In the undernet, 5G network slicing concepts would create a separation of traffic, a subnet where better QoS would be offered. All business traffic wouldn’t necessarily ride on the Undernet; both operators and users think that it would be focused more on employee access and high-value applications. The service would look like network-as-a-service (NaaS) in that you could target Undernet handling at specific applications, users, or application/user sessions. What was handled that way would be charged for premium handling, and the NaaS steering mechanism would also provide built-in security.
Given that the biggest objection to the invisible network is internet QoS, the undernet option could not only be an independent service but also could facilitate a shift away from explicit IP VPNs. Some service providers who tell me they’re looking at the idea see this as “subducting an MPLS VPN”. However, operators face real risks with the approach. One is that it could foster abandonment of MPLS VPNs in favor of a service model that, because it’s new, might have to be priced lower. Another is that net neutrality rules in various markets could bar any attempts to offer QoS for a price. Even where they don’t, we all know how quickly these rules can change with shifts in the political winds.
Stranger network via alternative fiber access providers
The third potentially revolutionary service option for 2024 is the “stranger network.” Enterprises know that network services can be divided into “access” and “transport”, and that in the age of the Internet the transport piece of almost every network service is an IP core network that carries Internet traffic. The access network, for business services, is usually provided by a telco or cableco, but over the last decade there have been a number of new access providers, primarily offering fiber connections. Think Google. All of the enterprises I’ve talked with are aware of these “strangers,” and 44 said they were looking at them in 2024, primarily because they were on the average just over half the cost of telco or cableco fiber.
The biggest problem with these players, according to enterprises, is their relatively narrow geographic scope. Most can cover only a single city or county, so enterprises would have to build a network from as many as a dozen different ones, and even then would likely have to rely on their traditional access provider for half of their connectivity, or more. A possible solution to this problem is the use of a managed service provider (MSP) as the access integrator. While most MSPs have focused on internet-and-SD-WAN services to enterprises, eleven of the enterprises told me that at least one MSP had offered them alternative fiber access providers, and four said that an MSP had identified over fifty such providers they could draw on.
MSPs have their own competitive challenges, too, which could force them to think about taking a bigger stake in the Stranger Network opportunity. In the past, SD-WAN services were offered primarily through MSPs, but now most telcos now offer SD-WAN services, and they represent the fastest-growing segment of the SD-WAN market. MSPs need a revenue kicker, and promoting Stranger Networks could be the one.
The strangest thing about stranger networking is that it would shift the notion of “service provider” to be more about service guarantor than provider. Break up networking into a bunch of little federated pieces and there is no big provider to lock you in. You have local facilities, joined to be your network by a support umbrella. Could this encourage municipal fiber, alternative players like Google or Microsoft or Amazon? We have perhaps five thousand utilities in the US, providing gas, electricity, and water. Might they all deploy their own fiber? And remember that despite all the independent electrical utilities, we still have a grid. Access and transport, stranger setwork and the Internet? Stranger things have happened.