For centuries, advances in science, technology, and socio-economics have done a great job in making our planet smaller. In telecommunications, from early telegraphy to telephony, Internet, mobility, video and now immersive communication experiences, people have increasingly been able to keep in touch, to a point where they can reach anyone, instantly, at any time, and in any location. Even if they’re traveling at close to 500 mph and 30,000 ft. Have you heard of British astronaut Tim Peake phoning a wrong number from the International Space Station in December last year? “Is this planet Earth?”
Now, what can be coming next? What is the next big evolution? As I picked up a copy of the Future X Network by Bell Labs, I certainly was not expecting to read about teleportation – I do not believe it is around the corner, tell me if I am wrong – but was genuinely curious to read what some of the brightest minds in the industry would depict as the near term future of telecommunications.
As a sci-fi amateur, having grown up pre-Internet, but with dreams of colonizing Mars and other planets of our solar system, I was quickly put back in my place. Bell Labs make it clear that this is about the coming decade, no less, no more, and that every assumption, every prediction, is based on capabilities and trends that are already in place or well on their way. This is not about designing new science or new theories, it is instead an inventory of all the problems posed, and solutions offered, to our global network.
I was therefore not really surprised that the book identified three major evolutions in telecommunications: the transformation into cloud-integrated network, the boom of the Internet of Things, and the advent of augmented intelligence. If you follow any technical publication or thread, you have certainly heard about SDN and NFV, about IoT and M2M, or about Big Data, analytics or decision automation.
What gave me pause, instead, was the level of sophistication, and the degree of complexity in today’s networks. There are so many different technologies, functions and components that need to be assembled, deployed, maintained, updated, and optimized to deliver the type of services and experiences – with the best quality! – that users and businesses have become accustomed to.
I felt for the telecom service providers. Granted there are healthy ecosystems of technology vendors and manufacturers, multiple standard bodies, and a greedy customer demand that are helping and fueling these transitions. Yet service providers bear the brunt of the cost and complexity. They need to rapidly invest and adapt their assets, not the least of which being their very workforce, and still manage to be profitable in an increasingly competitive landscape.
I felt for them even more, when taking into account that, as of today, they are scarcely reaping any major benefit from this work. Who is in the spotlight and makes the big money? Apple, Samsung, Google, Amazon, Microsoft, “Over-The-Top” players (Facebook, Twitter, Uber, Lyft, AirBnB etc.). It’s almost like names such as AT&T, Verizon or Deutsche Telekom – pardon the teenager language – sound “so-o-o last century.”
Yet here they are, once again, investing to make their LTE network IoT-friendly (with LTE-M and analytics platforms for example) and getting ready for the next wave, 5G which, without the constraint of retro-compatibility, will provide a great mobile network for the broadest possible variety of use cases (high or low bandwidth, low power, highly mobile or not, low latency etc.).
Is there a business model and/or a strategy that will elevate telecom service providers from being infrastructure providers and let them grab a larger share of the value that will be generated by these new customer experiences? Is there an operational model that will enable them to rival with the Google, Amazon, Apple, Tesla, SpaceX of the world to become innovation powerhouses?
I know that these questions are what is keeping many telecom service provider CxOs awake at night. Unfortunately, the Bell Labs book does not provide a clear answer to that. If it did, it probably would not have been published in the first place! But to the open mind, it does provide a whole slew of insights.
And here is what I came up with. In the IoT chapter, when looking at “Future devices and applications”, the Future X Network mentions two examples that “call for low-latency and highly reliable mission-critical communication”: drones and self driving cars. And I thought: “Why stop there? Why not talk about the logical next step? What about passenger-carrying drones?”
And that’s how I designed AirBOrne VEhicles Services (ABOVE) a new transportation experience, allowing individuals to fly where they want, when they want, and at a fraction of the cost (and inconvenience) of today’s air travel. If I mastered the critical technology and infrastructure for ultra low-latency vehicle-to-vehicle communication, ultra-broadband mobile connectivity to airborne objects, I would invest now in creating an ecosystem and building an early ABOVE prototype.
This prototype would be a hybrid road-vehicle and “passenger UAV” that would operate like a normal (self-driving) car in towns and suburbs, until reaching a take off/landing platform that would serve as an Access Node to the aerial network. Air traffic control would look nothing like it is today but resemble more a Service Provider Network Operation Center with thousands of routers, millions of mobile end-points and the utter exigence of 99.9999% reliability (yes that’s one more 9 than the traditional 5 to beat current airline reliability – and, incidentally, current road safety statistics).
From a business model perspective, users and businesses would not necessarily own the vehicle. It could be leased and included in the service package by service providers. You could pick a high-end rose gold luxury sedan, or go for the economy model. Packages would vary from frequent user (commuters) to a la carte users. But imagine not having to pay double the price of your ticket in the summer compared to the same flight in the winter season! And you would not need to worry about multiplying the cost when bringing your kids! Imagine the disruption to the current airline industry! Imagine the platoons of Above vehicles safely flying, at high speed, in a straight-line, and with the same comfort as the luxury car of your choice, making the planet, once more, ever smaller.
Sounds crazy? Not more than Blue Origin or SpaceX efforts of reusing space launchers. In fact, Telecom Service Providers, this could be your next adjacent space and, if you need to bring an ecosystem together to get started, I’m game!