The telecommunications industry is currently on the edge of dramatic change. Connectivity has become an integral part of working life, and the introduction of 5G networks will bring a range of capabilities to operators that will enable them to develop new connected services across different industries. At the same time, the established operators are having to counter new entrants challenging traditional business models as consumer needs change.
“Telecommunications companies have had a certain way of doing things that has made them successful,” says Fran Dougherty, principal program manager of ecosystem development for Azure for Operators at Microsoft. “5G will offer lots and lots of opportunity to both consumers and businesses. A new set of opportunities means that operators will need to look at the way they’ve engineered in the past in a different way.”
Microsoft is taking a collaborative approach to leveraging these new capabilities, working with telecommunications companies to combine their respective resources and expertise.
“We’re really focused on partnering with telecommunications companies,” says Dougherty. “We’re going to partner deeply with operators, because our joint customers are going to be the ones that are going to build the smart factories, smart cities and smart buildings. We’re not interested in being an operator ourselves. Instead, we’ll bring our very significant compute resources and advanced services with cloud edge capabilities, combine them with their infrastructure and leverage the power that the high speed and low latency of 5G provides.”
Azure for Operators is Microsoft’s platform to help telecommunications companies take advantage of new innovations, aiming to future-proof their networks, drive down costs and create new business models and revenue streams. A crucial part of the development of this new strategy for telecommunications has been the acquisition of Affirmed Networks and Metaswitch. Affirmed Networks’ fully virtualised and cloud-native mobile network solutions enable operators to simplify their network operations and rapidly create new services, while Metaswitch provides virtualised network software and voice, data and communications solutions for operators.
According to Dougherty, the experience of the two companies in the telecommunications industry will play an important role in Microsoft’s strategy for delivering reliable cloud solutions to operators.
“We’re moving more and more advanced workloads into our carrier grade cloud, which is why we made the acquisitions of both Affirmed and Metaswitch,” says Dougherty. “We wanted to quickly gain that significant level of both intellectual property and engineering knowledge, which will help us build out carrier grade infrastructure that operators can depend on.”
Affirmed Networks was chosen by Finnish mobile operator DNA to replace its legacy network infrastructure. Affirmed’s 5G Standalone solution will serve as the foundation of all of DNA’s services and was deployed for the operator’s consumer 5G offering. The solution allows mobile operators to converge multiple networks into one unified network, eliminating the need to maintain parallel legacy networks dedicated to just one service.
“Our selection of Affirmed Networks as the foundation for our new, virtualised network architecture enables us to deliver fast and reliable 5G to our residential and enterprise customers,” says Ville Virtanen, director of core networks at DNA. “This supports our vision for providing the best possible customer experience by leveraging the most innovative technology from best of breed vendors. 5G will enable new opportunities and experiences for the people of Finland. This is an exciting time and an opening for a new era of mobile data.”
The capabilities of the cloud are also being extended to areas that may be far away from Microsoft Azure Regions through Azure Edge Zones. These small-footprint extensions of Azure can be placed in mobile operators’ datacentres, providing secure, high-bandwidth connections with a latency of less than 10 milliseconds, enabling applications connected to 5G networks. Alternatively, Private Edge Zones can be placed on-premises to enable low-latency access to computing and storage services, allowing organisations to deploy applications and run private mobile networks.
“What we’re doing now with Edge Zones is to extend the Azure cloud all the way to the far edge,” says Dougherty. “It provides the infrastructure for an operator to be able to rapidly tap into and take advantage of connectivity and those more advanced services. An edge zone gives the service provider a new set of offerings that means they can provide the infrastructure for a 5G smart factory, for example.”
Fast, reliable connectivity at the network edge is particularly important to internet of things (IoT) devices, which may need to run in a variety of remote locations. Microsoft Azure’s real-time operating system, Microsoft Azure RTOS, is already deployed in over six billion IoT devices, and the company has built a large portfolio of cloud-based solutions for IoT networks and applications. The Azure IoT Central platform enables the secure provisioning of IoT applications, while IoT Plug and Play simplifies device interactions with an open modelling language to reduce development time, cost and complexity.
T-Systems, a division of Deutsche Telekom, is one telecommunications company taking advantage of these capabilities. Along with partner Ultra Tendency, it used Microsoft Azure and Azure Database for PostgreSQL to create the Telekom Data Intelligence Hub, a marketplace for data sharing that includes built-in analytics tools. The marketplace is designed to address the need for a new way to share IoT data with other parts of a business, or other companies, in a supply and distribution chain, with traditional methods of data sharing not providing the necessary speed, capacity or security. Features provided by Azure like automatic backups, built-in high availability and elastic scalability enabled T-Systems and Ultra Tendency to save money on maintenance and operation while preparing the marketplace for the future.
“Every service on the platform is pay as you go,” says Robert Neumann, CEO of Ultra Tendency. “With Azure, we’re able to give manufacturers advanced tools for creating data-driven products and services with no great upfront investment – all on a highly secure and compliant platform. Plus, we can use this solution to help public sector organisations realise the promise of smart cities, sharing IoT data on things like traffic, events, and logistics to help make citizens’ lives simpler and safer.”
With operators taking advantage of 5G and cloud capabilities, the future of the telecommunications industry may look very different in the coming years. Dougherty believes that Microsoft can play a significant role in enabling this journey.
“We are going to meet the operator in all the different places in their journey towards the cloud, and this won’t happen overnight,” says Dougherty. “We’re in this for the long-haul. The environment will provide the basis for lots and lots of creativity, and there will be new ways to think about problems as this infrastructure gets built out. I think that the next five years will see dramatic change, and it’s going to be exciting to see what happens.”
This article was originally published in the Winter 2020 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.