Telecom Networks in 2024: Inside Carrier Core Networks, Encryption, and Networking in Outer Space
Future Tech 2024: An Interview with Dr Paul Brooks (Layer 10 Advisory)
In this Future Tech interview, we’re continuing our discussion with Dr Paul Brooks from Layer 10 Advisory. Often described as a “Serial CTO,” Paul’s expertise in telecommunications network design, planning and operation stems from extensive hands-on experience in broadband access and large-scale data networking with leading equipment suppliers, carriers, service providers and regulators. His latest project is with Trident Subsea Cable, a $400m subsea and terrestrial optical fibre network linking Perth with the Pilbara/North West Shelf and internationally to Jakarta and Singapore.
Looking Inside Carrier Core Networks
Shara Evans (SE): I’d like to turn now to the core of the carrier networks, and both of us have been working in the area of convergence — that is, putting voice and video over data networks — for probably longer than we care to admit publicly. From your perspective, Paul, when do you see that carrier core for telephony will be comprised of 100% VoIP technologies?
Paul Brooks (PB): That’s actually a difficult one because what is happening inside a carrier’s core network is fairly opaque, and carriers tend not to talk about it. Id’ be surprised if most of it isn’t already mostly VoIP — 60, 70, 80 percent undoubtedly.
If you look at the totality of carriers around the globe, calls carried on their internal links, on their long-haul links between cities and between countries, they almost inevitably that will be mainly VoIP today.
There will be areas of the carrier core that won’t be, and possibly areas of old telecoms carriers where they still have existing functional non-VoIP traditional telephony equipment that they haven’t yet scrapped. But, the cost of operating some of these is not going down. The cost of VoIP and VoIP equipment, because of the hundreds of thousands of simultaneous calls that they can carry in a very compact unit, well the economics are getting better and better.
If it’s not already 60 percent by now, I would be surprised. Over the decade, that will just get closer and closer and closer to 100 percent as the access technology evolves and people start deploying more and more VoIP equipment and actually originating the call as VoIP directly from the business and from the home.
SE: Yes, and I think services like Skype, where consumers who are not technical whatsoever know what Skype is, has really made the technology catch on in the mainstream. They may not know how it works, but they know that they can just use it over their computer, and I expect that there’ll be more and more apps that have built-in audio and video capabilities, and people won’t realise that they’re going over packet networks, nor will they care. It will just be the way it is.
PB: Yes, well, I think they will realise but they just won’t care. If the audio quality is there, and VoIP has the capability and Skype is one of those examples that popularised high-definition codecs that make an IP telephony call actually sound significantly better than a traditional call. Once people get used to the idea that you get a higher quality on VoIP than picking up a traditional phone, then more and more of the traffic will come through as VoIP.
One of the things that people don’t realise, and hopefully don’t need to worry about is the transition to the NBN. With both the previous predominantly fibre-based NBN, and in the new model, most of the telephony is going to move to a Voice over IP model in the middle, even if people are still using their traditional handsets.
The conversion to VoIP will occur in the broadband modem in their house. You can buy handsets that don’t even need to plug into a computer, where the whole processing and broadband link is over WiFi or something within the handset. You can pick up a traditional handset; you can dial a number; you can have a call, and be completely unaware that it’s actually being carried in a packetised version, possibly with much higher audio quality than you can get on a traditional call.
Now when you’ve got enough calls like that going into your network as a telephone provider, it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to convert that into a traditional form to then interconnect with other carriers around the world. You might as well leave it as VoIP and have it carried as VoIP across the interstate, inter-country and international backbones.
SE: Yes, the quality is much better, as we both know, and the other carriers are just as likely to have packet backbones for their voice network as well.
PB: Well, sure. How do we know that they’re not already being carried as VoIP? It’s certainly being carried in many cases on the newer protocols in packetised form, although in the 2G/3G type applications, it looks more like what we used to know as ATM rather than IP.
The big trend at the moment is Voice over LTE (VoLTE). But, LTE as a mobile technology is pure and simply a data technology. It’s a packet technology, so running voice calls over an LTE network, by definition, means running it as a Voice over IP in packets over that data network. In the future, as LTE becomes more and more widespread, then it’s a no-brainer that more and more of the calls will be IP coming straight from the mobile handset.
Security and Encryption of Data
SE: There’s another aspect of telephony that I’d like to talk to you about, and that has to do with security and encryption of data. There’s been a lot in the press lately in response to revelations of NSA spying and in particular some of the information from Edward Snowden. In fact, just a few days ago, I saw that Vodafone in Germany is planning to release a new phone app that encrypts telephone calls for an additional 10 Euros per month. Do you see this kind of app becoming more prevalent? What’s your view on the whole world of privacy and encryption and security?
PB: Yes, well, that’s a really interesting development. With mobile calls, particularly with 3G GSM, people assume that their phone calls are already encrypted as part of the GSM protocol. There are ways of getting around that. If a hacker was to effectively set up their own mobile phone base station, they can actually control whether your phone turns on encryption or not without you being aware of it, which is a bit of a worry.
I think the revelations of Edward Snowden and what the NSA has been doing, both to the US citizens and to the people in the rest of the world, where the NSA allegations are considered completely valid in what they’re supposed to be doing, most of the hoo-ha in the US is not so much around the NSA spying on us as being non-Americans but about them not spying on American citizens. But for us, we’d rather they weren’t spying on us either.
PB: But, you know, as far as Americans are concerned, we’re aliens.
Anyway, what I think it will do is put a much greater focus, and a much greater emphasis and awareness, on end-to-end encryption right throughout our business and personal communications. Applications that aren’t currently incorporating any form of encryption will increasingly do so.
We’ve seen it on the Web gradually as banking applications started using the encrypted symbols, and then we had to teach consumers to look for the little padlock on the browser window and those sorts of things.
More and more applications — even social-media applications are now under pressure because of snooping — have set their software up so that they try an encrypted connection first before a non-encrypted connection, and will actually warn the user if an encrypted connection is not possible. This is for web-type activities.
You can certainly see that more and more and more people will be looking to introduce end-to-end encryption into their communications.
Now encryption has actually been almost a fundamental part of email since the email standards were written 20 years ago. It’s just been a little bit complex for people to use the capabilities that are in almost every email client. And you can imagine more and more corporate IT departments looking into how to turn that on by default, issuing all their employees with digital signatures and setting up an environment where even email is sent encrypted from point to point — if they can set it up in a way that is easy and a no-brainer for the average worker to use.
SE: The challenge, I think, is in sending email to people that are outside of your work circle or outside of your domain, and, increasingly, email communication tends to be with all kinds of people and if they don’t have the same encryption and decryption software and techniques in use, then you basically end up with gobbledygook.
PB: Well, yes, but, as I say, one of the good things about standards — there are so many to choose from. There really are only two or three different standards for encryption, and most of the major email programs and applications support all of them. It’s actually not that hard to set up encrypted email so that your email messages exchange digital signatures using a standard encryption program and a standard encryption method, which is a documented international standard for security keys, and be able to exchange email securely, particularly when a lot of people still use email to attach files as a form of file-transfer method. It is actually not that hard to securely exchange email with random people all over the planet and to collect their public encryption keys to do it securely.
SE: But doesn’t that require action on the part of someone that you may not know before you send the email?
PB: It does. You need to have a little bit of a handshake first, but, typically, before you start sending secure emails with content that you don’t want known, there’s typically always at least one or two emails go past where I’ve said, “Good day, Fred. I’m George. I was introduced to you by Joe.” There’s usually a little bit of to-ing and fro-ing before you start getting to exchanging the really meaty stuff, and that to-ing and fro-ing in the middle allows the two email programs to learn each of the other participant’s publicly visible encryption keys.
SE: In 10 years’ time, can you see that this type of preliminary handshaking would be a thing of the past and it would just happen?
PB: Well, it’s got to happen. It’s a question of whether it is something that the user sees or whether it goes on in the background. The user email program can’t tell who it is you might be about to email next, so I think it’s something that will happen automatically, but it will happen automatically as part of the first few messages of an email exchange with a new correspondent.
SE: It will be interesting to watch that unfold, and I expect that that’s going to be an increasingly public issue in the years ahead of us.
PB: Well, absolutely, and it’s not just email but you look at new applications, a lot of the new social media applications, a lot of the photo-sharing applications and things like that, more and more they will also use strong encryption completely under the covers, without the user needing or wanting to be aware of it, as a way of thwarting people that are snooping.
However, what it won’t stop is lawful government-sanctioned recording of communications because in many countries it’s actually the law that the telephone companies and ISPs have to be able to provide access to the data stream. Now, more and more, what they might get access to is an encrypted data stream that they may or may not be able to turn back into plain text. But for something like email, if you’re email is transferred as an encrypted stream to the ISP, and then stored unencrypted waiting for transfer to the next destination, then it’s entirely possible that lawful authorities will be able to get access to that message even if you sent it as an encrypted message.
SE: So the message to consumers and businesses: if you really want something to be encrypted and only available between you and the person or company it’s destined for, encrypt it yourself.
PB: Encrypt it yourself. Maybe use some of the encryption features in compression programs like Zip and others to turn your confidential PowerPoint presentation into a password-protected, encrypted Zip file first, and then send that.
SE: Yes, that’s exactly what I’m thinking.
I’d like to touch very briefly on one of your newest research areas, and that’s in interplanetary communication. Can you give us a preview of what’s happening here?
PB: Well, this is actually an interesting one, and dear to my heart.
Several years ago now, a group of space researchers in NASA and JPL and working with Vint Cerf, who was one of the early pioneers for the traditional Internet protocols, started to look at what was required to extend the Internet into interplanetary space.
It turns out that the protocols that we use all over the planet today, that scale from the speeds we were using with dial-up modems to the 10s of gigabit speeds that we’re using today, don’t handle long round-trip time delays very well.
Now we don’t tend to hit those sort of time delays in a terrestrial sense. If we’re communicating from one side of planet to the other, then typically a third of a second is about the maximum time delay that gets. But to get a message to Mars, it can take up to 40 minutes to get there, and most conventional Internet protocols will only wait for a response for up to about 30 seconds or so before deciding that the other end is down, not available, and giving up.
SE: Well, that’s not going to work to send a message to Mars, is it?
PB: It’s not going to work to Mars. The conventional Internet protocols work fine to get up to low Earth orbit, so you can actually use the Internet to the International Space Station and to the Moon. The Moon’s only eight minutes away. It sort of barely works. In most cases, it doesn’t, and thus the protocols or the software is specially crafted to work around those sorts of things.
Also, it’s a consideration in any sort of environment where contact is intermittent.
We make assumptions under our current Internet protocols that the two end points for the communication can see each other simultaneously, and that there is an unbroken end-to-end path for packets to carry between them.
We also made an assumption, because we’re using a lot of optical fibre in the network, that the bit error rate and the number of packets that experience an error in the middle of transmission is so extremely low that we don’t bother checking for errors in the middle anymore. We let the end computer check for errors and then request a re-transmission from the far end. Now if that only takes a fraction of a second to do, then that’s fine. If it’s going to take 40 minutes for the packet to arrive at the destination for the destination to figure out that it’s corrupted, send a message back to the source for another 40 minutes to say, “Hey, that one was actually garbled. Can you send it again,” and then another 40 minutes for a new version of the packet to be sent, it’s going to be an extremely inefficient way of running the network.
So the InterPlanetary Networking Special Interest Group has been working on a series of protocols collectively called Delay & Disruption Tolerant Networking, DTN, which is published as RFCs as part of the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), to look at effectively putting relay nodes for DTN into satellites, into Mars craft and things like that, so that once they’ve reached the end of their useful life, then they can be re-purposed as relay nodes for the interplanetary Internet.
Now the interesting thing about this disruption-tolerant networking is there are actually a lot of applications for it here on Earth: battlefield communications where jamming comes on and off and isn’t predictable, communications between swarms of autonomous sensors, each one of which might have only a very low power sensor or transmitter that can only reach the neighbour but may not be able to reach the edge of a swarm or a central antenna.
One example I was reading about recently for communications in a mine where they had environmental sensors inside the mine, transmitting status updates pretty much constantly, and a receiver for it which shuttled backwards and forwards attached to a train — a tourist train — that goes in and out of the mine. This mine’s about five kilometres long. So intermittently for about 10 seconds every hour or so, the train in the middle would come into range of the monitoring station, collect data from the monitoring station, and then when it got back out to the entrance of the mine, would then transmit that out to the central collection. So at no point did the collecting monitoring node or the data store ever have a direct end-to-end communication with them or effectively having their data shuttled between them by the node on the tourist train, using exactly the same delay-and disruption-tolerant networking protocols as we’re looking at for communication to Mars and beyond.
SE: Wow, how fascinating. We’re going to have to talk about that in more detail in another time.
PB: Very happy to.
SE: Thank you so very much, Paul. As always, it’s been a fascinating discussion with you!