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Ten Trends Shaping the Future of Connectivity

How can carriers best approach the rapidly changing network landscape?

By Du Wei, Chief Connectivity and Network Strategic Planning Expert, Huawei
Aug 2021
Du Wei

From 2G and NGN in the voice era to 3G, 4G, and multi-play in the video era to 5G, SDN, and NFV in the cloud era, we’re moving into the digital and intelligent age with a wave of new development trends. Through integrated innovation, the industry will improve network value and deliver differentiated service experience to support the fully connected, intelligent world.

Five years ago, carriers began to plan for next-gen network transformation under Network 2020, with a focus on network cloudification. Then as 2020 came around, mobile access evolved from 4G to 5G and fixed access shifted from GPON to F5G. Carriers could gradually build ubiquitous gigabit access networks for individuals, homes, and enterprises. The three major carriers in China and mainstream international Internet Exchange Providers (IXPs) have built ultra-broadband cloud interconnections (data center interconnect/DCI) backbone networks.

Network 2020 architecture enabled networks to support the work and life of hundreds of millions of home users, and the Internet became more than just a tool of consumer video entertainment, evolving into a tool of the home office.

In the next five years, the connectivity industry will see 10 new trends.

connectivity, trends

Trend 1: Networks will become a value center as they shift from cloud-network synergy to computing-network integration

Over the past five years, cloud-network synergy has been achieved between cloud and devices to connect the two, so that rich content on the cloud can be smoothly displayed on various smart devices. At that time, cloud-network synergy meant that networks can provide content services for devices through cloud-device interconnection focusing on downlink traffic.

In the future, with the emergence of a large number of real-time services like cloud VR, machine vision, and autonomous driving, devices will generate a huge amount of data that needs to be uploaded to the edge and cloud computing nodes for processing. The processed data will then be sent back to the devices in real time. This means networks will need to support interconnection between the device, edge, and cloud with a focus on uplink traffic to provide intelligent services for devices.

Edge computing has eliminated the independence of traditional clouds and networks. As computing becomes a part of networks, the efficiency and reliability of edge computing is deeply intertwined with network bandwidth, latency, security, and isolation. Services can only be delivered efficiently when computing and networks are integrated.

In the cloud-network synergy era, networks were cloud-centric. The cloud required network connectivity and openness, and best-effort service quality. Networks were the cost center.

In the computing-network integration era, networks will be user-centric. Users will require lower latency, higher security, and higher reliability from their networks, as well as deterministic service quality. Networks will be transformed into a value center.

Trend 2: D/O/I/CT technologies will converge to build new communications capabilities

Over the past 10 years, the connectivity industry has undergone an IP transformation, two rounds of cloudification, and a convergence of information technology (IT) and communications technology (CT). This created converged products such as IP base stations, IP-DSLAMs, IP microwave, IPRAN/SPN, Cloud EPC, Cloud IMS, and Cloud BRAS, improving network flexibility, agility, and openness.

In the next five years, more technologies will continue to converge. Digital technology (DT), primarily AI, will converge with CT to incubate products and solutions like autonomous driving networks, intelligent connectivity, cognitive radio networks, and cognitive optical systems, and continuously improve network intelligence levels. As industry digitalization advances, operational technology (OT), characterized by real-time performance and high reliability, will be integrated with CT to drive the maturity of converged solutions such as TSN and 5G URLLC, and make networks more deterministic.

Only new agile, intelligent, real-time, and open communications networks that combine DT, OT, and IT technologies will be well-positioned to build next-generation infrastructure for the intelligent world.

Trend 3: Post-classical network architectures will support sustainable network development

Over the past 70 years, Moore's law and the Shannon limit have been considered classical theories of the connectivity industry. However, they're beginning to fail as we observe new types of development in the new network era.

As we move towards 7-nm semiconductors, communications network chips can no longer both reduce power consumption and improve capacity. Therefore, network nodes need to shift from centralized to distributed, which requires architectural innovation to address the challenges of network traffic growth. This will take data communications networks to a post-Moore architecture era. At the same time, the coding efficiency of wireless and optical systems is also hitting a ceiling. 

New spectrum can increase network capacity, while advances like semantic communications and knowledge-aided signal processing in communications equipment can boost transmission efficiency, taking wireless and optical networks are entering the post-Shannon architecture era.

Innovation in post-Moore and post-Shannon architectures can continuously grow network capacity to meet the requirements of massive data transmission in the intelligent world.

Trend 4: Optical and electronic technologies will converge to enable many industries

Wireless, optical, and data communications technologies are relatively independent of each other. However, as high-speed, high-frequency, and cost-effective networks emerge, traditional electronic technologies will encounter barriers to sustainable development such as distance and power consumption.

In the next five years, the integration of optical and electronic technologies will enable the high-speed processing of electronic components and reduce power consumption, bringing new products such as optical input/output chipsets and opto-electronic co-packaging. New optical technologies will extend the transmission distance of high-speed ports on data communications equipment. New types of antennas that directly connect to optical fiber will reduce the weight and power consumption of base stations, and lasers will replace microwave to achieve 100-Gbps high-speed data transmission between low-earth orbit satellites. Wireless coverage will be replaced by visible light with higher penetration capability to meet the communications requirements of underwater mobile devices, and far infrared light technology will achieve higher transmittance to accurately detect brain waves.

Optics will become a fundamental technology within the communications industry and it will support the connectivity of industries.

Trend 5: Internet protocol with enhanced awareness enables unified bearing of multiple planes on the same network

IPv6 not only features a larger address space than IPv4, but it also supports the flexible definition of services with locators and IDs separated. Different ID attributes can be defined to enable service awareness, thus enabling better services based on a better understanding of service requirements.

To simplify cloud-network collaboration, SRv6 can be defined to support both MPLS WAN private line and VXLAN private line services. To improve network computing efficiency, Compute First Networking (CFN) can be defined to identify service requirements for both computing and connectivity resources, and allocate the most appropriate computing resources for processing data traffic. In the future, new ID attributes can be defined for different industry requirements to continuously improve the service awareness capability of IP networks and supporting the interconnection of a given service with any other.

Using flexible IPv6 addresses, a new type of IP network with port-level, tenant-level, and service-level planes can be built in one system. This network is compatible with traditional networks and it can identify multiple service requirements and coordinate optical and wireless network resources, among others, enabling the unified bearing of multiple planes on the same network.

Trend 6: Wireless networks progress toward full connectivity, full coverage, and full spectrum

Connecting the unconnected will continue to be the direction of wireless network development. Wireless networks are expanding from connecting consumers to connecting industries. In the next five years, wireless networks will evolve from 5G to 5.5G, which will bring real-time communication, super uplink, and converged sensing in addition to 5G’s high bandwidth, massive connections, and ultra-reliability.

In the next 10 years, wireless network coverage will expand from urban and rural areas to mines, oceans, and aircraft, creating an integrated network system covering the space, sky, and ground. In the future, wireless networks' use of spectrum resources will also expand beyond the current sub-6 GHz frequencies to include millimeter wave, terahertz, and visible light. This will bring a 100-fold increase in network capacity and satisfy the long-term needs of the intelligent world.

Trend 7: New security architecture integrates cloud, networks, and chips

The trends of cloudification, mobility, and convergence of 2B and 2C services are blurring the traditional boundaries of security. In the future, enterprises will no longer be able to ensure security through the defensive denial of access to the core. Cybersecurity should be extended to the edge, devices, and chips. In addition, attackers are now using AI to boost attacks, requiring defense systems to be more intelligent and make more accurate assessments by dynamically analyzing attacker behavior.

As attacks are increasingly borderless and intelligent, we must combine the computing capability and flexibility of cloud, the physical security of chips, and the isolation and real-time collaboration of networks to build a new security architecture that features full trust and cloud-network-chip integration to avoid security vulnerabilities in networks.

Trend 8: Network administration shifts from software-defined to digital twins

In recent years, as software-defined networking (SDN) and telemetry technologies advance, the capability of software to abstract away physical devices is improving.

In the next five years, AI will be introduced to existing cloud-based network management platforms to learn from training data and perform the closed-loop simulation of action to be taken. Instructions and operations are first executed in a simulation, after which they're sent to the SDN controller for real execution on the network. This simulation process improves system robustness and predictability.

In the next 10 years, as sub-second/millisecond-level hard real-time network data collection, modeling, simulation, prediction, and control capabilities become mature, and with the adoption of the new computing-network integrated architecture, an always-on digital twin network system will be built for physical networks. This will accelerate innovation in network software functions.

Trend 9: Carriers plan for next-gen network transformation

In recent years, with the communications industry paying more attention to new connectivity technologies such as CFN, intelligent connectivity, 5.5G/6G, F5G, and IPv6+, major carriers have begun to look ahead and plan next-generation networks for the next five to ten years.

The traffic volume of 5G will be close to that of fixed broadband, and wireless networks (RAN) and fiber networks (FAN) will come to equal broadband access networks in scale.

As industry digitalization progresses, current data center Internet (DCI) networks will be extended to MANs and the edge, resulting in the formation of industry-oriented backbone networks (IBNs) that are as important as consumer-oriented backbone networks (CBNs).

Based on the computing-network integrated architecture, new network intelligence (ADN) and edge computing (MEC) capabilities will be built at the network edge. The network edge will evolve from pipe-based transparent transmission of traffic to an intelligent edge with integrated sensing capabilities.

Carriers are now poised to transform toward intelligent, simplified next-generation networks to achieve balanced development.

Trend 10: Enterprise broadband networks extend from offices to production

As industry digitalization from IT to OT enters its most difficult phase, new applications such as remote control, machine vision, man-machine collaboration, and edge computing require a new enterprise broadband network that can provide high bandwidth and meet real-time communication requirements.

Next-generation enterprise networks will eliminate the boundary between IT and OT networks and enable the converged bearing of IT and OT through deterministic broadband networks such as 5G and time-sensitive networking (TSN) as well as network slicing technology. This will allow enterprises to upgrade from the traditional human-centric, pyramid-shaped operation architecture to an intelligence-centric, flattened operation architecture. This satisfies the requirements of any-workforce connectivity.

Next-generation enterprise networks will also decouple data from the transport layer. That means, based on a universal transport layer, devices from different vendors will be able to flexibly share data and work seamlessly together, satisfying the requirements of any-workload connectivity.

Next-generation enterprise networks will be more intelligent. They will meet the requirements of borderless and mobile working, and support intent-driven, automated network management and AI-based proactive security. This satisfies the requirements for any-workplace connectivity.