4G and NGN: It’s Déjà Vu All over Again. Again. And Maybe Even Again!

Baseball player, coach, and legend, Yogi Berra, is famous for a long list of twisted phrases that have become known as Berra-isms. One of those special plays on words is “it’s déjà vu all over again”. Anyone who has been in the computer and telecommunications industry long enough is probably experiencing déjà vu all over again and maybe even again and again. I, for example, punched my first “IBM card” and sent it’s Binary-Coded Decimal (BCD) content over a wire from Asheville, North Carolina to the Triangle Universities Computation Center (TUCC) at Research Triangle Park in Durham, North Carolina in 1973, and I am feeling déjà vu all over again, and not for the first time! How about you?



Setting the Stage
Chief Crazy Horse was a pioneer in wireless communications. He used dedicated visual circuits to communicate via smoke signals as his forbears had done and those that came even earlier. Guigliemo Marconi and Alexander Popov, among others, also communicated via wireless circuits. Another Alexander, Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Grey used dedicated circuits, though these were metallic and terrestrial. Thomas Edison figured out how to let dedicated circuits share a physical path by inventing Time Division Multiplexing. How can we characterize this era? A number of name-recognizable persons fought for fame, patents, funding, market share and a place in history, and usually in that order. We will call this the First Phase.

Deja Vu
In the late 1950s, Paul Baran, working at a US defense think tank, the Rand Corporation, invented three new ways of sharing those circuits that his predecessors had pioneered. He invented packet switching (breaking long, dedicated, communications streams into small variable length envelopes that would travel a long distance, across multiple network nodes), frame switching (breaking long communications streams into small variable length envelopes that would travel short distances between network nodes and be passed along by an electronic bucket-brigade), and cell switching (basically frame switching but with short, fixed length units called cells). The Arpanet, precursor to the Internet, was invented, and in the center of those activities we saw a new group of pioneers – J.C.R. Licklider, Larry Roberts, Len Kleinrock, Vinton Cerf, Bob Kahn and others – playing key roles and carving out their own niches. How can we characterize this era? A number of name-recognizable persons fought for fame, patents, funding, market share and a place in history, and usually in that order. Déjà vu. We will call this the Second Phase.


Déjà Vu All Over Again
The 1980s brought new technologies that revolutionized human distance communications: Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM), frame relay, and related technologies ushered in an era of growth in bandwidth and applications, a reduction in latency, and improvements in performance, collectively known as the Broadband Era. And the Broadband Era had its own named players. Bob Metcalfe who invented Ethernet, was now able to push Ethernet out beyond the Local Area Network. Dr. John McQuillan helped the world think differently about delivering voice, data and video on a single network and conceptualized the “end of distance”, meaning delay at a distance comparable to a local connection, something heralded by Bill Gates and the folks at Microsoft as “instantaneous information at your fingertips”. And there were other players as well. How can we characterize this era? A number of name-recognizable persons fought for fame, patents, funding, market share and a place in history, and usually in that order. Déjà vu all over again. We will call this the Third Phase.

Déjà Vu All Over Again Again
Phase Next: invention and global deployment of the World Wide Web. Tim Berners-Lee, et al, provided a clever and useful overlay to the Internet that made it user friendly and much easier to use, even for the experts, and totally revolutionized the way humans store, retrieve, share and use information. I’ll also put some other startling and positively disruptive innovations, such as Google and a lot of what is called Web 2.0, such as Facebook, YouTube and the like, into this phase. How can we characterize this era? A number of name-recognizable persons fought for fame, patents, funding, market share and a place in history, and usually in that order. Déjà vu all over again … again. We will call this the Fourth Phase.

What’s Next?
For readers who have been connecting these dots you know that the next phase can be called by a lot of names, depending upon who you are and your point of view. You also know that this era can be characterized by a number of name recognizable persons and, admittedly companies, trade organizations and associations, fighting for fame, patents, funding and market share and in so doing assuring their place in the history of human communications. And yes, this is Déjà vu Rev 4.0.

Let’s take a look at some of the promising new technologies in this phase and some important, though often overlooked, requirements for these new technologies to be successful. The major high level categories are Next Generation Networking (NGN), Unified Communications and Internet Multimedia Subsystem (IMS)/Fixed Mobile Convergence (FMC). These initiatives are almost inextricably intertwined and share underlying technologies and overlaying applications with architectures that are growing more similar day by day. Whether these initiatives will merge is a story for another day and another article but the outlook on that point is: maybe.

Many people involved in this area are technologists which means that they see things from the perspective of technologies. It is therefore, important to note that tectonic shifts are occurring that more often than not will require substantial over-hauls to existing technology investments. The type of shift providing the best examples is, for instance, the shift from 2G and 2.5G wireless networks to 3G and 4G. A surge in the popularity of the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) for all manner of sessions – voice, data, video, telemetry, command and control and others – and related protocols such as SIP-T for trunking. The glacial shift to IPv6 addressing and routing is another good example as is a shift from higher layer transport protocols such as IPv4 and even MPLS to fundamentally simpler lower layer systems such as Provider Backbone Bridging (PBB), Provider Backbone Trunking (PBT) and Virtual Private LAN Service (VPLS) that decouple customer and carrier choices of WAN routing protocols and security mechanisms. There is also a big increase in services that allow the new networks to precisely replicate important functionality of current and older networks, services such as circuit emulation services over lower and medium layer transports. And let’s not forget innovations such as Routing at the Edge, Synchronous Adaptive Infrastructure Networks (SAINs) and a veritable wizards’ bag full of optical magic that gives us bigger bandwidth over greater distances than we would ever have thought possible even a couple of years ago.

So, from the user/customer perspective, what are the vital success characteristics and capabilities for these technologies?

  • Presence: logically or physically locating or hiding the location of individuals or assets.
  • Preference: allowing someone to personalize, or customize the communications experience. For individual services it will be the subscriber who sets preferences but it may also be a manager, administrator following a policy or a collaborative effort.
  • Routing: putting callers in touch with the needed resources, usually based upon preferences and profiles and using presence.
  • Conferencing: connecting two or more people using collaborative applications, voice, video and/or text in a pre-scheduled or ad hoc situation, or sometimes a combination of the two.
  • Multi-media: data and/or voice and/or video in any combination needed. This includes image handling, real-time and stored video, language and format translation, Telepresence, and a huge range of other capabilities that are beginning to emerge.
  • Voice Mail and Messaging: handling exceptions when two or more individuals cannot get in touch with each other directly.
  • Mobility: including all manner of enhancements to traditional routing as well as Mobile IP, wireless routing, “follow me/find me” services, and other convenience and ease-of-use/ease-of-contact capabilities.
  • Quality of Experience (QoE):  the more mature, user-focused version of the engineer’s favorite, Quality of Service. Systems that provide a level of quality matched to the user’s needs, budget and expectations.
  • Security: keeping information private, validating the communicating parties, and detecting and reporting any modification to information in any format and at any point in the communication process.

Most any other capability that anyone can come up with will fit into one of these categories.

Each of these issues separately deserve a book chapter of their very own but, taken together, make an important point. More and more people in more and more places around the globe are communicating electronically over a distance, and those people need systems that are intuitive and add value to the communications process rather than detract from it. And don’t forget that formal training, informal collaboration and consultation, and planning, planning, planning, are the keys to success in this endeavor as in all other human endeavors. And, as Yogi Berra said “You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.”

Editor’s Note: Jim, an author of half a dozen books on telecom, has 30 years of hands-on experience in data networking and optical technologies. A dynamic presenter, he’s teaching the Oct-Nov web classes on NGN, IMS/ SIP, MPLS, EoIP/VoIP, and IPTVRead bio.