Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Interview by bnetTV at LTE World Summit

Interview from bnetTV at LTE world summit on future of mobile networks and video.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Speed = QoE?

I was chairing the LTE World Summit in Amsterdam last week. One of the great presentations made there was by Bouygues Telecom's EVP of Strategy Frederic Ruciak. He presented the operator's strategy for LTE launch in France that led the challenger to the number one market share on LTE in less than one year. He was showing that consumers were not ready to pay for "more speed" because they had been sold the myth of mobile internet too many times. Consumers had been sold wap on GPRS, EDGE, them wireless internet on 3G, HSPA with low satisfaction. Using internet as the reason to upgrade to LTE is a loosing proposition.

One of the mistakes many make in this industry is equating speed with quality of experience (QoE). 

Our quest to increase speed in wireless networks is futile if we do not consider the other side if the coin: service experience. 

For instance, there is always a wave of enthusiasm at the launch of a new radio technology, when few users have access to ample network resources and the services that ride on it are those that were designed for the precious generation. 
I have generation 1 iPad and the latest iPad mini both on wifi. When I bought my first iPad, I had a great browsing experience. Navigation was fluid and fast. Now, it is rare that I am able to have more than 10 minutes browsing without a crash. It is not that the browser is corrupted, just that web pages have grown in size and complexity and when it took 2 seconds to load 10 elements 4 years ago, it now tries to load 40+ elements and inevitably runs out if resource, memory and crashes. The ipad mini is not as bad but not as good as the first generation 4 years ago.

When we are looking at LTE and LTE advanced and soon 5G, it seems that the only "benefit" we are selling as an industry is speed. We tend to infer an improvement in QoE, but it is rarely there. If I used LTE to browse a monochromatic text-based wap site, I am sure that speed would be an improvement in QoE. But no, as LTE is launched, web pages grow in complexity and size, encryption and obfuscation is creeping in, video is graduating from SD to HD to 4K... With video, the problem is even larger as the increase in screen size and definition seems to consistently outpace network speeds.
It becomes harder to sell a new technology if all it does is keeping up or catching up with the service, not improve drastically the user experience.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Q2 multiscreen video news

I use a service to curate and collate my news. Reading through the last few months, I realized that there are so many subjects worthy of comment that a single post wouldn't begin to address them meaningfully. I reserve in-depth analysis of specific trend or topic for my paying clients, so I decided to review and comment on press clippings and announcements as they become available as a way to illustrate the trends, threats and opportunities surrounding our market.
Here is what caught my attention in the last quarter:

Technology: Is 4K the new 3D?

April of course is synonymous with NAB frenzy. Sifting through the trough of announcements at the show, I have noticed a sharp change of direction in vendor’s announcements and claims from last year. When 2013 was all about HEVC H.265, this year seems to be about 4K. While HEVC licensing terms have been agreed and announced by MPEGLA in February, Google’s royalty-free VP9 has captured some support as well, forcing chipset and platform vendors to contemplate fragmentation and multi codec support. Obviously, the battle for codec and protocol will determine who controls the management and delivery of 4K content going forward. In this race, not surprisingly, YouTube is siding with its parent company with VP9 support, while Netflix is adopting H.265. Both companies agree though, and are adamant, that 4K is a lot easier to manage and deliver for OTT properties than for traditional broadcasting payTV providers. Netflix forecasts mass market for 4K to be five years out at the current rate of TV replacements. My opinion is that 4K adoption will suffer from H265/VP9 fragmentation. We will probably see further delays because of the cost of implementing dual protocol stack throughout the delivery chain.

Technology: Cloud, SDN, NFV

At NAB as well, vendors were eager to show off their new acronyms, touting dreams of cloud-based virtualized, self-managed, software-defined networks that would… In reality, most MSOs are still focusing on rolling out HD, improving and automatizing workflows and overall costs reduction. I think we still have 5 years to go before seeing practical, mature implementation of SDN in professional video. Anything else is a science experiment or a proprietary implementation at this point.

Business: MSO to OTT

One of the big news was the announcement from AT&T regarding their intent to invest, jointly with the Chernin Group up to $500million to create SVOD and advertising based web streaming services. Umm... Is it too much or not enough? $500 million goes a long way if you want to build a web streaming service, but it does not seem nearly enough if you want to build an attractive content offering.
HBO, the next day was reported to have signed a multi-year agreement with Amazon. The deal should see some of HBO’s back catalogue series made available to Amazon Prime subscribers. Little by little, HBO nudges the boundaries. You will remember that it signed a deal with Comcast last year to offer HBO Go to Comcast broadband subscribers, without a cable subscription. All signs point that HBO could be a major league OTT provider when they will be ready to cross over.

Business: OTT to Wireless

Almost coincidentally, rumours emerged that Netflix was in discussions with the Vodafone Group to distribute Netflix services on some Vodafone subscriptions. It is likely that these deals will increase in frequency. LTE /4G will see opportunities for cord-never and cord-shavers to access their favourite service and content on cellular networks. That is… if they figure out the charging model (paying 8$ a month for Netflix and $150 in data overage charge to Vodafone wouldn't really work).

Business: OTT to MSO

Netflix has integrated its offering on Atlantic Broadband, Grande Communication and RCN Telecom services set-top boxes, a first in the US after having piloted the concept in Europe. Subscribers will be able to select the service from their PayTV provider. It is an interesting strategy for small MSOs to bundle Netflix in hybrid Set top boxes. It increases reach, provides an attractive offering and good differentiation against market leaders.

Business: M&A

Kaltura bought TVinci to expand its SVOD offering to live and linear programming. Arris bought SeaWell Networks for its advertising insertion and packaging at the edge technology. SeaWell Networks’ strong adaptive bit rate streaming skill set will be invaluable to expand the company’s multiscreen strategy.

That’s all folks for this quarter! I will keep all the good net neutrality commentary for next month, hopefully when the smoke dissipates from the PR battlefield.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

SDN & NFV part IV: testing / monitoring in Wireless Networks

As mentioned (here , here and here), I have been busy working on the various benefits and impacts of implementing virtualized network function in wireless networks.
One problem I have come across lately is the fact that one of the tenet of NFV and SDN is to reduce potential of vendor lock-in at the hardware level. It is true that virtualization of the software allows commercial off the shelf servers to be used in lieu of appliances, for a fraction of the cost of acquisition and operation.
One of the problem that is emerging is the testing, monitoring, troubleshooting and quality assurance of virtualized networks. Vendors in this field have traditionally relied on passive probes performing traffic interception and analysis at various point of the network / interfaces.

In a SDN/NFV world, it becomes difficult to test / monitor / troubleshoot a single service when the resources associated with the service are mutualized, virtualized and elastic.
Right, now most virtualized functions are at the service / product level, i.e. a vendor takes a product, for instance EPC and virtualizes it and its components. The deployment remains monolithic and while there might be elasticity within the solution, the components themselves cannot be substituted. This result in a multi-vendor environment only as far as the large functions are concerned, but not at the component level.
Monitoring and assuring traffic between components become problematic because of the lack of standardization of East-West interfaces.

Testing, monitoring, QA vendor must virtualize their offering through virtualized software probes and taps implemented as virtual network interface cards (vNICs) or switches, but more importantly must deeply integrate with orchestrators, element managers and controllers in order to be able to monitor the creation, instantiation and growth of virtual machines.

This implementation requires the maintenance of a stateful mapping of network functions and traffic flow in order to correlate data and signalling planes.

At this stage, vendors in this field must prepare themselves for a rather long business development engagement in order to penetrate the ecosystem and integrate with each vendor / solution independently. The effort is not unlike one of orchestrators who need to integrate deeply with each network virtual function vendor in order to accurately understand their respective capabilities and to build the VNF catalogue and lifecycle.

As for many in the NFV space, the commercial strategy must evolve as well towards licensing rather than transaction / volume charging. Virtualized network functions will see the number of elements and vendors grow to 100's and 1000's and inevitably, large system integrators will become key single interface to network operators.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Mobile network 2030

It is summer, nice and warm. England and Italy are out of the world cup, France will beat Germany on Friday, then Brazil and Argentina in the coming weeks to obtain their second FIFA trophy. It sounds like a perfect time for a little daydreaming and telecom fiction...

The date is February 15, 2030

The mobile world congress is a couple of weeks away and has returned to Cannes, as the attendance and indeed the investments in what used to be mobile networks have reduced drastically over the last few years. Finished are the years of opulence and extravagant launches in Barcelona, the show now looks closer to a medium sized textile convention than the great mass of flashy technology and gadgets it used to be in its heyday. 

When did it start to devolve? What was the signal that killed what used to be a trillion dollar industry in the 90's and early 2000's. As usual, there is not one cause but a sort of convergence of events that took a momentum that few saw coming and fewer tried to stop. 

Net neutrality was certainly one of these events. If you remember, back in 2011, people started to realize the level of penetration fixed and wireless networks were exposed to from legal and illegal interception. Following the various NSA scandals, public pressure mounted to protect digital privacy. 
In North America, the battle was fierce between pro and con neutrality, eventually leading to a status quo of sorts, with many content providers and network operators in an uneasy collaborative dynamic. Originally, content providers unwilling to pay for traffic delivery in wireless networks attempted to secure superior user experience by implementing increasingly bandwidth hungry apps. When these started to come in contention for network resources, carriers started to step in and aggressively throttle, cap or otherwise "optimize" traffic. In reaction, premium content providers moved to an encrypted traffic model as a means to obfuscate traffic and prevent interception, mitigation and optimization by carriers. Soon enough, though, the encryption-added costs and latency proved impractical. Furthermore, some carriers started to throttle and cap all traffic equally, claiming to adhere to the letter of net neutrality, which ended up having a terrible effect on  user experience. In the end cooler heads prevailed and content providers and carriers created integrated video networks, where transport, encryption and ad insertion were performed at the edge, while targeting, recommendation, fulfillment ended up in the content provider's infrastructure. 

In Europe, content and service providers saw at the same time "net neutrality" as the perfect excuse to pressure political and regulatory organizations to force network providers to deliver digital content unfiltered, un-prioritized at best possible effort. The result ended up being quite disastrous, as we know, with content being produced mostly outside Europe and encrypted, operators became true utility service providers. They discovered overnight that their pipes could become even dumber than they were.

Of course, the free voice and texting services launched by some of the 5G licensees new entrants in the 2020's accelerated the trend and nationalization of many of the pan European network operator groups.

The transition was relatively easy, since many had transcended to full virtual networks and contracted ALUSSON the last "european" Telecom Equipment Manufacturer to manage their networks. After they had spent collectively over 100 billion euros to virtualize it in the first place, ALUSSON emerged as the only clear winner of the cost benefits brought by virtualization. 
Indeed, virtualization was attractive and very cost effective on paper but proved very complex and organizationally intensive to implement in the end. Operators had miscalculated their capacity to shift their workforce from telecom engineering to IT when they found out that the skill-set to manage their networks always had been in the vendors' hands. Few groups were able to massively retool their workforce, if you remember the great telco strikes of 2021-2022.
In the end, most ended up contracting and transitioning their assets to their network vendor. Obviously, liberated from the task of managing their network, most were eager to launch new services, which was one of the initial rationale for virtualization. Unfortunately, they found out that service creation was much better implemented by small, agile, young entrepreneurial structures than large, unionized, middle aged ones... With a couple of notable exceptions, broadband networks were written off as broadband access was written in the European countries' constitutions and networks aggregated at the pan European level to become pure utilities when they were not downright nationalized.

Outside Europe and North America, Goopple and HuaTE dominate, after voraciously acquiring licenses in emerging countries, ill-equipped to negotiate the long term values of these licenses versus the free network infrastructures these companies provided. The launch of their proprietary SATERR (Satellite Aerial Terrestrial Relay) technology proved instrumental to creating the first fully vertical service /network/ content / device conglomerates.  

Few were the operators who have been able to discern the importance of evolving their core asset "enabling communication" into a dominant position in their market. Those who have succeeded share a few common attributes:

They realized first that their business was not about counting calls, bites or texts but enabling communication. They first started to think in term of services and not technology and understood that the key was in service enablement. Understating that services come and go and die in a matter of months in the new economy, they strove not to provide the services but to create the platform to enable them.

In some cases, they transitioned to full advertising, personal digital management agency, harnessing big data and analytics to enrich digital services with presence, location, preference, privacy, corporate awareness. This required much changes organizationally, but as it turned out, marketing analyst were much easier and cost effective to recruit than network and telecom engineers. Network management became the toolset, not the vocation. 

In other cases, operators became abstraction layers, enabling content and service providers to better target, advertise, aggregate, obfuscate, disambiguate, contextualize, physical and virtual communication between people and machines.

In all cases they understood that the "value chain" as they used to know it and the consumer need for communication services was better served by an ever changing ecosystem, where there was no "position of strength" and where coopetition was the rule, rather than the exception.