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Bell Labs: Telcos will fall behind traffic demand by 2020

Posted: 29 Apr 2016     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:network function virtualisation  software defined networks  cloud technologies  Bell Labs  IoT 

Consumer and business demand for mobile content will soon outpace the ability of telco providers to provide, Belle Labs has warned.

A Bell Labs study says overall cellular traffic generated by IoT devices will only account for 2% of total mobile traffic by 2020, the real pick-up coming when video-enabled sensors and cameras begin to predominate.

Throughout its long and illustrious existence, Bell Labs has focused on the big questions—and in its early days under the ownership of AT&T, on the fundamentals. How else could its researchers have come up with the transistor, charged coupled device image sensors, lasers, and the solar battery.

Now, as part of Nokia, it is still asking the big questions, but geared more towards commercial means and ends.

The first report from its newly created Consulting group focuses on nothing less ambitious than the future of mobile networks—how to build them and how operators will be able to profitably meet traffic demands by 2020.

The three key questions addressed by the group were:

  • What is the potential demand for new services today and by how much will it grow by 2020—globally and regionally?
  • How much of that demand can be met by unlicensed spectrum solutions and how can mobile operators profitably deliver the remaining (high mobility, long range, high performance) services?
  • How does the network have to change? How can new technologies and architectures help address the critical challenges?
One major conclusion was that, at the current rate of development and based on today's economics, just 81% of worldwide demand will be met by Wi-Fi and cellular (with Wi-Fi taking up two thirds of the demand.)

Bell Labs

Figure 1: Currently planned technologies and strategies can only partially address the opportunity gap

The big message is that mobile network operators urgently need to accelerate their investments to overcome this huge projected shortfall.

This may of course be self-serving, but nevertheless is a timely warning from where Nokia and its infrastructure supplier competitors sit in the mobile economy.

The report can be downloaded here.

Bell Labs Consulting emphasises that its study uses its own research on people's desire for digital content and services rather than simply extrapolating to predict future mobile traffic trends. It concludes that "with 3G, 4G (LTE) and small cells alone, operators will not be able to profitably address even half of the demand left untouched by Wi-Fi like technologies."

The answer? Telcos need to adopt new and potentially disruptive business models, and really start pushing on the developments of 5G and cloud technologies, including network function virtualisation (NFV) and software defined networks (SDN).

The report stresses that the cost of any such transition has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis. This is, mainly, because, any shift will still be hugely dependent on the existing state of the network infrastructure, labour costs, rights of way and local regulatory constraints, and not forgetting the ability for operational support systems to support legacy as well as future network systems.

This is said to be the subject of on-going work by Bell Labs Consulting with operators around the world.

Not surprisingly, the authors of the report came up with their own projection of what it suggests is the "emerging unknown" in the network equation—the IoT.

They suggest the number of IoT connected devices will increase from 1.6 billion in 2014 to anything between 20 and 46 billion by 2020. Of this total, cellular IoT devices will represent between 1.6 billion and 4.6 billion in 2020.

Despite this huge anticipated adoption rate, overall cellular traffic generated by IoT devices will only account for 2% of the total mobile traffic by 2020, the real pick-up coming when video-enabled sensors and cameras begin to predominate.

In fact, the report suggests that video and audio streaming will be the largest contributors to the increasing traffic demand over the short term, accounting for a 79% total increase by 2020.

The authors also warn that operators will need to address the need for massive increases in control plane capacity so as to handle the sporadic transmissions generated from billions of devices.

IoT traffic, of course, will generate a substantially higher volume of signalling traffic relative to data traffic. For instance, a typical IoT device may need 2,500 transactions or connections to consume 1MB of data, while the same amount of data can be consumed in a single mobile video connection.

"In this disruptive view, daily network connections due to cellular IoT devices will grow by 16 to 135-fold by 2020, and will represent three times the number of connections initiated by human generated traffic," suggests the report.

Marcus Weldon, president and CTO of Nokia Bell Labs, is adamant that the industry urgently needs to start a critical conversation about the future of networks and how to build them.

"The next evolution of humankind will involve 'life automation', and the creation of a world in which billions of interconnected things including smart objects, cameras, robots, sensors and processes exchange real-time video and data streams—not only with people, but with cloud-based systems that extract knowledge from this data and perform tasks to make our work and home lives more convenient and our environment more intelligent.

"The new digital era will produce a dramatic shift in demand, challenging mobile operators to achieve the highest performance at the lowest cost per bit while supporting extensive personalisation," proclaimed Weldon.

- John Walko
  EE Times U.S.

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