As digital and physical worlds continue to converge, communication and information technologies (ICTs) have become new engine which propels our world, having a profound impact on our daily lives. Expectations from ICT infrastructure will only get higher and there are key strategic planning matters that we must consider today as we prepare for a sustainable and ever-changing future.
Changes in way people communicate in 21st century have created major challenges for telecom operators. Maintenance, Building and upgrade of infrastructure are very capital- intensive, along with shorter equipment lifecycles and operators' stagnant revenues further complicating things. To balance needs of future with pressures of today, three things will need to happen: agreements on regulatory and industrial policies that encourage future infrastructure investment; reductions in total cost of building and operating networks; and a new level of industry collaboration where infrastructure is shared to maximize economies of scale and returns on investment.
Three ways to build better digital infrastructure
1) Establish right regulatory and industry policies to encourage infrastructure investment:
In heavily regulated ICT industry, today's fragmented regulatory regimes add unnecessary costs for infrastructure operators. Greater standardization in areas such as spectrum and technology would help reduce cost of R&D, network deployment and operation.
Spectrum cost currently represents a significant portion of entire mobile infrastructure investment, exceeding 20% in some countries. This definitely deters mobile network investment and by extension market competition. Regional difference in spectrum utilization adds another layer of cost. Today, United States and Asia-Pacific have different frequency usage models, a pricy divergence.
NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks) Alliance sensibly recommends an additional 500 MHz of spectrum be allocated to International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT). Countries and governments must create a healthier spectrum allocation mechanism that reduces cost of spectrum acquisition and regulators should further improve spectrum utilization through better standardization processes.
From a technology perspective, competing standards exist for 4G networks, requiring a range of more complex equipment and handsets to be designed and built to work with all of them. As we move towards development of 5G, converging today's LTE-FDD and TDD into a single LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) standard would be a key stepping stone towards goal of global network harmonization.
Policies and regulations should encourage growth and create a healthy market environment to enable all stakeholders to invest in the digital infrastructure.
2) Reduce cost of network infrastructure:
Industry is rapidly approaching a period where distinctions among fixed line access (fast and reliable but static) and wireless access (lower speed, less reliable but more flexible) are diminishing. We can now transmit data over high-speed wireless networks (3G, LTE and, in near future, 5G), allowing infrastructure operators to use wireless technology exclusively for access and fixed fibre networks for core and regional super-networks.
Wireless access is cheaper and faster for an operator to deploy than fixed. By means of wireless speeds expected to reach 10 Gbps over 5G by 2020, operators can begin to rely on mobile access to significantly reduce overall infrastructure costs. Small cell technology in home and business will also help boost wireless connection speeds in areas where coverage remains an issue.
Networks are traditionally hardware-driven, making them expensive and inflexible. Today's software-defined networks (SDNs) will allow operators and their enterprise customers to automatically provision services and balance traffic more efficiently, reducing both CAPEX and OPEX. In tandem with self-organized networks, SDN will simplify network maintenance, thus reducing operating expenses even further. Implementation of voice over LTE will unify voice and data networks, driving down costs even more.
In addition to reducing cost and improving efficiency of new network build outs, operators need to start looking for opportunities to shut down legacy networks. GSM or 2G networks, with their very limited data capability and diminishing revenues, continue to incur significant maintenance and repair costs. Japan has already responded by shutting down its 2G services.
Infrastructure sharing is also fundamental to reducing costs. Site acquisition and civil engineering are significant deployment costs. Involvement of civil engineering like towers, ducts and power lines can reduce them significantly. Governments, international organizations and industries need to develop more reasonable policies and standards to promote cross-industry collaboration and reduce cost.
3) Enhance collaboration both within ICT and across industries:
There is a need for industry collaboration to harmonize technology globally so that economies of scale for digital infrastructure are maximized, with market fragmentation avoided. This will require vendors, operators and entire system to intensify their cooperation to maximize synergy.
For evolving cloud-based services, we need common global standards for technology architecture. An industry player from both traditional IT and telecom fields must commit to robust cooperation that creates a more transparent and interoperable cloud environment and ensures sound growth for ICT industry.
Development of the industry value chain requires synergy among the device, network and cloud. Affordable devices and a wide variety of applications for individuals, households and enterprises will not only be driving force behind broadband network development, but also purpose of it.
For mobile services, industry needs to migrate 4G (LTE-FDD, TDD) to converged LTE-A. 5G should have a single standard and even 5G and next-generation Wi-Fi standards should use same or a very similar physical layer technology. This requires cross-sector collaboration that includes likes of semiconductor companies as well as telecom equipment vendors.
Opportunities ahead for ICT industry have never been more exciting. But element of future that is least clear -network - has a central role to play in this evolution. Decisions made today and over next few years will leave an indelible mark on future of society, as well as industry itself. Industry must tread carefully but deliberately, with new models, new rules and new principles for a new future.