The Metaverse and the Enterprise – Can Telcos Support Both with One Architecture?

September 28, 2022

Written by Alex Lawrence

Note – this is part two of two very different conversations about supporting enterprises through telecoms, from outsider and insider perspectives. You can find the first article here.

“I do think that the next couple of years will probably be the most interesting since the iPhone came along,” said Niall Norton, General Manager of Amdocs’ Networking Software division.

He was talking with 6GWorld about two separate but interrelated concerns; the role of the telcos in the metaverse, and how they relate to enterprises. Amdocs is part of the recently-announced Metaverse Standards Forum which spans companies in telecoms, internet and other sectors.

“My interest obviously is the tooling that makes the metaverse work and I’m fascinated by how people see it manifest. But I do think that it’s exactly like watching the telco technologies when they rolled out back in the day, when if you went to the US you had to get a brand-new phone because they had CDMA. I think the metaverse clouds will be the interoperability between metaverses.”

Is this a situation where telecoms operators should be taking a role?

“Probably the answer bifurcates into what I think they should do and what they might do, if you know what I mean,” Norton grinned.

“I think the big players in the metaverse are going to turn around to their connectivity partners and say ‘Hey, you’ve done it before. How do we make this work?’ And I think that, for the big telcos, it’s in their interest to see the metaverse take off and connectivity become more ubiquitous. They will invest in making sure it becomes as successful as possible, as ubiquitous as possible.”

In other words, the operators could parlay their familiarity with the processes of global standardisation into a useful role in the development of the metaverse, which opens the door to exploring easy integrations with the underlying network capabilities. This is exactly the kind of value-generation that creates new revenue streams. The only drawback?

“I don’t know if it’s the centre of their attention right now,” Norton explained “I think that there are two priorities: how do I make money on 5G? And how do I automate my network? There’s a lot of focus in 2022 on these things, and a lot of focus on the enterprise market. But in the course of 2022, the smart telcos will get together and start getting involved more than they are right now.”

Telco and Enterprise

Smart telcos are, of course, also looking at their immediate priority, the enterprise market.

“They are all thinking ‘How am I going to actually engage with the drone manufacturers, the smart factories? How am I going to convince the stock exchange, candidly, that Telco’s not just a dumb pipe and we’re all doomed?’”

Cynics might say that this seems like a very familiar thought process. In the run-up to 5G’s launch roughly five years ago, there was a similar pressure to be collaborating with enterprises. Has anything changed?

“I think there’s more of a humility in the positioning now,” Norton commented. “It’s fascinating to me to see the bigger telcos we’re dealing with have stood back and said ‘We’re connectivity companies. We’re not media companies; we’re not going to be the walled garden; we’re not going to create all the content. We are actually really, really good at this basic connectivity, which is the glue that’s going to make it all stick together.”

That connectivity piece is going to be increasingly important as we start to see devices, AIs and elements of the metaverse interacting with each other and with people. The value in it isn’t a done deal yet, though.

“I’m not sure who will invent these enterprise productivity pieces, but how they’ll be powered is a big opportunity for the telco engines or the connectivity engines,” as Norton pointed out. “How much the telcos can participate in the wallet-share of those new things will be really, really fascinating because that’s a commercial issue, not a technical issue.”

Although the share of wallet is a business issue, there are some very concrete technology issues to be faced already.

“Not being funny, but the 5G business case is only going to survive if it enhances productivity of the enterprise world; and the only way to enhance the productivity of the enterprise world is to make the network exposable in the way that the internet is exposable today.”

Networks Exposed… How and Why

Norton went on to describe a dual-layer model for how services like the metaverse would work on top of exposable network functions.

“The metaverse is like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise, the application layer where you have the compute and storage; and then in the engineering decks, you’ll have interfaces into the connectivity capabilities. Why? Because having a datacentre means I can do stuff; I can host applications and storage. But I still need a seamless connectivity engine.”

That seamless connectivity is clearly some way off; while switching between mobile and home Wi-Fi may be seamless, being able to roam across all kinds of fixed, mobile and other wireless networks is still not a done deal (though this recent 6GWorld webinar explores how they are coming together). This is where the push beyond 5G ultimately comes in, with many organisations outlining pervasiveness across different access technologies as a critical part of their designs for 6G. This seamlessness will allow services – particularly those that are physically mobile – to select the best available support at any given place or time.

There is still, of course, the question of how this translates into a business case for Beyond-5G. Can the telcos translate new capabilities into new revenues, even if they are taking a humbler stance? 6GWorld put this to Norton.

“To what extent do the telcos underneath have a play above? I don’t know. Some groups will be better than others.”

Given how far off some of this is, it’s perhaps fair to be vague – but in that case, what are the telcos angling for, which may give clues as to where they think value may lie?

“We’re doing a lot of work on right now on how you make the network exposable in terms of artifacts in the network.

“The part I haven’t worked out myself is – will it be the store-compute application layer talking to that interface layer? Or will it be enterprises going straight through to talk to that interface layer? I think depending on the size of the enterprise and the use case, probably both will be the answer.”

In other words, there may well be business models where the telcos can provide network capabilities as-a-service direct to large enterprise customers, but they may well need to supply these advanced services to the system integrators and service developers to reach the long tail of smaller enterprise clients. One thing is for sure, though, in Norton’s view:

“In each case, the telco network has still got to be pretty smart, and it’s got to have its Java layer sitting on top of all this complexity, which makes it easier for either the store-compute guys or the big enterprise customers to manipulate the network.”

While this sounds exciting, it also sounds like opening up a huge attack surface for the network. Hasn’t there been push-back from operators about this?

“That’s where an abstraction layer comes in,” he explained. “We’ll present a front-end layer with programmable artefacts that are abstracted away from the network, so we can actually keep an eye on what the hell the services are doing.”

Beyond simply exposing network functions, Norton is keen to see analytics and forecasting being used to predict and manage the quality of experience for the different kinds of services we can already start to see being used. He gave an example:

“Alex wants all his drones to fly up and take pictures from floor 14 upwards. If Alex wants to do that at four o’clock every Tuesday, something’s got to be able to model that and say, ’Well, Alex, that’s going to be okay.’ Or add ‘By the way, the subway train goes by at five o’clock and it’s going to pull your service to pieces’.

“That kind of capability makes the network usable as a predictable service. The better players will differentiate in that way. Candidly, it is where they can keep the differentiation away from the compute-store simplistic view. You need a little more value-add than that.”

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