How Policies can Impact Softwarization and Improve Broadband Connectivity

by Eileen Healy, Healy & Co

IEEE Internet Initiative eNewsletter, November 2016

There is a trend underway in public networks that will provide Internet access that is powerful and life changing. The way and the speed at which this happens will be impacted by the alignment of policies and regulations with the power and promise of technology. Today we are swimming in seas of Softwarization accelerated by Software Defined Networking and Network Function Virtualization (SDN and NFV) developments. The change from building networks with specialized, expensive network hardware to software on commodity hardware resources is profound. These changes are most evident in the smartphones that many in the world are lucky enough and rich enough to afford. The networks that connect these phones are still only in the early stages of leveraging the power of SDN and NFV. These technologies will contribute in a significant way to the acceleration of access for the 2+ billion people still have no access to the Internet.

Why are Telcos Still Only in the Early Stages of Softwarization You May Ask?

Public Networks play a crucial and indispensable role in connecting all people “without prejudice”. Often called Universal Service, this policy assures a basic level of service to everyone regardless of ability to pay and having the following attributes: “1) promote the availability of quality services at just, reasonable, and affordable rates, 2) to increase access to advanced telecommunications services, and 3) to advance the availability of such services to all consumers, including those in low income, rural, insular, and high cost areas- at rates that are reasonably comparable to those charged in urban areas[1]”.

This policy is emboldened in the Internet Age to include access to the Internet. This “Universal Service” requirement that most countries embrace has driven 100 years of standards-based interoperability. This goal and need for interoperability is not as important in social networks or other private networks where the end to end delivery is controlled by a single company. Facebook and Google are examples where rapid development can happen without the need for much true interoperability.

Telcos are often viewed as slow and stodgy and expensive. But, what they do and the indispensable role they play in society drives these attributes. If that wasn’t true, the “over to top (OTT)” social networks would have dispensed with them long ago. Then – instead of open, universal service, people around the world would be captive to profit companies that will only let you join if you agree to their rules – provide your personal information, store your data as they want, sell your profile to the highest bidder. So, indeed there is a role for “telcos”.

How is Softwarization Changing Public Networks?

Let’s compare telcos to the history of writing productivity tools beginning with the typewriter for those of you old enough to remember. (If you don’t remember, just “Google it”). In the 1960s, writing seemed pretty fast if you compare it to the quill pen that Shakespeare used. But, if you made one mistake with your typewriter, you had to start that page over. By the 1970s, we had “self-correcting” typewriters followed by a revolutionary development of “word processors” in the early personal computers of the 1980s. Today, we have suites of powerful applications that integrate word process, spreadsheets and graphics into powerful animated productivity toolkits.

By analogy, today’s telcos are somewhere between the self-correcting typewriters and the word processors of the 1980s. But, here’s the thing. Softwarization as manifested in interoperable, public software-defined networks based on open-source and standards-based aspects of SDN and NFV are on a path to a level of maturity that are radically impacting our ability to have global, interoperable public network that provide internet access. This will reduce the cost to connect 1.5 billion more people to the Internet. Today’s public networks are still a collection of proprietary boxes connected by standard interfaces. Box vendors are transitioning to software vendors but the pace is too slow often hampered by an unwillingness to change. We need to support and encourage this change.

What Policies are Needed?

Global, regional, country and local policies for government and private business are needed to realize this potential in the timeframe that the World Bank, the US State Department and the IEEE are rightly demanding.

A policy enforcing “dig once requirements” has been widely adopted during the past five years[2][3]. This refers to the coordination of construction / public works projects so that communications infrastructure such as fiber optic cable is installed at the same time as transportation and power infrastructure. The World Bank and other funders are enforcing such policies by tightly coupling them to funding approvals. DIG ONCE puts telecommunications infrastructure at the same level as electricity and roads. Deployment of telecom infrastructure as a mandatory funding requirement for any infrastructure project is essential. International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and other global bodies working in conjunction with County regulators should move more quickly to dynamic spectrum allocation, expanded harmonized frequency bands, and the coordinated use of unlicensed spectrum. Governments must also promote and fund research; the private sector cannot and will not do this in the way that governments can.

Business policies must align with these governmental efforts including funding and sharing research results. A lot has happened to revolutionize public networks, but more is needed – sooner if the billions of unconnected people are going to benefit. Two examples are policies and practice that accelerate use of interoperable open source and agreements on operating systems for mobile communications to replace vendor proprietary hardware/software integration.

The vision and the will to do this are now here. Equipment vendors have made great strides at becoming software companies but may still lack the full financial incentives to open their boxes.

Image a World Where Public Network are Implemented in software based on SDN and NFV. The revolution in human culture that social networks have unleased will unleash the power of the interoperable public network so that literally anyone can become a network operator. This will drive innovative service creation and price competition in a way that will blow our collective minds and enable and empower the same type of localization that the “buy local” food revolution has had. I work every day to speed this development along and can’t wait until this accelerates the number of people affordably connected to the Internet.


[1] U.S. “Telecommunications Act of 1996”, 8 February 1996.

[2] U. S. White House, Executive Oder – “Accelerating Broadband Infrastructure Deployment”, 14 June 2012.

[3] E.U. “Proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on measures to reduce the cost of deploying high-speed electronic communications networks”, 26 March 2013.

Eileen HealyEileen Healy

Eileen Healy is the CEO of Healy & Co., a leading-edge engineering services company. Working with U.S. telecom network operators, her company supports the implementation of capacity delivery, network migration and business planning services. She is also Co-Chair of IEEE Software Defined Networks (SDN), a worldwide initiative addressing the main Softwarization aspects of SDN, NFV and 5G. Previously, she founded and sold TeleCompetition Inc., a market research and data analytics company that passed data specific strategic insights into market adoption of a host of mobile services products. With a career focused on the network operator perspective, Eileen has held senior positions with both broadband and mobility service providers including Pacific Bell Mobile Services and AT&T. In addition, she has worked extensively with a number of different governmental organizations, such as the ITU, EU, ETSI and LA-RICS on policy, public safety and spectrum allocations. Eileen has honed a collaborative leadership style while facilitating key group contributions to strategic technology development. She holds a B.S. degree in Electrical Engineering from University of California at Berkeley.


Dr. Reza MalekianDr. Reza Malekian

Dr. Reza Malekian (M'10) is currently a Senior Lecturer with the Department of Electrical, Electronic, and Computer Engineering, University of Pretoria, Pretoria, South Africa and an Assistant Professor (attache) in the Departamento de Ingeniería Informática, Universidad de Santiago de Chile, Chile. His research is focused on Internet of Things, mobile Internet, Advanced sensor networks and mobile communications under industry and government funding.

Dr. Malekian is also a Chartered Engineer registered with the Engineering Council of UK, a professional member of the British Computer Society (BCS), and a member of the IEEE. He is an associate editor for the IEEE Internet of Things Journal.


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About: This newsletter features technical, policy, social, governmental, but not political commentary related to the internet. Its contents reflect the viewpoints of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions and views of IEEE. It is published by the IEEE Internet Initiative to enhance knowledge and promote discussion of the issues addressed.