Telecom (as We Knew It) Is Dead

From time to time, the 3GPP standardization body surprises everyone with bold moves in selecting strange technologies. It did so with RCS, IMS, and SIP. When they first announced the 5G core evolution as a cloud-native architecture with HTTP as the main communication protocol, it raised some eyebrows.

With Release-15, everything that telecom stood for is gone. No more engineered protocols for efficiency during times of high traffic volume. No more interoperability testing with different vendors and new protocols. The telecom king is dead, and there will be no more, “Long live the King!” because today, a kid using node.js can build a 5G core on their laptop.

Welcome to the future.

The movement towards a cloud-native world means welcoming technology vendors and players to a previously mysterious and walled-off garden: the mobile core. For the past 20 years, only highly qualified companies have reigned when it came to participating in the core of the mobile carriers. Complex telecom protocols, strict requirements for high quality, and long-term commitments to keeping legacy systems up and running made IT companies unsuited for the task. There are plenty of examples of systems running on Tier 1 players for 10 years or longer. This means software patching and hardware upgrades came with risks and became massive undertakings.

The telecom industry has adopted innovations from IT vendors in the past (with some being more thoughtful than others). But this time the industry seems to be embracing modern frameworks, microservices, and commonly-used protocols as a whole.

Historically, some of these innovations (for example, SIP) have been adopted without the proper due diligence and were later found to be unfit for mobile. As a more recent example, HTTP turned out to be suboptimal for delivery when it came to lossy and unpredictable networks (like mobile networks causing head-of-line blocking). As a result, a new protocol, HTTP/2, was developed. However, it was quickly realized (by many on the H2 IETF committee before it was widely released) that HTTP/2 had its own limitations (they sort of just moved HOL blocking up to TCP at the transport layer which meant packet loss made things… worse). So, Google decided to spearhead things themselves (again) with QUIC. This ultimately led to the standardization of HTTP/3 which was essentially built on top of QUIC without the loss of existing HTTP/2 semantics.

Cloud-native, microservices, HTTP, auto-scaling, edge – it looks more like the architecture of a modern massive-scale content provider than a telco platform. In reality, we are not talking about the evolution of existing platforms in 5G, we are talking about a full revolution where we’re basically throwing away all telecom knowledge to instead use a new, “third-party” platform. While this will bring excitement to marketing teams looking to combine offers with TV, streaming, ads, games, and the like, it could be a nightmare when dealing with increased core network traffic on non-telecom protocols.

While no one has a crystal ball to see into the future, there were plenty of signs that the market was rapidly changing. Each of these examples were mere iterations of market evolution after Release-15 was announced. Not too long ago, Microsoft acquired two long-established firms to bring components of the telecom stack into their cloud. Moving forward, it’s just a matter of time before other large cloud providers claim their advantage in similar ways. We can see many more tactical acquisitions like Amdocs acquiring Opennet, for which the expertise on cloud-based solutions is critical.

How fast will Oracle – who has been shifting focus to their cloud business for years – finish their 5G offering to compete against Microsoft with a cloud-based telecom core? How will Amazon see the approach of their competing cloud vendors? Will they simply invite best-of-breed vendors? Time will tell, but it appears they have a huge advantage over traditional telecom vendors and operators.

Why? Because they are experts in technologies like CI/CD, end-to-end service orchestration, container-based microservices, zero-latency cold starts for serverless, and many more modern, horizontally scalable infrastructure concepts. To be successful in this new world of telecom-as-a-service, they will need to navigate the new culture and approach and adapt accordingly.

So what are the resulting implications of the telecom industry embracing the cloud within the mobile core? Will it foster the rapid adoption of business models incorporating the technologies mentioned above? Will it increase the depreciation of old technologies in favor of a 5G core that handles use-cases across all parts of an enterprise business? For now, there are still too many questions to forecast specific outcomes, but one thing is clear. Major changes are coming soon – and they will be lasting and profound.