Regular attendees of telecoms conferences will frequently hear of the need to be nimbler, more dynamic, more transformative. But are operators being held back by standardisation amid the scramble to establish 5G and IoT networks?
Deutsche Telekom CTO Bruno Jacobfeuerborn told Mobile Europe last week that there is a risk of fragmentation as telcos race to brag they are the “world’s first” within a certain tech, albeit one he was hopeful would not happen.
Yogesh Malik, CTO at Vimpelcom, suggests something has got to give. Speaking to Mobile Europe, he says: “Maybe the existing model needs to be broken [although] certain frameworks and standards need to be there. What we would need to change, I am not so sure yet but I feel the jury is out.”
He argues that while standardisation has its benefits, there are examples of it causing more problems than it solves. He cites UMTS, which initially had problems with handsets, handovers and a need for denser base station networks. Malik says: “UMTS couldn’t deliver so we moved onto something else.”
A more pressing example is with LPWAN technology for IoT networks. While the standardisation process has been speeded up, the first NB-IoT networks, which will use operators’ cellular holdings, will only be seen next year despite demand existing today.
This gap has seen the likes of LoRa, Sigfox and Weightless try and fulfil that demand as NB-IoT gets thrashed out. Orange is one of the operators using LoRa, with the first cities in its nationwide network set to go live this month.
Luc Bretones, Senior Vice President, Orange Technocentre, thinks the risks are too high to rush the standardisation process. He says: “What’s really at stake for the Internet of Things is the quality of service, capacity, real time response and reliability. It can’t be a ‘best efforts’ network for the long term.
“The ecosystem will be ready in 2017 and it’s a matter of building that up now. All these ecosystems take a long time to adapt, correct itself and be relevant and reliable. It’s impossible to develop an ecosystem in such a short period of time. We are almost at the very start and there’s a lot to do.”
This insistence on reliability is critical, says Bretones. Enterprises and consumers will not be happy with something that sometimes works. He says: “The main interest with standards is to have something that every player can use right away and scale effectively. If you do lose some time [to standardisation] but the end result is more powerful, then the process works.”
However, those calling for change in the standardisation process have an unexpected ally in ETSI Director General Luis Romero. The head of the standards body says it needs to be ruthless. “We need to cut out what can be cut, all unnecessary and redundant processes,” says Romero. “But what you cannot cut is getting people together and getting them to meet a consensus. The risk is getting solutions that will go nowhere because it has not been discussed in the right way. That product will just end up on the shelf.”
He is less concerned about fears over fragmentation from impatient companies looking to set the agenda for 5G. He says: “We should differentiate between fragmentation and early proof of concepts or trials. There will be more and more of [the latter] of what the technology will be…These will only be beneficial to the standardisation process. But I believe fragmentation will be avoided through trial and error.”
He adds: “Nobody is interested in a fragmented ecosystem. The industry has learned from the early days of GSM. Everyone I speak to is keen to avoid fragmentation at all costs. They don’t see the benefit of it.”
That may be so but Romero says ETSI needs to learn from others, whether it’s open source communities or digital players. He says: “It’s been very much a telco approach [in the past]…We need to make a bigger effort to see what it is like to walk in their shoes.”
Expect the pace of standardisation to quicken, rather than it changing to a different track.