Open networks and the road to 5G

Breaking down the barriers to innovation in 5G-ready transport networks

The market’s excitement for 5G is well founded, given its promising speeds – in fact, it is faster than many wireline alternatives and up to 20 times faster than 4G. Emerging 5G technologies will pave the way for a wide range of new enterprise and consumer applications, helping to fuel what the GSMA estimates to be a contribution of $2.2tr to the global economy over the next 15 years.

With the potential for new business models and unprecedented innovation in cloud connectivity, 5G will have a profound impact on key industry sectors such as manufacturing, energy and utilities, agriculture, retail, financial services, and media and entertainment.

In this article, we’ll look at an exciting new approach to network infrastructure in the telecom industry which aims to maximise the potential of 5G, before exploring some of its benefits to business.

The Telecom Infra Project

The business potential and scope of 5G technology will not come as a surprise to most readers. Many, however, will be interested to learn that the social network giant Facebook is at the forefront of an industry initiative helping to realise the full potential of 5G and accelerate global service rollout in the telecom industry.

Through the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), Facebook has helped give birth to a vibrant and collaborative ecosystem of over 500 technology and telecom leaders. They are committed to designing, building, and deploying new technologies that are more flexible, more efficient and better optimised for the network traffic of today and tomorrow.

At the heart of the TIP initiative is an open and disaggregated approach to telecom network infrastructure that represents a fundamental shift away from traditional telecom architecture models and proprietary vendor solutions. The implications are transformative, and nowhere is this more evident than in the architecture of 5G IP aggregation networks.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Telecom Infra Project’s Disaggregated Cell Site Gateway (Source: Telecom Infra Project)

TIP’s Disaggregated Cell Site Gateway (DCSG) initiative, part of the Open Optical & Packet Transport working group, is a key element in the end-to-end architecture that the TIP community is advancing to support the flexible and cost-efficient rollout of 4G and emerging 5G networks.

With momentum building and the industry’s first large-scale commercial DCSG deployment underway, it is important to understand the disruptive role that disaggregated routers will play. They will be critically important as network operators face the challenges of scaling mobile transport networks and deploying new network services in a fast and economically viable manner.

Disrupting traditional approaches to routing

Traditional telecom network routing elements are really black boxes: closed and proprietary systems that rely on tightly integrated hardware and software from a single vendor, of which there are few.

While IP routing will have an important role to play in the evolution of mobile transport networks, traditional IP routers based on closed, proprietary hardware, with the chassis-based architectures generally used for scaling capacity, pose formidable challenges for network operators due to significant vendor lock-in. This results in slow innovation cycles and higher costs.

Disaggregated routing, on the other hand, is an agnostic, white box-based approach that separates router software and hardware, enabling greater flexibility, lower capital expenses, reduced operations costs, and faster innovation cycles. It is therefore being explored by the TIP in the expectation that it will secure considerable benefits.

Figure 2

Figure 2: With an open platform architecture, the white box-based cell site gateway offers network operators greater flexibility and choice (Source: Telecom Infra Project)

Empowering innovation with an open ecosystem

In the short time since the DCSG work group was formed, TIP has made significant progress in the development, testing, and commercial deployment of open and disaggregated IP routing solutions for mobile transport networks. The specifications for the technology were defined as a result of close collaboration between technology innovators, system suppliers, and leading service providers such as Vodafone, Telefónica, TIM Brasil, BT, and Orange.

Leveraging open and disaggregated principles, the solution is designed to support the efficient and cost effective backhaul of cell site traffic. It is based on an open and disaggregated architecture for existing 2G, 3G, 4G and future 5G mobile infrastructure.

Figure 3

Figure 3: The DCSG solution – from concept to commercial deployment (Source: Telecom Infra Project)

During a panel session at the recent TIP Summit, Luis Martin Garcia, Co Lead of the DCSG programme and an Engineering Manager at Facebook, emphasised the tangible benefits of innovation velocity that result from having a healthy ecosystem of players providing different pieces of the solution.

As part of the DCSG initiative, TIP applied the principles of disaggregated IP routing to the access network – the segment of mobile transport infrastructure which experiences the highest volume of traffic. The progress made by the community in this field, according to Martin Garcia, is “remarkable and unprecedented.”

Telefónica’s strategy

It can clearly be seen in the work of companies such as Telefónica Deutschland – whose large-scale commercial deployment of the DCSG solution signifies an important milestone. It also marks them as a global Tier 1 service provider taking the lead in an open and disaggregated approach to end-to-end network transformation.

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Figure 4: The Telefónica comprehensive open network strategy spans multiple network segments, domains, and layers (Source: Telefónica TIP Summit 2019 presentation)

In his TIP Summit 2019 presentation, Enrique Blanco Nadales, CTIO & Systems and Network Global Director of Telefónica, highlighted key drivers for the company’s open network strategy – (1) simplification, (2) differentiation and efficiency, and (3) a stronger ecosystem.

The DCSG deployment for mobile transport is only one component of an end-to-end open network strategy fundamentally designed to enhance the customer experience. At Mobile World Congress last year, for example, Telefónica also unveiled its open and distributed access network architecture designed to improve the performance of current services, but also to introduce new services and applications that will benefit from edge computing.

DCSG-enabled 5G-ready infrastructure: fast, robust, and cost-efficient

Disaggregation not only redefines the cost structure of infrastructure networks but also paves the way for new business models and the unlocking of new revenue streams.

With the first commercial deployment at volume in a Tier 1 service provider environment, and a wide variety of field trials underway at other leading operators around the world, TIP’s DCSG solution is at the forefront of innovation in disaggregated IP routing.

The maturity of the solution, proven interoperability with service providers’ installed radio and aggregation equipment, and support for key features such as time synchronisation, uniquely position the solution for 5G-ready networks.

Importantly, the disaggregated IP routing solution also enables a stacking capability that provides simple, economic node expansion and increased resiliency. By connecting multiple DCSG network elements, for example, service providers can double or even triple node capacity while operating the stack as a single routing entity.

If there is one thing the history of technology has taught us, it is that innovation is the true key to progress. In a rapidly evolving communications landscape, the most profound improvements in the customer experience will ultimately come from an open ecosystem of innovators dreaming up new ways to use technology. TIP DCSG is a testament to that truth.