Steve Alexander, CTO of Ciena, gives his predictions for the on telecom technology trends for 2021. 

2021 will take investment to the edge

5G networks are primed to deliver faster web browsing and video streaming with reduced latency, both very appealing for consumers. But 5G can do so much more once networks have matured. Advanced 5G services like rich AR and VR, cloud gaming, telemedicine, and Industry 4.0 (the connected manufacturing revolution), all require highly reliable networks that can deliver low latency as well as higher bandwidth – but also high levels of intelligence.

For these services to take off, networks must continue to get faster, closer and smarter, utilizing automation intelligence and software to deliver on the hype of these exciting services. A part of building faster, closer and smarter networks is to build out the edge, where we need up to five times more data centres than are available today.

There is already heavy investment in building out edge data center sites to bring the cloud closer to users and this investment will continue at pace in 2021. The carriers know they need to continue to focus on building out their edge infrastructure in these smaller data center sites, leveraging edge cloud capabilities which will mean that services can be processed closer to users, improving user experience and delivering on the bold promises of 5G.

Hitting new network requirements will become automatic

Carriers know the demands we are placing on networks show no signs of slowing as our lives become more digital and distributed. That means network rollout will continue at pace, but networks must now be built to adapt on their own. Carriers have already taken steps to make this happen, but in 2021, we will start to see even more use of software and analytics to improve the way optical networks function.

Advanced software capabilities will redefine how network providers engineer, operate and monetize their optical networks. These software solutions were originally focused on extracting more value from existing network assets. In 2021 will see these software solutions play a key role in new network builds, giving CSPs the ability to fine-tune, control and dynamically adjust optical connectivity and capacity.

Software will also give greater visibility into the health of the network via real-time link performance metrics and increased, end-to-end photonic layer automation. By utilizing the latest advanced software solutions, providers can monitor and mine all available network assets to be able to instantly respond to new and unexpected bandwidth demands and allocate capacity across any path in real time – a function which will become increasingly important year-on-year.

Increasing Digital Inclusion will be key to continued remote working

This year has demonstrated how important connectivity is for people to stay in touch, shop and work remotely to keep our economy moving.  It has also proven crucial to the continued education of students. There is a growing desire to maintain this flexibility even once Covid restrictions are lifted, but this is only possible if you have the connectivity and capacity.

In 2021, we’ll see rural connectivity and digital inclusion initiatives move higher up the political agenda, and solutions like low-orbit satellite connectivity will come to greater prominence. The solution that maximizes ultimate capacity is still scaling fiber based broadband, but we know this can be a challenge in rural areas, so will require a nudge from policy makers to get things moving.

If countries want to stay at the forefront of the digital economy, they must break down the barriers to rural connectivity and invest in fixing the last-mile problem. They must also continue supporting digital inclusion programmes that grant students access to technology and tools. Incentives and initiatives from the government, and an ongoing review to ensure that networks are using the most effective equipment suppliers, are certainly ways to help.

Enhanced reality will step forward as the first killer use case for 5G

Almost as soon as talk of 5G networks first started, so too did questions about what the killer app for the new standard will be. 2021 might not be the year we get the definitive answer to that question, but it will be the year in which enhanced reality (AR and VR) applications take a step forward. However, it may not be consumer-centric services that light the path, but instead, enterprise use cases could lead the way.

I think it’s safe to say that all of us have grown weary of online team meetings this year, and ‘zoom fatigue’ has become a very real thing. Next year I predict we will see more instances of AR and VR being used as collaboration tools, helping remote teams regain some of the ‘live’ element of working together. These services will initially need to run over combinations of home broadband, in building Wi-Fi, 4G and 5G networks.  They will ultimately open the door to more commercial AR and VR services over 5G networks and WiFi 6 further down the road. The quality of those networks will take these enhanced reality applications beyond a fun, short-term gimmick into being a viable and valuable service offering.

WebScalers and telcos expand their collaborations to improve our cloud experience

One of the biggest trends of 2020 has been the partnerships that have been forged between telecoms carriers and some of the the hyperscalers. There’s no doubt this will continue and grow well beyond 2021, but as networks become increasingly more software centric there is an opportunity to improve the delivery of new services and applications to the users.

From the perspective of a WebScale operator, service provider networks often appear to be a patchwork quilt of various vendors and technologies. The suite of Internet protocols allows this complexity to be abstracted up to a set of globally uniform IP addresses and this has served us fantastically well. At the same time, service provider networks look largely opaque to the cloud and consequently it is hard to guarantee a user the cloud experience that is desired. To deliver next generation service more collaboration between cloud and network is required.  Making the network adaptive through the use of intelligent software allow coordination between service provider networks and the cloud and will enable a generation of AR and VR-based immersive services and applications.