Predicting the Top Network Trends of 2024

Jan 25, 2024

In the fast-paced world of technology, monotony is a rarity. A prime example of this dynamic nature is the telecom service providers of 2023. Just as these operators began to familiarize themselves with the transformation to 5G networks and cloudification, a new game-changer arrived - artificial intelligence (AI), compelling everyone to reassess their preconceived notions.

Predicting the exact trajectory of these converging trends is an impossibility, and there's always the potential for another disruptive innovation hiding in the wings, ready to cause further upheaval. However, those involved in the field of test and measurement can at least be certain about where telcos and vendors envision the industry is heading.

Prediction 1: 2024 will be a catalyst for accelerating 5G Standalone/5G Core deployments. 

The telecom sector had long anticipated that transitioning to full 5G Standalone (5G SA) networks would be formidable. As expected, the growth of 5G SA network deployments was slow last year, primarily due to the complexity involved in deploying and integrating the novel, cloud-native 5G Core technologies. However, this year, we expect a surge in the market. What has triggered this shift? For the first time, the demand for innovative 5G SA features and the availability of network equipment and devices to facilitate them are perfectly synchronized.

In terms of supply, providers have introduced new 5G SA products to the market. This includes over 17 network equipment manufacturers (NEMs) and the 80+ 5G SA modems and chipsets now accessible for end devices. With regards to devices, more than 1,400 device models in the market are now capable of supporting 5G SA. In our operations, we've witnessed a significant wave of testing by service providers readying to roll out premium 5G SA services, such as Voice over 5G New Radio (VoNR), network slicing, and reliable low latency solutions for industrial applications. The network upgrades needed to accommodate these services are also on the rise, and we project that more than 100 5G SA networks will be commercially operational by early 2025.

Suppliers perceive a 5G market ripe for expansion. And they have a good reason: the demand for next-generation 5G SA features has started to soar. Specifically, we're observing substantial customer demand in three sectors.

  • Enterprise Private Networks that require 5G SA features like guaranteed throughput and availability, low latency, and security
  • Gaming and Extended Reality (XR) applications that require consistent throughput and extremely low latency
  • Government/Military Applications, particularly in remote areas, that need secure, highly reliable connectivity

The demand for 5G SA will continue to increase for use cases like these throughout 2024, but don't anticipate a sudden surge of new deployments. Instead, customers are likely to adopt a measured growth strategy, commencing with smaller initial deployments and gradually expanding over the next few years.

Prediction 2: Service providers will invest in automation and AI to fuel digital transformation. 

The advent of 5G has ushered in a new digital transformation era, with service providers worldwide prioritizing investment in initiatives to enhance business agility and capital efficiency. These efforts significantly focus on migrating to cloud-based Operational Support Systems (OSS).

However, automation is another critical area that service providers are keen to explore. In 2024, automation initiatives will primarily leverage basic machine learning (ML), as AI solutions capable of managing complex service provider networks are still under development. There are unresolved issues surrounding the costs of creating and training models, the potential risks of training on poor or biased data, and the regulatory uncertainty surrounding AI in specific markets.

Consequently, service providers' automation efforts in the coming year are expected to focus on lab consolidation, automating specific network lifecycle and DevOps processes, and cloud migration. Automation will become essential to these systems as service providers increasingly adopt complex multi-cloud/hybrid cloud environments.

An emerging application of service provider automation is the improvement of energy efficiency. Intelligent automation is expected to yield early victories in 2024 for service providers looking to decrease energy costs and minimize CO2 emissions. As these efforts progress, particularly with advanced AI, operators could achieve substantial sustainability improvements across their network and operational footprints by 2025 and beyond.

Prediction 3: AI will continue to drive data center evolution. 

As AI continues to evolve, it's reshaping the landscape of data centers, prompting substantial investments by both large and medium-scale cloud service providers. These providers are constructing AI frameworks to keep up with the increasing demand. In 2024, there will be significant focus and investment in GPUs and other infrastructure required for extensive learning clusters. Additionally, cloud service providers are expected to enhance front-end inferencing by investing in faster interconnect technologies.

Ethernet is expected to be the primary choice for these front-end networks. We foresee rapid adoption of 800G among Tier-1 cloud service providers in the coming year as 51.2 Tbps switches become available in the market.

Even within the back-end, new network designs that allow high-speed Ethernet as a viable alternative to InfiniBand is expected to emerge in 2024 and 2025. While InfiniBand technology, designed for high-performance computing, can deliver the required throughput and latency, Ethernet provides a secure, ubiquitous, and cost-effective option. Starting next year, we anticipate a gradual shift as Cloud service providers have begun deploying Ethernet alongside InfiniBand. Given the vast amount of processing that AI requires, more cloud service providers are likely to view Ethernet as crucial for the long-term evolution of AI infrastructure within the data center, both at the front end and back end.

Prediction 4: More service providers will start using Network Digital Twins.

Service providers are progressively moving towards fully integrated, AI-driven, autonomous networks within the telecommunications sector. This transformation won't happen overnight, but in 2024, a significant stride will be made with the increased adoption of Network Digital Twins.

Network Digital Twins can help service providers address some of their most critical operational hurdles, primarily the labor-intensive, error-prone manual procedures commonly used today, such as maintenance engineering. Typically, updates and modifications to the live network are conducted during maintenance windows. However, these manual maintenance processes often introduce errors and disrupt services. This is largely due to the complexity of contemporary real-world networks, making it difficult to thoroughly test many changes before implementing them. This is where Network Digital Twins come into play.

By maintaining exact, real-time virtual replicas of the network, service providers can gain the flexibility to more comprehensively validate changes before applying them. Coupled with the increasing use of automation, they can experiment, assess, and learn how to optimize new service deployments more rapidly, while minimizing errors and outages in the live network.

Prediction 5: Private Networks will continue to gain ground as customer demand and service provider capabilities advance. 

The Enterprise Private Networks market will witness gradual adoption throughout 2023. However, in 2024, it is projected to experience substantial growth and generate considerable incremental revenue, spurred by increasing demand from enterprises and governmental and military clientele.

Among the early adopters in the previous year, commercial Private Networks usually delivered a return on investment within six months or less. In fact, for specific 5G-enabled use cases, customers showcased impressive business results by reducing downtime and enhancing productivity. Significant successes were seen in areas such as:

  • Ultra-High-Definition Video Monitoring: Solutions powered by Private Network-enabled "AI vision" have diverse applications. One area where they have proven beneficial is monitoring factory supply lines and detecting faults. Utilizing ultra-HD video monitoring, these solutions can identify real-time damage to manufactured components that might be challenging or impossible to see with the naked eye. This capability can help prevent costly repairs and downtime, costly production mistakes, or harm to manufacturing equipment.
  • Augmented Reality: High remote maintenance costs are a significant burden for many large enterprises, including service providers. For distributed infrastructure like communication networks, pipelines, and power grids, any faults or breakages usually require the dispatch of expert engineers to distant locations. Consequently, repairs often lead to several days of costly downtime and lost productivity. However, Private Networks that support AR can empower onsite personnel to perform tasks such as superimposing schematics on equipment and conducting real-time guided repairs. Such use cases enable less skilled local employees to resolve more issues swiftly and economically.
  • Government and Military: Military agencies have also been investigating using 5G Private Networks and AR tools to aid maintenance and training activities in the field. Forward operating bases, for instance, have pressing needs to deploy and maintain machinery and vehicles, and may not have the luxury of waiting for expert engineers to arrive. With Private Networks and AR, military and government agencies can extend enhanced capabilities and insights anywhere, even in remote and hostile locations.

These use cases present immense opportunities for the service providers to implement them and their clientele. A recent survey by STL Partners revealed that enterprise stakeholders are open to paying a premium for Private Networks, provided operators can assure business outcomes under service-level agreements (SLAs). As demand escalates in the upcoming year, service providers are expected to enhance their SLA management and monetization competencies for Private Networks. The focus will be on transparency in the ROI of emerging use cases and assurance regarding their long-term sustainable value.

In parallel, expanding Enterprise Private Networks will also stimulate more investment in Edge Computing. Many enterprises already have stringent requirements for managing security and data privacy onsite. Simultaneously, several of the most enticing Private Network use cases, particularly those utilizing latency-sensitive or AI-/ML-driven applications, will gain from local application processing. To cater to this escalating demand, expect service providers to increasingly package Private Network connectivity with Edge Computing as part of a unified offering.

Peering into the Future 

The impact of the convergence of AI, cloud, and 5G on business transformation for service providers and their clients may still be up in the air. Nevertheless, we remain committed to assisting operators and vendors in exploring the limits of modern network capabilities. We eagerly anticipate the innovations ahead.