All of the wondrous software-based efforts we hear about clearly need something for the software to run on: an efficient, software-centric, hardware-based cloud configuration we call carrier cloud. Most everything on operators' lists of transformational goals can be done with the carrier cloud, but the big question is really how the carrier cloud will get deployed in the first place.
We have transitional strategies for 5G wireless built on current wireless deployments, but no significant carrier cloud deployments currently exist. So, how will carriers get there, and what infrastructure do they need to exploit? The answer is 5G can play a role, and that role could accelerate the software-based cloud transformation overall. While 5G may be the main driver, other short-term drivers can help get the job done.
The virtual network model now evolving is totally different from the device-and-trunk model we have today. A rich fiber transport layer connects data centers that can host not only network-layer -- IP and Ethernet -- functionality, but also other features, functions and even applications. Virtual trunks can be threaded through the fiber layer to create many different topologies, even at the same time. And instances of virtual network functions and features can be spun up to accommodate changes in traffic. This is the vision of the carrier cloud.
One of the reasons carrier cloud plays so often into stories about 5G deployment is 5G networks are designed to be segmented into parallel service layers, also called network slicing. Each slice acts almost as an independent network, with its own subscriber and traffic management elements; although, some slices can share components, if needed. Obviously, moving switches, routers and mobile appliances to accommodate building ad hoc network slices isn't practical, so a full 5G implementation demands extensive virtual networking. Without carrier cloud, you can't get to full 5G.
The big question hasn't been whether 5G demands the use of carrier cloud, but whether it can justify it. 5G involves a new radio network -- 5G NR -- new handsets and new infrastructure. In an age of highly competitive wireless and unlimited usage, it's unknown whether 5G will somehow generate new customers. If not, it can't generate much incremental revenue, and it can't help build out carrier cloud.
Streaming, competition can boost carrier cloud
There are two near-term carrier cloud drivers to consider besides 5G. The first is streaming video. While many have offered the internet of things as a justification for exploding the need for 5G, the fact is IoT isn't currently dependent on cellular service at all, and it may never be. Today, the main benefit of 5G is primarily the ability to support more wireless broadband traffic, and the most credible source of that traffic is streaming video.
For a decade now, mobile video consumption has been growing rapidly, demanding higher-capacity connections to mobile users. This taxes the total capacity of 4G cells and, as a result, encourages operators to look for ways to get more per-cell bandwidth, as well as more per-user bandwidth. Past growth in mobile video may pale in comparison to future growth rates, because viewing live or real-time programming is growing even faster than streaming overall. Live video, especially things like sporting events, generates synchronized multiple viewing requirements that can easily swamp current mobile networks.
Live streaming of TV programming is also affecting wireline video, where most operators that provide traditional TV services are feeling the effects of cutting the cord and shifting to streaming over wireline broadband in the home. The increased need for wireline bandwidth has operators exploring the combination of millimeter-wave 5G radio and fiber-to-the-node to serve urban and suburban neighborhoods instead of fiber to the home or DSL. Some operators even believe a form of 5G technology, which is referred to as fixed wireless consumer broadband, could allow residential broadband competition without extensive copper or fiber, opening new competitive opportunities outside of their home regions.
Streaming live video requires extremely efficient content caching to reduce the impact on wireless backhaul and metro infrastructure. Live streaming offers operators the potential for improved ad targeting and ad revenue generation, but only if ad selection and insertion can be managed efficiently. Early live-streaming service users said ads are often started late in the window for insertion or even missed entirely, and ads suffer from buffering interruptions more often than TV shows.
The second prime mover for 5G driving carrier cloud is the competitive climate in the telecom industry. To be considered market leaders, operators are pressured to adopt 5G. But in addition, operators are looking more to mobile virtual network operator deals with other network and cable operators, handset players like Apple, and even cloud companies like Google -- which already offers an MVNO service -- Amazon and Microsoft. Mergers and acquisitions in the mobile space make MVNO deals more important to players that want to own mobile users.
Network slicing is a 5G feature that facilitates not only independent MVNO deals, but also provides a way to separate video delivery to the home or mobile devices from emerging real-time applications like IoT. In fact, some operators believe a growing interest in MVNO partners would induce them to deploy virtual mobile elements in carrier cloud even before full 5G Core specifications that include network slicing are adopted. This might mean carrier cloud would be helpful even in the 5G-over-4G nonstand-alone (NSA) deployments -- which means using the 5G New Radio without the new 5G core -- is already seeing early adopter commitment.
5G, carrier cloud political overtones
The final relationship between 5G and carrier cloud is political. Operators have budgeted for 5G to a greater extent than they did for other transformational technologies, like software-defined networking or network functions virtualization. It's easier to introduce new technology where funding is already approved than to create new projects and then try to get them funded.
Most operators believe carrier cloud is critical for transformation, which is the movement of operators from a pure connectivity service business model to a model that includes hosting experiences in a way normally offered by over-the-top providers. If 5G alone can't drive carrier cloud, it can be combined with other drivers to do just that and to support the ultimate goals of transformation.