May 31, 2017

Network Slicing: The Silver Bullet That Killed Old School Thinking in Critical Communications

Exhibiting at Critical Communications World show in Hong Kong, our Sales VP Tomas Granö and I were party to a number of heated discussions on using IP networks and shared frequencies for mission-critical purposes. The argument pits the old school types, who contend that only Circuit Switch connectivity over owned infrastructure can serve mission critical operations, against another camp that says quite the opposite. Though much more quiet, this latter group represents the majority who argue that infrastructure can be shared but is has to be built more robustly. Perhaps needless to say, we heartily agree. And this doesn’t just relate to the important issue of network planning, but touches on network hopping (as provided by our newest partner, Goodmill Systems) but as well battery life, weight and efficiency.

In fairness, while its true that network sharing for critical communications isn’t there yet, the old school folks, quite rankly seem to be missing the forest for the trees. Priority service levels are already delivered via circuit-based services but they are confined to voice, and in this case most importantly group voice. But with the move to IP we’ve opened a vast sea of services, from detailed location information to HD video and real-time database access, not to mention voice via VoLTE. Public safety organizations are already using these services delivered to them upon shared networks, but their lack of reliability is an unavoidable bi-product of Best Effort. The point is that this will remain the same even on a private, dedicated network, because even if it is serving a smaller number of users this essential character flaw doesn’t disappear.

This all begs the question, not of how public safety organizations are going to afford to build out their own private networks, but rather how we may offer the services they already use on shared commercial networks more reliably. The great news is, we already know the answer. Native to 4G LTE and soon to be the dominant feature of 5G is network slicing which amounts to a silver bullet for public safety and much, much more. Even though the world’s public safety users number only some 70 million, their stuff needs to work well all the time, period. The ability to provide dedicated, SLA-assured slices on existing mobile networks not only removes the pervading conundrum over shared vs. private, but opens up a huge number of opportunities for critical communications organizations and the carriers that support them.

But this coming sea change will need to be managed, and public safety agents will be required to move with the times and onboard new technologies that will radically extend their capabilities. While the current cohort of agents, habituated to using group calls to get information will need to be re-trained, the next generation of operatives will ask which AI system their dispatchers are using. Real-time data delivery is already a component in game-based training where teams solve problems in the field with the help instant, AI-delivered data.

A corollary to this, and though on its face may seem quite different, is in the area of billing. This came up last week at another conference, the TM Live! Forum 2017 in Nice, France with KPN CTO Erik Hoving asking a rather disruptive but squarely on point question. “Why do we have a billing system at all?” he asked, pointing to the fact that the number of digital companies sending bills amounts to about zero. “We’ve spent zillions on BSS, but who wants a bill?” and he’s right. No one wants one, and the cost to carriers for this unwanted part of their service is phenomenal. And yet, just like old school public safety people are reluctant to jump aboard the shared network bandwagon, mobile operators, many of whom define themselves as billing companies, show all the nervousness of an identity crisis when the idea of a bill-free future comes up.

Once again, like dedicated networks, big billing systems are the product of the age oldcircuit switch voice era and are confined to counting minutes or bytes. And this, along with Best Effort is among the core reasons why consumers don’t feel a great deal of loyalty to their carrier or feel the value is there for the high monthly bills they pay. They don’t want to pay a middle man, but they are more than willing to pay content providers for the stuff that they love. On the flip side, one trick pony services like Spotify and Netflix have paved the way for this with unlimited services at bargain basement prices.

As mobile operators venture into these waters, the idea of integrating these services into their behemoth billing systems makes no sense. But further, and what does make sense is moving their entire business model over to unlimited, or time based service and hey, why not go the age-old net zero path and bring those advertisers aboard? Certainly customers love it, and revenue potential is huge.

And while we’re on the subject of revenues, let’s return for a minute to network slicing which will play an enormous role in all of this coming together. While everyone selling any technology will talk about the "Win-Win", or even triple win and always big Op Ex and Cap Ex savings and revenues, I have been in the tech and telecom world for a while and I have never seen anything like this. Network Slicing not only allows the mobile operator to deliver real value within their core business (which is not billing btw), solve the issue of serving multiple industry segments, including public safety, but most importantly all but guarantee a dramatically improved customer experience; and all this at a fraction of the cost of traditional network deployments. What’s more, network slicing can be delivered and paid for OTT in the same way Netflix or Spotify does.. There are too many wins to name, but you get the point.

None of this will happen over night, and certainly it will take a major change to the culture, thinking and business model of the mobile service industry, but the opportunity is simply too great to ignore.

By Mika Skarp, Founder and CTO, Cloudstreet

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