Sure, driverless cars are cool, but Intel exec sees drones as interesting 5G use case

When a natural disaster takes down traditional telecom gear, service providers could create a temporary wireless network using drones. Image: Intel

While Intel dazzled the audience with hundreds of drones during Lady Gaga’s Super Bowl halftime show, it’s the 5G use cases for drones that excites Intel’s VP and GM of its Network Platforms Group.

Sure, autonomous cars tend to get all the glam, but it’s pretty cool from an infrastructure perspective to see drones being used for wireless tower inspections. Drones can also serve as a sort of on-the-fly way of providing wireless infrastructure after a natural disaster when the infrastructure is destroyed and service providers need a quick fix.

Sandra Rivera
Sandra Rivera of Intel’s Network Platforms Group

“The ability to actually create a wireless network out of drones that are hovering over that area and creating that connectivity I think is a very interesting use case as well,” said Sandra Rivera, VP and GM of Intel’s Network Platforms Group. “Drones are a very exciting area.”

RELATED: AT&T, Intel agree to test drones on LTE network

Of course, Intel is heavily involved in the SDN/NFV world and asked if it’s possible to get to 5G without those components, Rivera said from a cost effectiveness perspective, it’s not really feasible to go to 5G without SDN and NFV.

There are good reasons for that. Typically, telecom networks have been constructed or “over-engineered,” as Rivera puts it, to meet the kinds of reliability and uptime requirements driven by regulatory and customer commitments.

But if network providers were to follow that same route to 5G, they’d be in a position where it would be cost prohibitive, and “you would really be upside down” in terms of what it costs to build out, operate and maintain that network.

Especially with 5G, where the standards are still being written and use cases hammered out, it would be infeasible to try to support all the different use cases with a legacy type of strategy. Stakeholders don't even know what use cases they're going to be asked or want to support in the future.

RELATED: Verizon's 5G efforts get boost from Intel

So how is the industry doing in terms of moving to a virtualized world? AT&T has been very public about its ambitions, saying that it wants 75% of its network to be virtualized by 2020. Last year, the operator completed the year with 34% of its target virtualized and it’s on a trajectory to equip 55% of its network with software by the end of 2017.

Those same statements haven’t been made by other carriers, but “all of them are embracing a network virtualization strategy,” Rivera said. “Everybody is embracing that because they know they have an urgent business problem,” which is the amount of data, particularly video, traversing their networks and the need to remain profitable in a world where they’re going to need agile, fast-moving networks.

“They’re all in various stages,” and “it isn’t just a technology problem,” she said. It’s also a transformation in the skill sets and organizational structures of the companies, and that takes time.

But if you think about it, “the network really becomes a collection of data centers,” she said. Take the driverless car: When a fleet of driverless cars travel down a highway, each of those cars can be seen as a micro data center. The networks become a collection of data centers and cloudlets, which is different from the hyperscale cloud environment, where there are millions of CPUs in a few locations.