The CTN Editorial Board
Published: 1 Jan 2021
CTN Issue: January 2021
A note from the CTN Editorial Board:
The CTN Editorial board was feeling a little down, missing out this year on the usual wild parties, skiing in Biarritz with Richard Branson, spending quality time with Sting in a sweat lodge, and so on (we know you always suspected this is how we spent your membership dollars). Even the zoom-based group therapy sessions with Gwyneth Paltrow fell a little flat. But it’s a new year and we have one of our favorite things to do at this time, namely compiling our annual list of hot topics for the communications industry. As always, we would like to add the caveat that, though Gwynn told us that a proper understanding of the universe can be achieved through karmic visualization, we are just engineers and even a properly positioned crystal cannot provide clarity on why anyone thinks 5G causes COVID. We nevertheless hope to help you face forward and forget 2020, even if only for 10 minutes. As always, we welcome your feedback.
The CTN Editorial Board
1. We Will All Be Disappointed in 5G Because 6G Will Look So Much Shinier
It is always the case that a new wireless G is the most revolutionary ever, right until the day it reaches deployment stage, at which point it becomes a very imperfect technology that we must hurry up to fix with generation G+1. For 5G, that day came sometime in 2020, and now it’s all about 6G. And, should the weight of this argument not be enough, we are all quick to recall how odd-numbered generations were never that great anyway, and it falls on their subsequent G+1 to make things right. All of a sudden, mmWave bandwidths seem narrow and we hunger for terahertz frequencies, massive MIMO seems pointless when we can instead deploy intelligent reflecting surfaces that need no active RF chains, and anything not controlled by a data-driven learning algorithm seems to be a relic from a bygone era. As the Buddha claimed, virtue is in the middle path, so we believe that some of these ideas are indeed promising research avenues towards 6G, but we also hope for 5G to have a long and successful life cycle.
2. 2021 Is Open RAN’s Breakout Year
2020 was a big year for ORAN and TIP. These two communities joined hands in February to support the development of Open RAN. Certainly, larger forces (pressure on Huawei’s supply chain and from European governments, as well as promises of funding for ORAN from the US government) provided impetus to this movement. But there were already technical and business goals underlying and propelling it. Operators were looking for a disruptor for 5G that can loosen the grip of their big suppliers on the roadmap of 5G deployment. Jio and Rakuten had both pursued an IT approach to developing greenfield cellular networks, showing that such an approach can be feasible and indeed successful. The ORAN committee started publishing interfaces and specifications at a breakneck speed in 2020 and new suppliers started to appear with ORAN-focused products. This January, Vodafone, Deutsche Telecom, Orange and Telefonica announced a partnership to support the rollout of ORAN in Europe. So, 2021 is shaping up to be the year when ORAN must show it has the capability to dominate 5G in the longer term. Everyone will be watching closely and adjusting their plans accordingly.
3. We Will Be Amazed by What 5G Can Do and It Won’t Be Because of Massive MIMO
The US CBRS auction was a big event in 2020. Though, on the face of it, the CBRS auction was a pragmatic effort to allow commercial operators to share in the use of spectrum previously reserved for the military, it was also part of a larger global effort to move cellular to a more distributed ownership model. In 2021, CBRS will be used to provide internet access in rural and underserved urban areas, and partnerships between tiny operators and local governments will proliferate. The German government has also aligned its new spectrum auctions with a goal of allowing enterprises to own their own cellular infrastructure. Underlying all of this is the belief that factories, large private spaces (malls, sports stadiums, etc) will start to provide differentiating and boutique services using new capabilities explicitly built into 5G. The use of 4G in unlicensed bands is already available and allowing local spectral ownership will reinforce the Quality of Service capabilities. The WiFi world --the traditional supplier of wireless for enterprise-- isn’t taking this all lying down, of course, but much of the discussion now is towards cooperation between 5G and WiFi6 in enterprise environments.
4. AI in Communications Becomes Just Another Thing
2020 was the year in which every academic in the world wrote at least one paper using AI to do something. OK, maybe that isn’t quite true. But AI has settled in as a tool that everyone is comfortable using in their day to day work. It turns out that it is only useful if you have massive amounts of data to train on (who knew?) and this limits its usefulness in communications where everything is in motion and bandwidth and power are limited. We predict that, in 2021 and onwards, it will become a useful tool in the communication engineer’s bag of tools, like Tensors. But everyone will not feel compelled to use it all the time.
5. Finally, IRS Will Become a Popular Acronym in the US
A year ago, we commented on how metamaterials, in their many forms and shapes, were going mainstream. This turned out to be an understatement. The new subdiscipline spawned by these artificially constructed materials, and chiefly by the so-called Intelligent Reflecting Surfaces, ranked second to none in terms of paper submissions to communication journals and conferences in 2020. However, despite this runaway academic enthusiasm, industry is, for now at least, mostly watching from the sidelines. It may thus be premature to hail IRSs as a paradigm-shifting technology, even if the possibilities are certainly both intriguing and alluring at this stage, with a dotted line that leads to a dreamland of smart radio environments where wireless systems do not merely adapt to their habitats and take countermeasures against deleterious effects, but actually control such habitats and their effects. Put differently, a world in which the environment is part of the wireless system itself, as opposed to an external –often hostile– player. How much of the environment must be rendered controllable for that to make a difference? Can such degree of control be attained? Is an IRS really better than a good old relay? Many questions, and still few answers, so we don’t expect the volume of papers to abate anytime soon.
6. Satellites Go up, Balloons Come Down, and a Whole New Field of Network Engineering Emerges
The recent announcement of the winding down of Loon, Google’s balloon-driven aerial communications network, too futuristic even for Google, can be seen in stark contrast to the progress made by SpaceX Starlink in 2020. SpaceX and OneWeb have already proven they have the technology and financial foundation to operate large, proliferated LEO constellations geared toward providing commercial internet from space to much larger numbers of users than previously possible. With a total addressable market of hundreds of millions of households, extended broadband internet with low latency has the capability to revolutionize how rural internet is provided to those that can afford the relatively high cost, something the FCC has recognized with their $800 million grant to Starlink. In addition to consumer internet, Amazon's Kuiper constellation promises an integrated pipeline from the satellite to AWS, unlocking a plethora of opportunities for companies relying on AWS for their IoT services that have satellite communication capability. This has aroused investment and speculation, with Morgan Stanley estimating that Starlink could elevate SpaceX's valuation to $175 billion. Additionally, the rapid development has not gone unnoticed by other countries, with differing reactions between Canada's caution and Russia's strident rebuttal. Many countries, including Canada and Russia, have announced plans to support national satellite constellations to compete with Starlink and OneWeb, although it remains to be seen what the scale of these constellations could be. 2021 might be the year of the space race for worldwide internet access. Logically SpaceX will build on its record-breaking number of launches in 2021, and the learning curve that comes with it will create a whole new subcategory of communications network engineering. One can only expect the quality, bandwidth and access to improve quickly. OneWeb will launch a significant portion of its 648 satellites in 2021 and, with polar orbits, OneWeb can target a different subset of potential users, unlocking service in more countries. Although Amazon may still be a year from launching a satellite, Kuiper will continue to release details in 2021 that clarify the scale and scope of their constellation. In response to the nascent competition, traditional geostationary providers like Viasat and Hughes will increase their technology readiness and elevate their offerings. Overall, 2021 will be a year of dynamic development for broadband satellite internet. It will test the business potential of hopeful constellation operators as well as the potential response of geostationary satellite operators.
7. 2021 Will Be the Year We All Live on the Edge
Multi-access edge computing (MEC), formerly known as mobile edge computing, aims at optimizing the performance for ultra-low latency and high bandwidth services by providing networking, computing and services at the edge of the network. Key drivers of MEC include the massive deployments of IoT and the combination with next generation 5G networks. With MEC, service providers are looking forward to monetizing their network services by introducing new applications and services for their customers. The adoption of MEC architecture started a couple of years back, with the development of standards, APIs, and protocols by organizations such as European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). We’re expecting to see more MEC-based applications and services this year, and hoping for new and improved user experiences.
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