“The ultimate vision is that customers shouldn’t really care about which network they’re connected to.” It may look like a simple statement, but making convergence flawless for the end-user takes more than marketing.
According to Maria Cuevas, Networks Research Director at British operator BT, it is an effort starting at the conception level and permeating the entire network. “We are driving [convergence] not just from the work that we do in research, but from implementation, architectures, and our plans for the future,” she said in an interview with 6GWorld.
Cuevas is in a good spot to talk about convergence. The research lab could be considered maybe one of the most integrated areas within BT since the department interacts and influences decisions in several ways. One piece of proof is that Cuevas and the team belong, organisationally, to both the Networks and the Digital divisions.
Even before thinking about the technical aspects, that is how integration really starts. “We work with colleagues across Networks and Digital to bring that futuristic-looking view of the evolution of our network. We also work very close to our customer-facing units to make sure we bring in future customer needs, and we talk to customers themselves,” she explained.
One good example, according to her, is the launch of the third generation of the company’s “unbreakable” connectivity: A device that switches between mobile and fixed internet depending on the signal availability. If your traditional broadband fails, the mobile signal will take over instantly.
From the customer’s point of view, regardless of which solution is operating, they are always connected. “The whole point about convergence is that we believe it is key. We do believe that this world where cellular, fixed broadband and Wi-Fi are separate is just not the right model.”
One technology that can tie these different types of connections together, according to Cuevas, is satellites. “Non-Terrestrial Networks are not to be forgotten. There will be a role to play for those platforms, very much in a complementary way to the terrestrial network. We don’t believe in a world where one technology replaces another.”
A New Paradigm
It is clear from the conversation that, in Cuevas’ opinion, we are in the middle of a shift in how networks are designed and how the new outlook will impact convergence and future ecosystems. One fundamental aspect seems to be distributed networks.
“We are very much thinking about what the future network architecture would look like,” the expert said. “There is a key question about how far that distribution needs to go. It makes sense from scalability, latency, volume of traffic, and cost and energy perspectives. But at the same time, it is starting to feel like a huge degree of distribution may not be the right answer either,” she pondered.
One of the reasons why Cuevas is not sold on completely distributed systems is that the consumer’s behaviour is changing as the technology allows for new solutions. If 15 years ago voice was the main driver for traffic, today that is no longer the case.
How will the metaverse or the immersive experiences influence the way we interact online? Is there going to be a need for more regional content or research from a particular area versus a more centralised approach?
The answer is still to be discovered, but from what she and her team have been studying, Cuevas tries a guess. “Maybe the answer will be a little bit of all of the above, a hybrid model.”
Underlying all the transformation is that darling/demon of the internet, artificial intelligence. Within BT, there is a specific team working on AI and machine learning – and the main point today is how to apply AI and ML to potentially upgrade capacity or a network rollout. One promising possibility is predictive forecasting.
“When we look at applying AI to the way we manage our networks, we are very much thinking that energy consumption becomes a key decision-making criterion for how we operate them. And, again, things like conversions can help with that. You could turn everything around, making the right decision for the customer’s benefit or a combination of best customer experience and energy consumption across the network,” Cuevas detailed.
There is a lot changing in the world of mobile and fixed broadband – and Cuevas acknowledges that 6G will play a profound role in how telcos manage systems, from the business model to the actual architecture to convergence.
“The 10-times-better-than-the-previous generation-in-ten-years cycle will require a whole new investment across the entire network. But you will have to maintain all your old technologies as well because you have all that legacy to support. It is unsustainable,” she said.
That is why Cuevas sees the transition to a 6G world more as an evolution rather than a revolution. “If we are investing in new infrastructure, it will have to be better or compatible with the previous one. And we know that will come at a price, but we believe it is the right price to pay.”
Another area where BT’s research lab will put some effort is quantum technology. “The thinking today is ‘quantum is going to pose a threat to communications,’ but we want to know what is in it for us. How can we deliver quantum effectively and deliver better services to our customers?” Cuevas shared.
In 2022, BT started a trial of its commercial quantum-secured metro network, which uses an approach called quantum key distribution to increase the level of security for communications.
“We are very excited about the prospects in the sense that it is fascinating when I speak to the experts in the field how we are effectively using the laws of physics to secure a link,” she raved.
Some things, however, are not up for discussion. While 6G conversations are heating up across the globe, she believes that at least two aspects are really untouchable.
“Reliability and resilience are huge for us, and we obviously are not the only ones to think that. When people talk about risk appetite, you could take a risk on many different fronts, like commercially. But reliability is not one where we think we should risk anything.”
Alex Lawrence contributed to this article
Journalist since eight years old, when I would read the newspaper out loud and pretend it was a radio show. Based in São Paulo, I have worked for Brazilian websites as reporter and editor before joining 6GWorld