Network operators in India find themselves in a diabolical situation. Operators are struggling with some of the lowest ARPUs in the world and a general lack of high-speed network infrastructure; they operate within 22 separate regulatory areas and compete for fragmented and expensive radio spectrum. The false start of Broadband Wireless Access (BWA) and 3G rollouts several years ago have placed many operators in financial stress. Yet India Service providers must invest billions of dollars in new network infrastructure over the coming few years or India as a nation risks stagnating with aging, congested networks.
In fact, India doesn’t have much choice in the matter. The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) states that between the end of March and the end of June this year mobile Internet users in India will grow from 155 million to 185 million. That's 30 million new mobile Internet users within a 3-month period. Such phenomenal growth (greater than the entire population of Australia) will crush existing mobile networks that are already congested. India’s mobile networks must modernize or perish.
This was the starting place for the recent 4G World India. It’s fair to say that there were a lot of pessimistic assessments of the ability for local operators to successfully and profitably deploy 4G infrastructure. My keynote presentation ‘Mass Customization: The Role of SDN and NFV In a 4G Network’ might seem out of place given the overwhelming range of pressures in the marketplace, but it is clear to me that these new tools and architectural approaches are needed for India to modernize and benefit from the advantages of high-speed mobile broadband.
So what role do SDN and NFV play here? A key point to understand is that not all networks are created equally. Traditional mobile networks have an intelligent design, but they are not intelligent networks. The root of how we architect networks can be found in the intelligent designs found in the natural world. We use plant terminology like ‘Trunk’, ‘Branch’ and ‘Leaf’ to describe our design patterns. Unfortunately plants (like networks) have strict requirements of sunlight, water and fertile soil for healthy growth. Similarly networks require a combination of a subscriber base, profitable services and reliable network infrastructure to survive. The networks we build today face the same challenges as plants, if the environment (market conditions) don’t suit our networks, they die.
Compare this with a High IQ network that leverages additional intelligence to continuously adapt to changing conditions. Unlike plants, people (as a High-IQ example) can adapt to our environment, we can adapt our environment, or we can change environment. The human body is self-aware, it is self-learning and self-healing, and it is resilient and transmits information at high speed. Combined with the promise of SDN and NFV, rather than building networks with hardcoded services, we can construct High-IQ infrastructure that will support a range of future services that can be overlaid using highly automated workflows.
The use of automation is essential to delivery of services that are customized towards the needs of each individual subscriber. Studies have shown that personalized services create greater customer satisfaction and brand value. Mass customization may be the only way for Indian operators to drive increased customer loyalty and shift subscribers towards higher-margin services. This isn’t a hypothetical promise either, the over-the-top world of web-services has shown how automation and simplification can accelerate time-to-market, reduce costs and optimize operations. It’s now time for mobile operators to embrace the same context-aware mindset – any content, any place, any time and any device.
Today personalization ends with the handset and decoupling services from the network and establishing a ‘4G cloud’ for service delivery wont be an overnight transformation. Perhaps non real-time machine-to-machine services will provide the initial momentum for the introduction of a cloud service delivery model, but once deployed, the 4G cloud built on a High-IQ network can be co-opted for residential and business services. This evolved service provider architecture allows mobile operators to balance the needs of each service against a flexible pool of network resources with the ability to optimize for experience and cost. New business models can be created on the fly and deployed on a granular basis to test market conditions and evolve over time as behavioral patterns change.
With limited fixed-line infrastructure India has little choice but to focus its efforts on the development of robust and high-speed mobile networks. With a high percentage of users still relying on feature phones, the benefits of 4G will take time to trickle down through the ecosystem. However, an inspection of low-bandwidth mobile innovation shows us a range of use cases from fishermen in India to M-Pesa in Kenya where mobile technologies continue to improve our lives. Mobility is the fabric of modern life and opportunities to broaden mobile services must be embraced.
The same innovators dilemma exists in first world countries where commoditization of voice and data continue to stress the business models of operators. Should India successfully modernize their infrastructure and maximize the benefits of 4G, the rest of the world will take note.