We tend to think of progress as a gradual, measured process. The truth, though, is that the pace of evolution almost always vacillates between barely perceptible and breakneck.

It took the human species nearly three million years to graduate from poking things with sharp rocks to poking things with iron-tipped spears. Yet, the gap between the Iron Age and the Atomic Age was a brisk 3,000 flips through the calendar.

The evolution of the telecommunications network is no exception. Its history, at least to this point, though, has been comprised of a series of gradual transformations. Each major evolutionary step, whether the transition from manual to automated, analog to digital or even TDM to IP, has progressed at a fairly steady rate. 

That’s about to change.

Steady as she goes just isn’t going to cut it going forward. For the first time in their long histories, telecommunication network operators face serious threats to their dominant position in the communications ecosystem. The telecom customer base is no longer captive. Billions of end users can now turn to non-telecom entities for voice, video, messaging and other forms of communications services – much of it for free or with the tiny inconvenience of a commercial.  

With this Internet-fueled competitive threat rapidly intensifying, network operators have little recourse but to pick up the pace of evolving their networks. For now the barbarians are largely at the gate. But how long before the gates give way and will they match the agility and inventiveness of Web-based competitors unencumbered by 100-year-old service delivery networks constructed with specialized hardware and largely designed to deliver a handful of services.

The bottom line: If telecom operators are to remain viable as communications service providers they require networks that are much easier to build and operate, as well as much more agile than the current ones. 

Accordingly, the current phase of network evolution is focused on the transition away from purpose-built, proprietary appliances, which contribute to an untamable and unmanageable hodgepodge, toward a datacenter-like infrastructure of generic-processing resources configurable on the fly to host functions distilled into pure software. If the telecom network of the future sounds a lot like the giant datacenters constructed over the past decade or so by current Internet titans, it’s not by accident. It is that infrastructure profile that will deliver to telcos the cost savings (both capital and operational) and agility they require to deliver the same diversity of services as Internet rivals and the same ability to introduce revisions and new features on the fly. 

The good news is that operators understand these issues and are working in concert to accelerate the evolution of their networks. In October 2012, a dozen or so of the most influential operators in the industry issued a call to action in the form of an introductory white paper – Network Functions Virtualization – spelling out the need for a transition from specialized hardware to a software-only environment. That work was recently followed up by the IETF, which revved up the NFV standardization process in earnest this summer. 

Also, in the operators’ favor, they are able to tap into existing industry activity and momentum. Recognizing the need for an architectural upgrade several years ago, GENBAND, for example, started down a path of hardware/software separation, with the goal of delivering rich telecommunications functionality that is portable to nearly all environments, whether real or virtual. Also hastening the evolution of telecom networks is the applicability of architectures and technologies that have already been established in enterprise and datacenter environments, such as SDN and cloud. Both, along with NFV, will play critical roles in this transition.

Accelerating the hardware-to-software transformation of their networks is a monumental undertaking but it alone will not ensure the future viability of telecommunications operators as communications service providers. Operators also need to expand their reach into new opportunities, leveraging the last miles of their networks and emerging technologies, such as WebRTC, to bring new and industry-specific services to the enterprise community. To complete the alliteration, evolution and expansion will mean little without a new commitment to excelling, specifically in the realm of the end user experience. Nobody manages the flow of communications better than telecom operators, putting them in the pole position to provide the anywhere, any device, context-aware communications that will be the benchmark of the not-too-distant future. 

Evolve, expand and excel is the simple formula for ensuring the telecom future is bright and prosperous.