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The role of network interoperability in telecommunications

Network interoperability has become increasingly important in the telecommunications industry with the emergence network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined network (SDN).

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The need for interoperability

Network interoperability has become increasingly important in the telecommunications industry with the emergence network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined network (SDN). These sorts of technologies have freed customers from vendor lock-in by replacing proprietary hardware with open source software, which allow companies to collaborate, differentiate themselves and deliver new services. Consequently, major telecom operators have embraced interoperability and openness in order to create a more malleable communications network.

What is interoperability?

But what exactly is interoperability? While definitions vary, the basic idea behind interoperability is the ability for two or more networks, systems, devices, applications or components to communicate. With respect to the telecommunications industry, interoperability refers to the interworking of telecom services over multi-vendor, multi-carrier inter-connections. As networks continue to grow and diversify with the 5G and IoT era on the horizon, it is important they can interoperate to enable end-to-end communication.

How to achieve network interoperability

Devices can interoperate with other devices either by adhering to a common protocol standard, abiding by a published interface standard or situating a gateway between them capable of translating each device’s protocols. These common protocol standards serve as a recipe for engineers and manufacturers, which note all the necessary ingredients to bake interoperability into various systems and products.

Developing these standards is by no means a lone nor easy process. Rather, it is the result of several organizations and institutions working together through tests and trials. The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), for example, hosts a NFV Plugtests event that provides an outlet for vendors and open source community representatives to assess the level of interoperability of their implementations, and ensure they abide by NFV specifications currently being defined by ETSI.

Benefits

There are a host of benefits attached to interoperability. By achieving network interoperability, users can can communicate with various devices through an individual terminal on the fly. Moreover, without being locked into a single vendor, network operators can choose equipment from various manufacturers based upon price and performance. By the same token, manufacturers are able to sell the same equipment to a range of operators with interoperable networks.

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