Five phases of communications transformation

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From legacy to leading edge, Communications Service Providers (CSPs) may sometimes feel there is no clear path or timeline associated with network transformation beyond what they have already done to move into virtualization and software-defined networking (SDN).

In fact, the investments CSPs have made in modernizing their networks to support pure Internet Protocol (IP) environments are the foundation for the next transformation: the transformation of communications services. 

It’s time to take the leap from infrastructure modernization to service modernization and monetization. With the right strategic moves and partners, CSPs are in a stronger position than ever to fend of threats from the challengers who have for decades leveraged “the Internet” and IP networks generally to launch their own services. These services are replacing legacy voice, VoIP, video and on-demand video services that CSPs spent trillions of dollars inventing, as the turn of the century turned society into an always-on, always-connected, and always-collaborating global community. 

Even as many CSPs continue to double down by investing in the future of network infrastructure – such as 5G and LTE – it’s important to keep services in view and to understand how their investment at the “bottom of the stack” converts to value at the “top of the stack.” 

Based on countless strategy sessions I participated in, I see the evolution and transformation of communications (vs. just networks) in five stages: 

  1. Monetization of legacy investments (soft switches and gateways) 
  2. IP transformation (UCaaS and SBCs) 
  3. Hosted communications (NVF, vCPE, and uCPE) 
  4. Embedded applications (GPU, Analytics, IoT all supported by 5G)
  5. Cloud communications (CPaaS) and innovations still to come 

This is all well underway, as those who are passionate about this industry and digital transformation are well aware. There is not a single phase that hasn’t already attracted billions of dollars in investment, but each is at a different phase of maturity. 

While addressing legacy systems early in the digital transformation process, it’s essential to leverage existing assets and monetize legacy investments. For instance, in recent years, guiding CSPs and enterprises to get the most out of their existing investments has helped fuel the growth of VoIP and the interconnection with the PSTN, which, while it is not going away anytime soon, clearly is not the future of real-time communications (RTC). 

Over the past few years, thousands of projects have been implemented in IP transformation, bringing SBCs into network operators and through those network operators to enterprises, enabling them to protect and manage VoIP sessions, as well as ensuring high availability, quality and compliance with regulations across the globe. Various UCaaS applications extend traditional voice systems out to mobile devices, including rich functionality, call routing, messaging and hundreds of features enterprises have relied upon for years, expanding the value of in-place investments such as desktop phones to soft clients and mobile devices without skipping a beat. 

Established industry standards for Network Function Virtualization (NFV) recognize that the telecom world thrives on interconnection and interworking of systems, where open is more than just a definition of software – open is about opening up new technical schemes and business opportunities. This means CSPs must innovate on behalf of their customers, enabling them to remain competitive – disrupting rather than being disrupted by major challengers. This is especially true as we head into a world where 5G will change the game when it comes to speed, performance and economics.

In the new world of “spectrum creativity,” embedded applications come into play, including those that merge machines and people, as the Internet of Things (IoT) and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) change just about everything when it comes to the connection of the physical and digital world. While automation and analytics can vastly improve the efficiency of manufacturing plants, for example, the connection of derived data to human access to that data and action based on insights from that data is of far more value than a “lights out” approach. 

In the world of healthcare, for example, medical devices can track and report on a patient’s heartrate and provide a cardiologist with real-time information and alerts about that patient’s well-being, but only a cardiologist can make the call on how to treat a patient in distress. Then, only a heart surgeon can operate on that patient, enhancing his or her outcomes using other technology made possible by embedded communications and telemedicine assistance, but still performing the delicate work.

Eventually, almost every transaction will move to or through the cloud, which brings us to the next big milestone in communications transformation. Despite all the hype about Cloud Communications as a Service, the fact is that less than one-third of transactions pass through the cloud today. This trend is gaining popularity and adoption, but there are many challenges associated with cloud – both with applications that are built on APIs and with complex, sensitive workflows and information that make cloud communications truly valuable. 

What is the greatest challenge slowing down progress? Security. How can we ensure the integrity of data that may be owned by an individual – or a corporation – when that data is subscribed to by multiple applications, for example? This includes voice conversations as more and more advanced voice services come online, including voice-activated personal assistants. When everything we write, say or otherwise share is converted into data, then shared and stored on the cloud, the potential attack surface grows. 

The cloud represents a much larger surface area for attack, and not just in terms of its overall breadth. Cloud-based services are comprised of many different virtual machines (VMs) and potentially dozens of different microservices, each with their own application programming interface (API). Every VM and API call could expose an application to a potential security breach, and once an endpoint is hacked, intruders can move laterally within a cloud-based network to access other applications and data. You can think of a cloud service as being composed of hundreds of different Lego-like blocks. In the cloud, your security posture is only as strong as your weakest block. 

In fact, at every point in the evolutionary path summarized in this article, there have been countless challenges to consider and solve for. This is something that we’ll continue to see in the next few years as the way we communicate and collaborate evolves. 

Kevin Riley, CTO and EVP of Advanced R&D at Ribbon Communication 

Image Credit: Totojang1977 / Shutterstock