Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Mobile World Congress 16 hype curve

Mobile World Congress 2016 was an interesting show in many aspects. Here are some of my views on most and least hyped subjects, including mobile video, NFV, SDN, IoT, M2M, augmented and virtual reality, TCP optimization, VoLTE and others

First, let start with mobile video, my pet subject, as some of you might know. 2016 sees half of Facebook users to be exclusively mobile, generating over 3/4 of the company's revenue while half of YouTube views are on mobile devices and nearly half of Netflix under 34 members watch from a mobile device. There is mobile and mobile, though and a good 2/3 of these views occur on wifi. Still, internet video service providers see themselves becoming mobile companies faster than they thought. The result is increased pressure on mobile networks to provide fast, reliable video services, as 2k, 4K, 360 degrees video, augmented and virtual reality are next on the list of services to appear. This continues to create distortions to the value chain as encryption, ad blocking, privacy, security, net neutrality, traffic pacing and prioritization are being used as weapons of slow attrition by traditional and new content and service providers. On the network operators' side, many have deserted the video monetization battlefield. T-Mobile's Binge On seems to give MNOs pause for reflection on alternative models for video services cooperation. TCP optimization has been running hot as a technology for the last 18 months and has seen Teclo Networks acquired by Sandvine on the heels of this year's congress.

Certainly, I have felt that we have seen a change of pace and tone in many announcements, with NFV hyperbolic claims subsiding somewhat compared to last year. Specifically, we have seen several vendors live deployments, but mostly revolving around launches of VoLTE, virtualized EPC for MVNOs, enterprise or verticals and ubiquitous virtualized CPE but still little in term of multi-vendor generic traffic NFV deployments at scale. Talking about VoLTE, I now have several anecdotal evidence from Europe, Asia and North America that the services commercially launched are well below expectation in term of quality an performance against circuit switched voice.
The lack of maturity of standards for Orchestration is certainly the chief culprit here, hindering progress for open multi vendor service automation. 
Proof can be found in the flurry of vendors "ecosystems". If everyone works so hard to be in one and each have their own, it underlines the market fragmentation rather than reduces it. 
An interesting announcement showed Telefonica, BT, Korea Telecom, Telekom Austria, SK, Sprint,  and several vendors taking a sheet from OPNFV's playbook and creating probably one of the first open-source project within ETSI, aimed at delivering a MANO collaborative project,.
I have been advocating for such a project for more than 18 months, so I certainly welcome the initiative, even if ETSI might not feel like the most natural place for an open source project. 

Overall, NFV feels more mature, but still very much disconnected from reality. A solution looking for problems to solve, with little in term of new services creation. If all the hoopla leads to cloud-based VPNs, VoLTE and cheaper packet core infrastructure, the business case remains fragile.

The SDN announcements were somewhat muted, but showing good progress in SD-WAN, and SD data center architecture with the recognition, at last, that specialized switches will likely still be necessary in the short to medium term if we want high performance software defined fabric - even if it impacts agility. The compromises are sign of market maturing, not a failure to deliver on the vendors part in my opinion.

IoT, M2M were still ubiquitous and vague, depicted alternatively as next big thing or already here. The market fragmentation in term of standards, technology, use cases and understanding leads to baseless fantasist claims from many vendors (and operators) on the future of wearable, autonomous transports, connected objects... with little in term of evidence of a coherent ecosystem formation. It is likely that a dominant player will emerge and provide a top-down approach, but the business case seems to hinge on killer-apps that hint a next generation networks to be fulfilled.

5G was on many vendors' lips as well, even if it seems to consistently mean different things to different people, including MIMO, beam forming, virtualized RAN... What was clear, from my perspective was that operators were ready at last to address latency (as opposed or in complement of bandwidth) as a key resource and attribute to discriminate services and associated network slices.

Big Data slid right down the hype curve this year, with very little in term of  announcement or even reference in vendors product launches or deployments. It now seems granted that any piece of network equipment, physical or virtual must generate rivulets that stream to rivers and data lakes, to be avidly aggregated, correlated by machine learning algorithms to provide actionable insights in the form of analytics and alerts. Vendors show progress in reporting, but true multi vendors holistic analytics remains extremely difficult, due to the fragmentation of vendors data attributes and the necessity to have both data scientists and subject matter experts working together to discriminate actionable insights from false positives.

On the services side, augmented and virtual reality were revving up to the next hype phase with a multitude of attendees walking blindly with googles and smartphones stuck to their face... not the smartest look and unlikely to pass novelty stage until integrated in less obtrusive displays. On the AR front, convincing use cases start to emerge, such as furniture shopping (whereas you can see and position furniture in your home by superimposing them from a catalogue app), that are pragmatic and useful without being too cumbersome. Anyone who had to shop for furniture and send it back because it did not fit or the color wasn't really the same as the room will understand. 
Ad blocking certainly became a subject of increased interest, as operators and service providers are still struggling for dominance. As encrypted data traffic increases, operators start to explore ways to provide services that users see as valuable and if they hurt some of the OTTs business models, it is certainly an additional bargaining chip. The melding and reforming of the mobile value chain continues and accelerates with increased competition, collaboration and coopetition as MNOs and OTTs are finding a settling position. I have recently ranted about what's wrong with the mobile value chain, so I will spare you here.

At last, my personal interest project this year revolves around Mobile Edge Computing. I have started production on a report on the subject. I think the technology has potential unlock many new services in mobile networks and I can't wait to tell you more about it. Stay tuned for more!

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