“Open topics in the Telecommunications industry”. Interview to Nicola Blefari Melazzi (CNIT)

Open topics in the Telecommunications industry, in the run-up to 5G Italy, the reference international conference in the Italian TLC field, organised by the Italian National Inter-University Consortium for Telecommunications – CNIT (Consorzio Nazionale Interuniversitario delle Telecomunicazioni), now at its fifth edition. The event will be held in Rome from November 30th to December 1st, 2022. The fifth edition of 5G Italy – Towards the Telecoms of the Future – will cover the research, development, and implementation activities currently under way in Italy and the rest of the World and will also feature the projects linked to the National Recovery and Resilience Plan – NRRP (Piano Nazionale di Ripresa e Resilienza, PNRR), allocating major investments for the digitalisation of the Country.

We discussed this with the organiser of the event and CNIT Director, Professor Nicola Blefari Melazzi.

Nicola Blefari Melazzi
Nicola Blefari Melazzi

5G Italy. Professor, what are the open topics in the telecommunications sector?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. Among the general issues, we put research first, given also our role. For years we have been raising this issue: of the lack of funding, the fragmentation and dispersion of funds, the lack of cooperation between academia, other research centers and industry, and the inefficiency and lack of impact of many funding sources. Now, thanks to the NNRP, we can address this issue with appropriate tools.

5G Italy. How do you intend to address this subject?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. An important tool for the sector, but not the only one, is our RESTART program, an extended partnership under negotiation with the MUR, which once finalized will be able to count on 116 million euros in funding and whose planned activities include not only research projects but also important structural and support activities, such as laboratories, innovation and technology transfer, support for spin-offs and startups, education and training, communication and standardization.

5G Italy. Besides research, what is the second topic to be addressed in the telecommunications sector?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. The second problem in our opinion is the skill gap, the lack of professionals, technicians and even students in our field. This is a problem that affects all of Europe and scientific subjects in general, but in Italy it is made more serious by the emigration of our technicians and graduates, which is not compensated by similar inflows. This is also an issue we have been raising for many years. With the RESTART program we will try to limit this shortage with awareness, information and communication campaigns, but above all by working to improve teaching and training and thus career opportunities for our students.

5G Italy. Moving to 5G networks, what are the main issues there?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. The level of competition in the market and the high investment costs put network deployment at risk and the industry in distress. The topic will be addressed with two dedicated panels during 5G Italy, seeking to identify solutions that are as systemic as possible.

5G Italy. Professor, this is a significant change for 5G, if compared to a few years ago. How did we get here?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. We are at this point because the market has deteriorated, from the perspective of operators and vendors. Competition has continued to erode margins. Investments were needed during the pandemic, and 5G requires more. There has also been the need to pay for spectrum auctions, while energy costs have risen greatly in the meantime. The system is therefore under stress.

5G Italy. How can this problem be even partially solved?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. There are those who propose to ask for a contribution from the OTTs. Some European countries do not agree, though; of course there is the obvious opposition of the OTTs themselves, who argue that the customers of the infrastructure are not theirs and in case you have to charge users more, which, however, still clashes with the level of competition in the sector. One must keep in mind, however, that changing payment models in the Internet is a complicated thing; the ecosystem is very complex and has difficult components to consider, including CDNs. Instead, it would be different to, for example, proceed with an increase in taxation on OTTs and then use public funds to support investment in networks. Other such solutions that intervene off-line would certainly be easier than changing specific models of traffic and payment that have governed the Internet so far. Finally, a slight increase in tariffs, in agreement with the regulators, would provide relief but is not a medium/long-term solution.

5G Italy. Speaking about 5G, are there any profitable use cases?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. Well, this is a very relevant topic. In the past few years we have talked about numerous use cases that are of great interest and usefulness, but which do not seem to date to generate significantly additional revenues. In principle, we would also need a few applications, not necessarily a killer one, but which are more profitable than the flat rate offered to let’s say classical commercial users, with 5G instead of 4G.

On the other hand, if we look at the past, the road of the differentiation of quality of service has rarely given great economic satisfactions. Also, implementing technical solutions capable of providing differentiated and/or guaranteed end-to-end quality, across different domains, is not at all easy and would cost money anyway. What is more, technological evolution has often brought about an improvement in performance in a short period of time, giving everyone the opportunity to enjoy the quality offered by the best class of the previous situation. Finally, a differentiated solution poses net-neutrality problems. So, and I say this against the interests of research, which has been working hard on these issues, again I fear that class-based pricing is not the radical solution to the current economic problems.

Instead, we need to work to break the vicious cycle that still sees the lack of a full-functionality (stand-alone) and widely deployed 5G network because there are not enough profitable applications of it, while applications are not available and developed because there is no a full network availability. Now the NNRP is certainly not a panacea but it will help, even in this respect.

Another issue concerns virtual operators and especially other players, not telecom operators in the strict sense, that offer connectivity and services.

5G Italy. Shall virtual operators be regarded as competitors or as operators’ customers?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. Well, it depends, both cases apply. In the first case competition levels increase further, also in a segment which might result in high value-added services, as is the case with 5G bubbles, which go beyond 5G private networks, and include not only connectivity but also edge cloud and any related services.

5G Italy. What is meant by “5G bubbles”?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. I’d rather talk about 5G bubbles than private networks, because connectivity might still be offered by an operator and be resold. The important thing is that the network is a full stand-alone 5G network, services and applications included.

5G Italy. And what is the role of the Government and Public Administration?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. The Government could and should be a customer of 5G networks, as it is desirable for the Public Administration to use this tool as part of a broader digitalisation process. In this regard there is the question of budget to be found but also, and perhaps most importantly of all, of personnel.

5G Italy. Can you please clarify your statement above?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. Well, the Public Administration typically hires specialists in the legal, economic, and administrative fields, but rarely technical figures. Things are changing but only slowly and not nationwide. For instance, nowadays it is no longer acceptable that a municipality, even if small, has insufficient technical staff, and yet it still often happens.

5G Italy. Do we need more engineers in the Public Administration?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. Definitely, but let’s say technical figures in general. There is a lack of qualified technical personnel. Sometimes Public Administrations rely on third-party suppliers for the provision of technological applications, but they do not always care about the related maintenance and updates, and more generally about the use of such applications within their processes. The consequence of this way of doing things is that such applications and/or technologies remain underutilised, if not worse, and the services rendered to users and citizens do not improve. This is mainly because the administration lacks personnel capable of handling such technologies. Digitalisation can only be achieved with technical staff and skilled personnel employed within the Public Administration, working in synergy with other components of the P.A. and in the framework of well-defined processes.

5G Italy. From what perspectives will the energy issue be addressed at the next 5G Italy?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. First of all, we will focus on improving the network energy efficiency. According to various vendor estimates, 5G technology consumes about one-tenth of 4G for each bit carried; 5G will carry more bits than 4G, though. Hence, on the one hand the overall energy consumption will not decrease, on the contrary. However, supporting traffic increases that would occur anyway with 4G would obviously be worse. Therefore, the transition to 5G is necessary from this point of view as well, also because there is another important factor to be taken into account: 5G enables energy savings in the range of 10% in several application sectors, such as transport. A 10% saving in energy consumption on highly relevant sectors would lead to an overall positive energy balance, and this, in turn, would even eliminate the net contribution to energy consumption and CO2 generation of 5G itself.

5G Italy. How do we get out of it? Does moving to 5G pay off?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. Of course it pays off. The transition to 5G needs to be promoted. It’s like an ecobonus applied to telecommunications. The most energy-efficient technologies need to be promoted. It’s like replacing an old electrical appliance with a new, energy-efficient one. 5G is more sustainable, even if it requires significant investment.

5G Italy. What about security?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. We have always addressed this topic in all editions of 5G Italy, given its importance, which appears more clear and evident in the current international context. 5G is a critical infrastructure, as are telecommunications networks in general. In the case of 5G we also have a significant increase in the attack surface, which grows in size (increase in the number of connected terminals, e.g., IoT); type (heterogeneity of terminals, services and applications); quality and importance (services of increasing criticality: hospitals, power plants, subways, ..). Network security requires attention to the entire supply chain and the deployment of security tests (security assurance), including initial certifications and DevSecOps – being 5G a software-based network. Testing must be more comprehensive than it is today and include network functionalities, interfaces and their security protocols, and cryptographic protection.

5G Italy. Any other topics to discuss?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. Artificial intelligence, which as well as energy will be discussed at the conference from two different perspectives: the first is the use of artificial intelligence to improve network operation. The second is the use of networks to support and improve artificial intelligence algorithms.

5G Italy. Can you please clarify?

Nicola Blefari Melazzi. What I mean is that without telecommunications networks, the data needed to run many artificial intelligence algorithms and relevant applications cannot be generated, collected and transported.

Other important issues are those of data and related privacy, trying to go far beyond so-called informed consent; that of the cloud/edge cloud and the models the country intends to adopt and implement in this regard; and finally that of the ‘Remote Experience,’ with which we became familiar during the pandemic and which includes entertainment, promotion and use of Italian cultural and artistic assets, remote work, support for industry, as well as education and training.