Telstra has joined the xRAN Foundation (eXtensible Radio Access Networks), a group of world leading network operators and vendors dedicated to creating an architecture that brings software control deep into the mobile radio network (the RAN).

I’m lucky enough to work for the Chief Technology Office, the part of Telstra that investigates future technology and what it might be good for. It is part research and development mixed with business strategy, and also exploratory research to ensure we are at the leading edge of our industry. And right now, nothing is inspiring quite so much exploration work the world over as a three letter acronym: SDN or Software Defined Networking.

As exciting as these three letters are (trust me, they are) it’s also daunting and a little bit abstract like “the Cloud” or other IT jargon.

To try and understand it, focus on the first letter. S. Software is disruptive. Among other things, software totally reinvented the mobile phone. A phone from ten years ago had some pretty impressive specs: the Nokia N73 sported a 3 Megapixel camera and claimed among its features “direct upload to Flickr” which by modern standards, is rather quaint. Right now, if I want to upload to Flickr (or Instagram, or imgur, or anything), I just download their app. The hardware, and what I can do with it, is disconnected. It’s abstracted. That’s the power of software.

We already have apps in the network, in one sense. They’re not the sort of apps you’re used to: they’re quite specific to making sure the mobile network runs properly. For instance, there’s a network app that decides whether your phone should connect to 3G or to 4G depending on how good your coverage is. There’s a network app that makes sure a voice call is given enough priority to be a reliable connection. There’s another network app that distributes the load so that not every phone tries to connect to the same tower, overloading it.

But these network apps right now are a bit like that old N73: they come with the box, with instructions written in the massive user manual. The supplier will provide updates every 6 months or so to fix bugs or introduce new features. Different suppliers have different apps, there’s no consistency, and they don’t always work well together.

The xRAN Foundation has demonstrated the feasibility of running applications created by any supplier or network operator on any hardware that meets the xRAN specification. Even better, they can run centrally and manage many radio sites at the same time, and respond to changes at the network level instead of just at the individual site. It’s been called a “robust, interactive abstraction layer between applications and RAN infrastructure”. Abstraction is good, if difficult to achieve! Different companies are great at different things, and abstraction lets you take the best software (like an advanced load management function) and put it on the best hardware, even when they come from different sources.

We’ve joined xRAN Foundation so we can build the network of the future, and make sure that as this standard evolves, it’s ready for use in Australia and on Telstra networks. We’ll be actively involved in creating this standard, not just consuming the boxes when they’re ready! Participating in international bodies like this isn’t always easy for Australian companies – my calendar has filled up with lots of 2 a.m. phone calls – but it’s worth it to stay right on the cutting edge of technology.

When drones and autonomous vehicles are connected to the network, all those network apps will need updating, and we’ll need new network apps too, because a drone flying overhead puts totally different demands on the network compared to your average smartphone. We’d like to bring software right into the network, so that we can innovate, respond quickly and continue to provide a world class mobile network in Australia.