In an interview with European Communications, Ericsson's Simon Williams discusses latest trends in IP networking, and says the delivery of personalised end-to-end IP-based services and apps is key to enable ‘always on' user-to-user interaction. By Anne Morris
The rise of fixed broadband connectivity and the advent of Internet browsers had a huge impact on the global economy, and on life in general, over the past 10-15 years. Now, we are on the verge of the next phase of broadband service provision that promises to be even more significant, according to Simon Williams, CTO of Ericsson's IP & Broadband division.
This new era of IP networking is characterised by much greater growth in mobile broadband user numbers, significantly more network bandwidth driven by fixed and mobile broadband, changing social behaviour, the need to always be connected, and the drive to connect a multitude of disparate devices from smartphones to home appliances.
Ericsson believes that there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020, and this will have a profound impact on how we live our lives - both personal and business. It won't just be devices such as phones, PCs, smartphones and laptops; Ericsson says a much wider range of consumer electronics and machine-to-machine devices will be connected to the network and will affect how consumers use services, and how service providers support networks, services, devices and users.
"Everyone's familiar with their mobile phones, and everyone's familiar with...smartphones...they're almost like mini computers now, when you consider the BlackBerry or the iPhone or the Android phones that are starting to come out," says Williams. "Now you can get dongles for your laptops...and just as most laptops now have built-in WiFi...we'll also see them having integrated mobile broadband capabilities."
What is starting to happen, says Williams, is that connectivity is being added to a much wider range of consumer electronics products. "This could include cameras, hand-held gaming consoles and so on," he says. One of the bigger trends here, in Williams' view, is what is happening with televisions:
"If you buy a TV today...they all have integrated clients to access content and services over the Internet. And this is an extremely powerful thing, because while a lot of Internet-based services, historically, have only been able to be accessed by what we would call the ‘geek user'...when you start to integrate this into a TV set...the number of people that can use these services goes up exponentially," he says.
That in turn puts incredible demands on the network, he adds, because you're accessing video content that requires significant bandwidth. "And the other interesting trend is over-the-top video, which is delivered independent of the service provider, such as the BBC iPlayer."
Williams says service providers should be aware of OTT content, but not be scared of it: "The reality is that over-the-top video has become a very proven and effective way of delivering video services, but to complement the more traditional ways. We're not suggesting that this will replace fixed IPTV networks. We don't think it will replace broadcast satellite, or cable, but we think that it is a very effective way to deliver, for example, specialised content, and non-mainstream sporting events and movies."
But the 50 billion connections will not be reached through consumer electronics alone: Ericsson believes that telematics services for cars and commercial transportation will also be a significant growth area for the provision of services such as repair and maintenance, navigation, goods tracking, and emergency service.
This is also referred to as machine-to-machine communications, which Williams says will also be used in household products such as refrigerators, washing machines and even coffee machines and toasters to enable remote services and usage. Further, M2M will continue to be deployed in broader areas such as parking meters, vending machines, surveillance systems, utility meters, and so on.
Williams notes that the amount of bandwidth that's transmitted is very low for M2M services. "But what's interesting is the control packets," he says. "A very high percentage of the total is control packets, not data. Extrapolate that across literally millions or tens of millions or hundreds of millions of devices, and the network requirements change drastically. It's no longer about total bandwidth. It's about scaling the network to be able to handle the incredible increase in control packets, even though each single device provides a drop in the ocean in terms of network requirements of bandwidth."
The interesting point to note here, says Williams, is that most generalists talk about more bandwidth and yet more bandwidth. "And that's very true," he says. "But that's only one dimension; if you have more and more bandwidth, but you continue to handle the control information at the same level and assume you just have phones and a few laptops, the network will fall over. The network needs to scale on bandwidth and number of connected subscribers, devices and sessions. "
The new era in IP networking and control is coming very quickly, but it's sometimes difficult to assess what is the implication of this will be, he adds. Williams uses the analogy of the mid 1990s, when most people were struggling with dial-up Internet access, or just not bothering with home Internet at all. "The first thing to happen," says Williams, "was the move from dial-up to broadband. The second thing was the proliferation of browsers, or http-based browsing."
Those two things, he says, caused an incredible change in the way the world was run for the next 10-15 years, with the number of global broadband subscribers now estimated to be close to 500 million, according to Point Topic. "I would now say that we're at the cusp of the next big era of this kind," says Williams, thanks to the advent of mobile broadband and the increased connectivity of devices, not to mention the huge growth in social networking and how this is affecting people's online behaviour and habits.
"I mean, none of this stuff existed; now it's coming in force," says Williams. "Consider what the impact of this is going to be over the next 10 or 12 years. For me, it's absolutely incredible."
Ericsson forecasts there will be 3.5 billion mobile broadband subscriptions by 2013, while the amount of bandwidth over fixed broadband will continue to grow very fast. "Fibre will quickly become the default standard to get those speeds up even faster," adds Williams.
The direct consequence of all this is that how the network is being used is radically changing, says Williams, "and I would certainly call it an opportunity for our service provider customers to differentiate themselves from their competition. It also requires a whole different perspective of how to build the network and that is what Ericsson is focused on."
Williams says service providers will have to plan for the new IP networking era. Indeed, they are already changing how they buy and manage networks.
"Historically, service providers have bought networks on a box-by-box basis...and basically built the network up with what they considered to be the best-in-breed box for their requirements, their network," he says. "In this new kind of era, I think that that's changing and we think that service providers are going to be taking more of an end-to-end view because this is becoming really, really complex."
It's not just about connectivity any more, says Williams. "It's about a suite of differentiated services; it's about ensuring that the quality of experience on a per-service basis is there and maybe it's only there if the end user is paying a premium, so you've got to know who the user is, and you also have to know what device they're using, and where."
Williams says Ericsson is starting to see service providers increasingly take an end-to-end approach in order to deliver these end-to-end personalised services, particularly with the rollout of mobile networks. The Swedish vendor benefits here from its long-term experience with mobile network provision as well as its strong managed services business.
"Many of our customers even outsource the management of the network," he says.
"Probably the most recent case in point would be Sprint in the US. Not only did they not buy on a box-by-box basis, they looked for a complete solution to the point of saying, ‘look, we're going to handle the marketing and the kind of the services we want to run, but we need you, Ericsson, we're going to outsource the whole management of the network to you'."
Sprint is probably an extreme case of what is happening at the moment, but Williams says that what Ericsson is seeing is definitely a growing trend.
"Some service providers will choose to outsource, others certainly will not, but the ones that don't will, we believe, look to more end-to-end infrastructure solution purchases versus going box by box. Another key consideration for service providers is the ability of the vendor to guarantee the end to end network performance and the individual services it carries and this is a key strength of Ericsson's solutions approach which enables these guarantees."
Some operators will still buy by the box, he adds, but "it's about having competitive boxes," he says. "You also have to have the ability to tie those systems together in a meaningful way that provides more value."
Williams notes that Ericsson now has a wide portfolio of services that allows it to address all the different service provider scenarios. "You really have to have the optical access, the radio access, you have to have the metro Ethernet, the metro optical, you have to have the service edge, the PE routing. You have to have to IMS layer, or the OSF layer. You need to have all these things," he says.
Nevertheless, Williams says more competencies can always be added and partnerships will still be maintained to fill any gaps.
Williams does concede that Ericsson is still seen as strong on mobile, but less strong on fixed networks. But he believes the new era we are about to enter will also enable new players to emerge: "We will be able to significantly grow and be seen as much more than just a mobile player, because we believe we have the ability and are one of the few vendors who could do this. We do have significant capability and market presence in fixed networks and believe we can leverage this together with our recognised mobile strength to be a leader in the new end-to-end IP networking era."
Williams says the world is only at the start of the next IP networking era: "At the end of a phase you see new leaders. Some of the leaders in the previous phase, of course, are still leaders in the next phase, but I would say that because of our service provider focus and our capabilities, we have the ability to become a leader in not just mobile."
As the world of IP networking changes, Williams also welcomes increasing efforts by service providers to control how users consume and pay for data on mobile broadband networks, such as the recent introduction by AT&T and O2 UK of tiered pricing for their smartphone packages.
"That to me is a very good indicator that the service providers recognise the potential of offering service diversity and the impact that a lot of these services are going to have and it really just comes down to dollars and cents...I think it's a very fair way of doing things."
"Of course, from a consumer perspective," adds Williams, "they feel that they're getting ripped off and I can understand that since they are used to getting everything in one flat fee, but from a business person who is very, very focused on our service provider success, it makes perfect sense, and I think when you explain it to most people, they get it."
Williams is clearly excited about the new era of IP networking with mobile broadband growth, service personalisation and an end-to-end approach to building IP networks. The future of 50 billion connected devices, and the associated social and economic implications, will certainly make telecoms an exciting place to be in the coming years.