Here’s What Telco Operators Need to Consider in Preparing for the Metaverse

This article was published in Telecom Ramblings on September 2, 2022. You can read the original article here.  

This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Pravin S. Bhandarkar, Founder and CEO, RtBrick 

The metaverse is here to stay. Whether you’re a big fan, or you think it’ll all come crumbling down on Zuckerberg, the virtual platform has opened the eyes of many consumers and businesses. However, as we embrace this new digital world, one critical issue remains unanswered: how will it all be connected?

The metaverse

There is a great deal of speculation surrounding the metaverse, with leading tech giant Facebook announcing plans to rebrand itself, and Zuckerberg claiming it to be the future of the internet. Although the metaverse is still too fresh to be defined, it is rumoured to resemble a virtual reality social platform that incorporates both the virtual world and the real world, and we will see many tech giants take the lead on this opportunity.

It’s hard not to think of “metaverse” as a bit of a buzzword. Most people would struggle to define it if you stopped them on the street. The surge in popularity of crypto and the buzz around NFTs has only made defining it trickier as various futurists, venture capitalists, and tech moguls vie to carve out their own space in the sector.

Despite its futuristic nature, the term metaverse came about 30 years ago in 1992 from Sci-Fi novelist Neal Stephenson to describe a virtual world that is parallel to the real world. Decentraland is a project which portrays the potential of the metaverse in the current day. It brings it to life with the ability to sell artwork, virtual real estate, and NFTs within a virtual reality with your own personalised avatar. However, there is still a long way to go before the metaverse resembles reality, with many projects still years behind basic modern video game graphics and the interaction on the platforms somewhat limited.

The metaverse and network providers

According to a recent study, a quarter of people will spend at least an hour a day in the metaverse by 2026, and 30% of organisations will have products and services within the metaverse. Since it will have a large presence in our daily lives, it is important that technology will be able to support the metaverse with upgraded infrastructure set in place. For example, we can compare this leap to smartphones. A decade ago, phones were bulky and limited compared to the paper-thin capabilities they have now. The metaverse is expected to have a similar technological jump, however in a much shorter space of time. This means urgent network attention is required.

The metaverse will consume immense bandwidth, which will put strains on the network. It’s unlikely that many households will have broadband speeds fit to run the metaverse as it is the most demanding application yet. Telcos often sell broadband with asymmetrical information to customers, often advertising the overall speed as the peak throughput speed (the speed at which the circuit connects to the edge of the ISP’s network). In reality, broadband connections don’t consistently run at this speed, and they are often oversubscribed which can cause speeds to vary depending on the demand for them at that time.

The pandemic revealed a key flaw in broadband providers that had not been acknowledged before. With an increase in spare time and little to do, many users took to the internet to upload videos, and it was discovered that upload speeds vary drastically compared to downloads speeds. According to Ofcom, the UK has an average download of 80Mbs, but an upload of only 21Mbs. Where most consumers only streamed pre-pandemic, a new era of hybrid working which required applications, workplace collaboration tools, and video conferencing platforms significantly increased the traffic for uploading.

The metaverse is expected to rely mostly on downloads, however a chunk of it will require uploading and this will significantly strain broadband providers as speeds must be consistent and reliable to live up to the proper multiverse experience. The pandemic alone caused a problematic spike in demand for bandwidth for broadband companies. Although this has since been alleviated, we can expect the same to happen with the metaverse except on a larger scale which may not stabilise as efficiently.

The reason for this is a lack of capacity between the access network and the content delivery networks (CDNs) to handle the peak load of consumers. The more consumers using the network at one time, the slower the network and less life-like the metaverse appears. Since it would be unpopular to increase the cost of broadband, it is unclear where the funding required for increased broadband capacity would come from.

Disaggregation as the solution

Disaggregation is the process of installing network software independently from the hardware. Carriers have previously built their networks using monolithic systems which incorporate software and hardware from a single vendor. The cons of this mean dependence on a single vendor and the need for expensive hardware replacements.

Disaggregation on the other hand allows telcos to select and deploy the best hardware and software independently, and disaggregation systems can replace functions such as core and edge routers to broadband network gateways. Disaggregation can happen because of the introduction of high-volume and low-cost networking chips (merchant silicon). Merchant silicon is then used to build low-cost ‘bare-metal’ switches. The bare-metal switches are cost effective, especially in comparison to telco switches and routers, yet still match their performance standards. A new generation of networking software then uses bare-metal switches to create the IP/MPLS routers used in broadband networks.

Disaggregation is a vital tool which can save the telecoms industry. Disaggregated hardware and software can be deployed using zero touch provisioning in a matter of minutes, and once installed, telcos can work within a single operating environment instead of training their teams on multiple vendor systems and processes. It is also quick to update a disaggregated system without affecting existing frameworks.

The future?

The metaverse is an exciting new concept, however, it is going to strain our networks incredibly. Consumers have high demands and expect a life-like experience, which means operators must find new ways to strengthen networks now. Network disaggregation is the solution to this problem and will ensure a smooth journey into the metaverse.