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From Communications Infrastructure to Communications Fabric

A local example of a communication fabric in a Health Care gateway. Notice the mesh network that is created by IoT. Credit: University of Turku – Finland, VTT – Finland, KTH – Sweden

We are experiencing a shift from a communications infrastructure to a communications fabric:

  • the former being characterized by a top down design with network equipment under full control of a few recognised (regulated) Operators that balance the use of resources mostly on economic returns;
  • the latter being characterised by a growth of communications capability and capacity through the contribution of the communicating parties (devices like smartphones, computers and data centres, vehicles and smart IoT) with a dynamical allocation of resources based on the convenience of the user and on the visibility of network resources with a remuneration scheme that is basically controlled by the user itself (or service providers “hijacking” the networks).

This shift represents a major disruption made possible by the explosion in processing power, and storage capabilities at the edges, the (over) abundance of transmission capabilities of backbones and the possibility to use ever larger portion of the radio spectrum selecting the ones available here and now.

5G is leveraging on the increased processing power and technology prowess (like massive MIMO, smart antennas, carrier aggregation) to make on the one end the last mile (and more often the last few yards) spectrum dense/rich thus potentially delivering unconstrained bandwidth and on the other hand “slicing” the core network resources to serve the edges.  For these reasons 5G may become a disruptor of the current Operators status quo (who will likely fight to death to corral this evolution through regulatory constraints, in my opinion just delaying the inevitable).

EIT Digital through its partners that have roots both in the “regulated”  and “unregulated” communication arena is looking at accelerating the evolution and to create wealth for all parties involved.  Clearly it is not a win-win game but it might be a win-lose-shift and leverage, meaning that present players will have to hand over part of their business to newcomers but can exploit the digital transformation to find new opportunities for revenues.  Also, it is becoming increasingly clear that the digital transformation is not shifting the market from one set of players to a different one (with the latter winning the market of the former), rather the digital transformation is changing the market and the perception of value. In a way the market of the current players is vanishing freeing resources that can be exploited in new markets.

The network that used to be designed for human to human communications is already morphing into a network for computer to computer communications, with human to human communications becoming a negligible percentage of bandwidth usage. Part of these computer to computer communications is serving as a human interface, like the fruition of media (video content is taking the lion share in terms of transported bits). These computers can be seen as forming a cloud that is progressively shifting its value proposition from the “syntax” (storage, basic processing) to “semantics” (extraction of meaning and customization into information) thanks to AI. Also, we are seeing a progressive shift, led by the rise of the edges in terms of faster evolution and higher volumes, from centralised clouds to fogs (massively distributed clouds).

The overall softwarization and the pervasiveness of intelligence increases the fragility of the overall communications fabric, and requires out of the box approaches to security, since the weakest point in the network defines the overall network security.

Notice how the increased variety, flexibility moving into autonomy, and volume of interacting users that at the same time are behaving as network nodes creates an ever shifting tapestry of connection resembling much more to a “fabric” than to an infrastructure. There are interesting research paths to be explored, including self awareness of this fabric increasing its efficiency to points that were not possible with the “infrastructure” paradigm.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently Head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital, co-chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until Aprile 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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