decisions are made, TETRA will continue to be used as a short-term solution, due to its proven ability to deliver reliable communication services.
6. Regression of GSM Networks: In 2017, an increasing number of GSM networks will be turned off across the globe, as the communication standard is no longer capable of supporting many of today’s data-intensive applications and services. By turning off their GSM networks, operators will have more mobile spectrum available for superior LTE and 3G connectivity, delivering more data to customers at a much higher speed. Operators can subsequently derive more revenue from LTE and 3G, and having one less network to manage also helps in reducing costs.
- Neutral Host model becomes key for in-building coverage: Venue owners around the world rely on operators to deliver in-building coverage, to connect consumers and business users to the internet services they rely on. For example, in stadiums, visitors require connectivity to upload images from live events to the internet; whilst in airports and train stations, people need coverage for business communication and to stay in touch with family and friends.
However, operators no longer have the revenue to invest heavily in in-building coverage solutions. This is in part due to their resources being drained on other ventures such as the advancement of 5G, and the development of their public LTE networks. They cannot provision wireless communications into all of the buildings that demand mobile connectivity. Subsequently, in 2017, venues have to install mobile coverage themselves in order to provide the connectivity that is demanded of them.
Operators will turn to a ‘neutral hosted model’, where they can design and deploy a network for their needs and charge operators for delivering connectivity, generating new revenue. The model suits the operators too, as they do not need to shoulder the responsibility of funding and maintaining a network.