Jarich: IoT, NFV and small cells: Stuff we shouldn't be talking about in 5 years

peter jarich

Peter Jarich

I'm not a fan of clickbait. Like most people, I've been burned by my fair share of headlines promising mind-blowing historical photos, or posing inflammatory questions the author has no intention of answering. So, believe me, I'm not trying to lure you in with the suggestion that in five years we WILL NOT be talking about some of today's hottest topics in telecom network infrastructure. I know we will.  My question is…should we?

I started asking myself this question a few weeks ago while at an IoT-focused conference. The keynotes kicked off with CIOs and vendor execs talking about the amazing opportunities IoT presents. They backed up their talking points with specific use cases for new services. Connected lighting. Connected parking. Connected factories. The examples were familiar to most. And everyone nodded at the notion of applying IoT technology to rail transportation, connecting trains in order to optimize traffic, maximize fuel efficiency and deal with potential emergencies. Everyone but me.

The concept of trains as "things" and connecting them in an IoT solution didn't immediately make sense to me. Haven't trains been around for over a century? Don't we already collect information on railcar operations? Of course the answer is yes. Developed initially as a safety measure, railroad control systems have morphed from electro-mechanical sensors and signaling technology, into software and hardware platforms that communicate with surrounding infrastructure such as stoplights and highway-rail grade crossings to optimize safe train control, maximize fuel efficiency, and deal with potential emergencies.

This all seemed less like IoT and more like just the way railways are operated.  

Just because a market or technology is no longer new doesn't mean it's not worth identifying, calling out, and talking about. But when something becomes the "new normal" the hype subsides and the point of talking it up – explaining the technology, educating the market, selling the value proposition – dissipates. Think about it this way; it's a lot harder to host a major conference around something when the questions or debates around it clear up.

Five years from now, do I think all of the questions around IoT will be answered? No. Do I think IoT will be the "new normal" along with technologies like small cells and NFV? Yes. We shouldn't be talking about NFV when all functions are virtual (or all new ones). We shouldn't be talking about small cells when they're just a normal part of RAN deployment. We shouldn't be talking about IoT when it's a normal part of any business operations.

  • IoT vs. The Way We Do Business. Let's return to my connected train example. Now, replace the word "train" with "airplane." Would you consider tracking the locations, routes and fuel usage of planes as IoT? Probably not. But, what about collecting data about its engines? Sure, that gets called out all the time as an IoT use case. Why? At one point, more recently, it was novel. Now, not so much. It's the same with casinos tracking slot machine performance (in real time and over time). You've got connected things with data analytics (in rest and in motion) and yet you might not immediately associate this with IoT. It's now just business as usual. As businesses of all stripes embrace – or, at least, accept – digital transformation, IoT will increasingly just be a part of that process.
  • NFV vs. The Way We Build Networks. This one's simple. As virtual network functions become the de facto starting point for operators, the fact that they're virtual is less and less of a distinction. They simply become network functions. NFV will simply be the way networks are built and functions are rolled out. Will the transition from physical to virtual network functions be complete in five years? Nope. AT&T's goal for 2020 is 75 percent virtual and, by all accounts, it's much farther along in the NFV journey than most other carriers. Regardless, as vendor portfolios and operator deployments treat virtual functions as the default, NFV becomes less of a concept worth identifying and more of a reality getting deployed.
  • Small Cells vs. The Way We Build the RAN. If you include femtocells in your definition, we've been talking about small cells for more than a decade.  What makes me think this topic will slide into the background in the next five years? Think 5G and LTE-A Pro technologies focused on network densification. Think mobile carrier interest in unlicensed LTE, leveraging small cells. Think a blurring of the lines between macrocell base stations, small cells, and distributed antenna systems. While small cell deployments haven't lived up to early expectations, all signs point to them being an integral part of wireless deployments going forward, even if siting and backhaul continue to be deployment obstacles. As they become just another tool in a carrier's coverage and capacity arsenal, they should just become "base stations."

Do you recall when carriers began losing their SMS business, and the significant revenues it generated, to messaging apps?  Do you remember how this "crisis" was in the news on a nearly daily basis? When was the last time you saw this topic covered in the media, presented at a conference, or even brought up in your own conversations about the market? It's probably been a while.

That's not because this isn't an issue anymore. It's just the "new normal" we're all used to. Much in the way IoT, small cells, and NFV should be circa 2021.

Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.