NSN Analyst Summit: Rethinking Applications at the Network Edge and Avoiding Creepiness

Peter Jarich
Peter Jarich

Summary Bullets:

  • NSN’s Liquid Applications gives operators an opportunity to site applications and content at the edge of the mobile network.
  • If these applications are seen to run up against consumer privacy concerns, operators must be careful in how they message them.
  • If the applications cannot be rolled out universally across the operator’s network, the potential for an uneven user experience must be considered.

Despite what many people think, the life of a telecom industry analyst isn’t all about fancy dinners and travel to far-flung conferences.  Luckily, sometimes it is.


If you’re a fan of the U.S. television program Top Chef, you’ll recognize the tall Asian woman as Kristen Kish; she won the culinary competition last year.  She knows how to cook (manage, really) a stellar meal.  Personally, I’m not a big enough fan that I knew she worked at Boston’s Menton when NSN said we were headed there for dinner Thursday night.  When I saw her, however, I had no problem recognizing her.  And yet, as strange as it might seem, I was more excited to be sitting next to NSN’s CEO Rajeev Suri, getting an opportunity to ping him on a variety of topics: the move into new geographic markets; a renewed focus on top-line growth; the telco-cloud opportunity.

The discussion took something of a left turn when I asked about NSN’s role/concern around the ways in which customers use its products.  The classic example is NSN’s sale of DPI gear into Iran and the subsequent use of DPI to, reportedly, quash civil rights.  NSN couldn’t have reasonably been held responsible for what operators did with the gear they bought.  Nonetheless, it did take a hit in the press over this and eventually pulled out of the market.  Going forward, this could be an issue with the vendor’s Liquid Applications offer.

Introduced last year at Mobile World Congress, Liquid Applications sites an Intel-based server at the base station in order to deliver applications at the network edge.  Content caching is the use case that comes to mind most easily, particularly given the potential to deliver a better performance in serving up that content, while decreasing the backhaul burden.  Beyond caching, cited use cases range from augmented reality support to location support, to things we have not even thought of yet.  And here’s where things could get creepy.

Where services potentially get combined with personal information (as operators might want to do around advertising, for example), or consumers feel they’re being “watched,” there’s room for backlash.  NSN may deliver the tools to make this happen, but it’s not the vendor’s job to guard against the negative effects.  If there’s value in the notion of placing intelligence at the network edge, then operators need to be thinking about a few things:

  •  Begin working with vendors on ideas for new edge-based applications.  We’re still in the early days of this concept, meaning that vendors (and it won’t just be NSN) are actively looking for what might work.  They need input and early input should get prioritized.
  • Be careful in how any applications get messaged out to the consumer.  Ultimately, while placing applications at the network edge may improve performance, many of them would be possible otherwise, putting the operator in a position to distance itself from the apps where there are privacy concerns.
  • Think about what happens if applications are not universally available across the network.  NSN’s work is meant to benefit its own base stations.  Competitors will doubtless match its moves.  Until then, the reality is that some applications may be available only where NSN has base stations, potentially yielding an uneven user experience.

While it might seem like the Liquid Applications example is an isolated one, it isn’t.  The cautionary tale here is something operators need to think about broadly.  Yes, they need to drive innovation.  At the same time, however, they need to focus on how those innovations are positioned and seen in the market, as well as what happens when a vendor-specific innovation complicates a consistent user experience across the network.

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