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Should telcos be embracing true hybrid connectivity?

Image: Adobe Stock / pinkrabbit

Tristan Wood, UK MD of Livewire Digital, explains why hybrid connectivity could prove to be the biggest disrupter in the automation of networks.

A new generation of networks is on the horizon which use generative AI tools to self-monitor their operations and resolve technical issues, on-demand and beyond pre-defined design bounds. This could revolutionise the telephony and the connectivity markets on a level never seen before.

Whatever the pace of take-up, the pathway from networks which automate tasks within pre-defined limits – Level 3 autonomy – to networks which can adapt to the unknown – Level 5 – is inevitable. The question is how quickly the established players – and less established disrupters – will be in implementing it, and to what extent.

In fact, according to TM Forum, the global industry association for service providers and their suppliers, most telcos (84%) are not even at Level 3 autonomy for their networks, which means they are somewhere between manual maintenance and monitoring at one end and closed-loop operations with partial and selective AI in very specific environments at the other. According to Capgemini Research Institute, most telcos aspire to reach at least Level 3 autonomy by 2028.

Why does all this matter?

With autonomy comes benefits, not just in terms of quality of service (QoS) and experience (QoE), but commercially. Through a variety of autonomous network initiatives implemented over the past two years, many telcos throughout the world have harvested improvements in operational performance, by as much as 20%, and operational expenditure (Op Ex) 18%. The economics alone stack up.

We simply don’t have time to go into the technical detail of implementing autonomy, be it fixed line, cellular or satellite network, but the broad principles will be pretty adjacent. These may include customer-facing conditions such as subscriber churn and behaviour predictive analysis, predictive maintenance, network slice optimisation (i.e., customising their networks for different applications and customers), adaptive and dynamic network policies and network failure prediction, alongside many others. Taken together, however, the benefits can and indeed should be enormous. For those telcos embracing satellite and cellular, or indeed other networks in their proposition, the benefits will be even greater. Which leads us onto hybrid.

Welcome to a three-dimensional world

So far, we have been talking about introducing autonomy in a vertical sense, across a linear network, whether it be a fibre broadband network or 5G, for instance.  As we have already seen, introducing AI and automation into national networks like these at scale, is a colossal enough task on its own, notwithstanding the additional challenge that many if not most countries class networks as critical national infrastructure (CNI), meaning that stability and compliance are not just good to have, they are legal obligations. 

If we are talking about true hybrid connections, however – not just failover and redundancy, which are not the same things and have few of the benefits – then we are moving conceptually from the vertical integration of autonomy to the three dimensional.

At its core, true hybrid networks become ‘heterogenous’ – turning a single bonded connection – fixed line, cellular, satellite, emergency services network, whatever the underlay or infrastructure – into one seamless connection. The benefits of which, for the user, are off the grid. 

In short, with true hybrid, we are talking about ubiquitous, always-on, guaranteed connectivity, and intelligent management of physical, virtual and financial resources to suit an almost limitless range of conditions. In government and business critical environments, this is even more important because lives and livelihoods could be at stake as well.

It’s hybrid but not as you know it

Central to hybrid is SD-WAN – a technology that uses software-defined networking concepts to distribute network traffic across a wide area network, or WAN.  This architecture creates a virtual overlay that bonds underlying private or public WAN connections, such as Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), internet broadband, fibre, wireless or LTE.  As a result, hybrid SD-WAN networking can agnostically combine and transition between these networks.

In this way, multiple network technologies are able to work seamlessly together, actively sharing the load and resources, by combining, and binding together a potentially unlimited variety of bearers into a single ‘pipe’.

Delivering a faster and, crucially, more reliable service, a hybrid platform adapts to a range of potential variables, depending upon each bearer’s performance and any other environmental conditions affecting it, in order to optimise performance and reduce costs. Similar to how voice calls are routed for minimum cost, settings in a hybrid environment can be adjusted to use the most cost-effective option, like prioritising cellular over satellite if it works well enough. This saves money by not always relying on satellite. The same approach should be taken for QoS to ensure important applications perform well despite limited network capacity and changing bandwidth and latency.

Being able to integrate existing and future connectivity services is a powerful proposition that can enable more efficient systems, workflows, and people, and there are many underlying communication technologies willing to pick up this baton.

Despite recent advances in telecommunications technology – from 5G and disruptive low-cost LEO satellite services – no single network service can address the exponential demand for seamless connectivity on the move. Nor is there any provider which can offer a single comprehensive solution that can address coverage, bandwidth, reliability and most importantly cost.

Monetisation of hybrid is coming

The concept of agnostically making use of any carrier network, based on location, cost or quality of service, should dramatically reduce the impact of the problem, and yet awareness and application of ‘bonding’ technology is nowhere near where it should be as machines and people demand ever faster ‘always-on’ connectivity.

The market opportunities are seemingly unlimited for the adoption of true hybrid. Designed to meet the challenges presented by a fast-moving train travelling through different areas of network coverage, smart networking enables a dynamic connection to various operators using a range of underlying communication technologies such as 3G, 4G, 5G, Wi-Fi and satellite.

Many other industries spanning defence, space exploration, connected and autonomous vehicles, emergency services, telehealth, cloud-based HPC, as well as AI and machine learning, require more than just connectivity; they demand an ‘intelligent connection’. This unstoppable process is ushering in significant opportunities for the telecommunications companies (and OEM, and many other technology-driven enterprises besides) to revolutionise their operations, and the same applies in consumer services.

From connected, intelligent and software defined vehicle manufacture to aircraft as a service, smart aircraft and mobility, the speed of change and the wider application of automation and AI in many other realms of life are forcing players to scale up and/or hasten increasing horizontal consolidation of the sector.

In short, hybrid is here to stay, and you can read our free report on this very subject of how telcos could be impacted .

So, what’s the issue here for telecommunication companies?

Big money will eventually follow the adoption of true hybrid.  But if enterprises large and small are following B2B service providers who bundle connectivity with their own services – such as desktop management and enterprise mobility, cloud-based solutions and software as a service (SaaS) – the market risks even greater fragmentation.

If true hybrid enables customers to be network agnostic, which it does, then everything is up for grabs. Surely, it makes sense for telcos to make the first move and to do so early, before others move into this space.

Whilst they are at such a crucial pivot point for the survival of their business models, it makes sense for telecommunication companies to embed true hybrid and cash in on the huge market opportunities it brings with it.

Picture of Tristan Wood
Tristan Wood
UK MD of Livewire Digital

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