Simplification blurs the picture

A sure sign that 'Web 2.0' has outlived its usefulness as a label is the emergence of new marketing strategies designed to capitalize on the buzz. Microsoft is talking up 'Telco 2.0' - which is essentially fixed-mobile convergence with snazzier up-to-date terminology and better bandwidth.

Cisco Systems has coined 'Video 2.0' for its IP-NGN strategy, which is basically network-based personalized on-demand video services that we've been told will be the future of TV for the last ten years. I don't object to the technologies or products of either company - I'm just saying the '2.0' thing is getting out of hand.

The same is becoming true for two other catchall tech terms: NGN and 4G.

Tech marketers tend to speak of NGN as a technological goal - which it is to a point. The problem is that NGN isn't just one or two technologies or products - it's a mish-mash of boxes and protocols and apps based on a slew of technologies, some of which are commercially available while others are anywhere from two to seven years from finalization. But some PowerPoints of late simplify this notion to the point where one could almost be forgiven for assuming that, say, NGN and IMS are pretty much the same thing.

Then there's '4G', a term that if nothing else is meaningless to consumers who have enough trouble understanding the difference between 2.5G and 3G. And like NGN (and Web 2.0, for that matter), the term also creates this inaccurate idea that wireless evolution can be meaningfully measured in specific generations.

It can't - not when the concept of wireless broadband (which is what 3G started as) has expanded into something much greater than cellular. One panelist at ITU TELECOM WORLD referred to mobile WiMAX as '3.9G'. He might have been joking. But then people used to seriously refer to EDGE as 2.75G.

The really big picture

Okay, admittedly there are plenty of people in the industry who already know all this. I actually met a couple during ITU World. One of them, K. Jay Miyahara, corporate chief engineer for NEC's mobile network operations unit, summed up the NGN dilemma nicely: 'Migrating to NGN is not as clear cut as going from an analog network to digital as we did 30 years ago,' he says.

'There's no way to know where NGN starts. Carriers want to evolve their networks, not build new ones from scratch, so they evolve them a bit at a time in different areas, but it's not just about networking, it's about the benefits that it enables. So rather than talking of NGN in technology terms, the more important aspect is, what does it do for users and society‾'

As for 4G, Nortel CTO John Roese pointed out that the 'G' shouldn't even apply to wireless evolution: '4G implies an evolution of the same paradigm. But everything you hear about '4G' says that a major paradigm shift in the economics and the network is required.

The next stage of wireless is not just upgrading base stations - it's the RAN, it's OFDM, it's MIMO, it's a flat topology with diverse end points and operations from an application perspective and the intelligence to personalize any given service based on context.

 

It's not just improved 3G.'

All good points, and ones that don't make it into PowerPoints nearly enough. I know that, realistically, you can only cram so much into a presentation, and most companies only specialize in one or a few aspects of next-gen IP networks and want to focus on their role in the evolution.

But arguably the Internet bubble bust was partially the result of investors who weren't getting the whole picture. It seems incredible now how many people failed to realize that so many elements - access speeds, backbone bandwidth, chip processing power, sufficient memory, protocol interoperability, etc - had to be in place for the Internet utopia to come anywhere close to expectations, and that they wouldn't all come at once.

The same will be true for NGN and 4G, and as the hype starts to build up again, it's worth remembering that the Big Picture is even bigger than it looks.

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