Widespread geopolitical trends, along with the cost of energy and low-growth “slowflation,” had an outsized effect on the growth of broadband networks. Added challenges from supply chain issues, skilled labor shortages and logistical constraints limited the speed of network deployments.
Economists across the world are predicting recessions, but with variances about how long and deep they will be, with some countries impacted more than others. Despite this outlook, the reality is that connectivity is now vital, it is no longer seen as discretionary but as essential – for economic recovery, government initiatives, business infrastructure and for household personal use.
A post-pandemic understanding of the importance of broadband and closing the digital divide, along with unprecedented government funding, an accommodating financial environment, and a mature crop of network technologies, have yielded a steep demand curve for building next-generation networks, setting the stage for unparalleled capacity expansion. At the same time, enterprises are re-evaluating their own operational costs structures as a result of the business disruptions of the last couple of years, with a keen interest in realizing greater efficiency across their organizations, including their networks.
After being thrown into remote work, remote learning, telemedicine and all the other new ways we’ve had to lean on our connectivity, people see ubiquitous connectivity not as a convenience or luxury, but a basic necessity of modern living. The connectivity haves and have-nots became more clearly defined during the pandemic, and we all know a person or business who was left behind in this sudden, sometimes awkward advance in the digital revolution.
In addition, everything from shopfloor automation to social media has raised universal awareness of the need for fast, reliable connectivity, especially for Internet of Things (IoT) devices and artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML)-powered services underpinning Industry 4.0 potential. Whether you are planning your business’ next infrastructure overhaul or shopping for broadband capable of 4K streaming to every room in the house, chances are you’re keeping a keen eye on what we can expect from network technology manufacturers, ISPs and other sources.
This combination of accommodating environment (in both commercial and residential segments) and the never-ending craving for capacity is the reason why those of us deeply involved in the connectivity industry are so excited about 2023—and all the possibilities that are emerging as the world eagerly embraces developing technologies.
Connectivity and the digital divide
The digital divide is not a new concept, but after the pandemic forced us to work in new ways, its impact was thrown into sharp relief. The United Nations revealed that there are still more than 2.9 billion unconnected people around the world who are in jeopardy of being left behind. Such staggering numbers prove that the industry still has a lot of work to do if we are to overcome the stubborn challenges posed by the digital divide. Closing this divide will mean facilitating the delivery of a wide range of services and applications to enhance these peoples’ lives—as well as improve business efficiency and productivity which have their own downstream benefits to underserved communities.
That said, as more people get online and use more cloud-based applications, more pressures will be felt across the telecommunications industry. From network operators to data centers, challenges remain not only in getting connected, but also in ensuring reliable, ubiquitous connectivity.
Throughout 2023, governments and network operators will be working together to close the digital divide faster than we have seen in the past, including that part of the divide which runs through rural communities where high-quality broadband access may be limited by economics. This year is likely to see a significant advance in bringing rural communities online and getting people, places, and devices connected no matter where they are.
Investing in digital infrastructure has huge advantages for communities across the globe, both economically and socially. The task is monumental and we aren’t there yet, but current efforts make the future look promising. There now exists a critical mass of determination, resolve and funding in the industry to make universal broadband connectivity a plausible reality.
Reducing environmental impact to help with global sustainability
In 2023, sustainability will continue to be a key focus area for the industry as external pressures continue to rise from consumers, governments, and environmental groups. Governmental regulations are being introduced across the globe on environmental, social and governance (ESG) reporting, bringing these issues into sharper focus for the industry and the commercial customers we serve, many of which have their own sustainability goals to fulfill. Investment decisions are increasingly considering these regulations. Organizations will continue to use ESG measures as a way of attracting those investors.
To remain aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement, the industry must reduce emissions by 45 percent before 2030, or risk contributing to the irreversible effects of climate change. The good news here is that industry leaders have already set ambitious internal targets to reduce power consumption and incorporate green initiatives into their organizations day-to-day activity, tackling the problem from multiple angles at once: materials sourcing, lighter designs, greater recyclability, improved packaging and logistics, and many other aspects combine to create lasting green impact. Further, by demanding transparency into their partners’ footprint, business leaders will be able to work together more effectively to tackle the issue of climate change.
It takes real results and quantifiable improvements to resonate with investors, employees and customers. This means a greater focus on the impacts of the whole supply chain is now on the table, with the industry looking at how it can move away from single-use materials or reduce the number of components needed for products.
All aspects of the industry are keenly aware that it must increase the efficiency of the delivery of services, while at the same time reducing the amount of energy use. It is here we will start to see the innovations needed, whether it is advancements in fiber and edge-based infrastructure technologies, or through machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Convergence: Networks and security
The continued growth and expansion of cellular networks, particularly the ongoing deployment of 5G, may have been touted by some as the beginning of the end for Wi-Fi, but 2023 will likely prove to be a year of convergence rather than conquest between the two technologies.
The convergence of networks holds great possibilities for bandwidth, efficiency, security, and flexibility. Both Wi-Fi and cellular technologies have expanded capacity with new bands, thanks to unlicensed shared spectrum. In Wi-Fi’s case, this is the 6 GHz band accessible to Wi-Fi 6E and Wi-Fi 7, which basically quadruples throughput. Likewise, in private LTE and 5G cellular networks in the United States, the addition of the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) 3.5 GHz band adds 150 MHz of spectrum. This band is lightly licensed and far more easily available to enterprises than traditional 3GPP-licensed bandwidth. Outside of the US, similar concepts are being adopted to offer “industrial spectrum” for enterprise private mobile networks. In both cases, greater bandwidth means greater capacity—and greater potential for what the network can do.
As both Wi-Fi and cellular continue to develop ever-increasingly comparable capabilities, we can expect to see each of them aid the other through their complementary strengths, until eventually they become a converged, user-transparent unified platform that shifts seamlessly between technologies as needed. It is at this point that IoT can really start to take off, whether it is in one’s home or in a vast manufacturing facility.
Of course, as the trajectory of smart devices joining the IoT goes up, so too does the risk of these devices being exploited and hacked. Ransomware will continue to evolve as a threat, not just for large organizations, but for residential buildings too. In 2023, we will continue to see vendors consolidating security features into a single platform, complete with pricing and licensing options to make their solutions more attractive to more people.
Tools are currently available to lock down IoT devices, but for many, those tools remain inaccessible. Enterprise IT departments have the skills and knowledge to do this, but for households, it remains a major security deficit. A converged private network provides the foundation for software-based credentials management systems that can protect all IoT devices, for everyone. In a sense, such a credentials management system is the “IoT of IoTs,” in that it automates access and control to secure the entire IoT environment. This platform-level approach can also provide extra assurance as global microprocessor chip supply chains realign and manufacturing becomes increasingly domestically sourced.
Value over raw speed
The speed and volume of data being generated, processed and transported will continue to grow at breakneck speeds in 2023. From placing grocery orders online today to using 5G-connected driving assist systems in the future as the technology matures further, users expect full efficacy in data transmission and downtime cannot be afforded. Significant latency, or lag, in a network is not an option.
Low latency is the key to unlocking the bandwidth that make all of the applications the modern world has come to rely on work. Data centers must be ready for the continual and growing pressure of increased network traffic, so an ongoing migration of these data centers to the edge of the network—in a quest to save a few milliseconds off network latency—is virtually certain.
A few years ago, the world was content with 4G’s 50 milliseconds latency. One-twentieth of a second was fast enough for what it did. However, 5G’s latency can be as low as 1 millisecond, a mere one-thousandth of a second, making it necessary for applications that require such near-instantaneous response times.
5G also supports a wide range of bands that each provide customized strengths that can be suited to a particular place or application. Its substantial sub-6 GHz bands (including C-band) are ideal for broader coverage of larger areas, as well as mixed indoor-outdoor areas. At the other end are mmWave bands (26 GHz and up) that provide incredible throughput speeds but can’t cover much distance and can’t easily travel through walls or other solid obstacles. Together, these available bands can be employed as needed to provide the most efficient and effective network to suit a particular deployment environment or goal.
For consumers, the growth of low-latency 5G means taking the next step into virtual reality and augmented reality – whether this is viewing 3D videos of the cheering crowd, as seen from the performer’s perspective, watching your favorite show or movie in 4K resolution while waiting for your flight, or calling up 4K resolution sports replays, curated statistics, and player profiles on-demand. The applications range far beyond simple entertainment, however, as 5G’s low latency also empowers many other services that are increasingly important to modern living, such as smart home systems that reduce utility costs and improve safety, telemedicine, medical telemetry and other advanced healthcare applications such as remote robotic surgeries. Yes, those can run on 5G networks.
When it comes to home Customer Premises Equipment (CPE) infrastructure, key advances are set to be made. The latest fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) infrastructure can economically deliver 10 Gps broadband right away. The emergence of the new DOCSIS 4.0-compliant devices in the second half of 2023 will mean tripling the upstream speeds of residential connections.
For service providers and streaming services, 2023 will be all about customer retention and growth. Low latency is also becoming more important than raw speeds, especially for gamers. In 2023, we expect gaming to become one of the prominent services to use 6 GHz Wi-Fi and as we move toward more immersive experience services in the home with AR, VR and MR, lower latency will be required to maintain proper immersion quality.
While the development of technology is always evolutionary, we often feel the power of the societal revolutions they enable, from television to the computer to the internet to the cloud. In 2023, much of the planet will be introduced to a world where many of the visionary capabilities we’ve talked about for the last several years—from smart buildings to immersive metaverse reality—will start dramatically changing how we live.
As an industry, we will be working hard to try and close the digital divide in the most environmentally responsible way possible. This drive will see more innovations being developed and coming to market, whether it is on a macro level, such as network convergence, or on a micro level, with products redesigned with less components, for example.
In all aspects of telecommunications, 2023 should shape up to be a big year, one that has those of us involved in it extremely optimistic and excited for the opportunities on the horizon.