CTIA Super Mobility Week: Day One – SDN/NFV and C-RAN Insights

Peter Jarich
Peter Jarich

Summary Bullets:

  • An opportunity to moderate two educational sessions at CTIA’s Super Mobility Week provided insights into the state of network virtualization and cloud RAN (C-RAN).
  • While it’s understood that C-RAN might not be an appropriate technology for every operator deployment scenario, the opportunity to leverage Ethernet fronthaul – enabled by split-baseband architectures – is seen as making it more broadly applicable.
  • Virtualization, meanwhile, has progressed to the point where it’s a network agenda item for every operator – even if many are still in an investigation phase.
  • From increased vendor participation in standards bodies to operator cataloging of their transport assets, there’s plenty of ideas for how to help move both technologies faster.

Conspiracy theorists would have us believe that Apple scheduled its ‘Ask Siri’ event to upstage CTIA’s Super Mobility Week. While it’s unclear what Apple would have to gain from this move, it’s fair to say that the events taking place in San Francisco (where Apple made its announcements) dominated many conversations in Las Vegas (where Super Mobility Week was taking place). It’s also fair to say that most conversations at CTIA’s annual trade show had nothing to do with Apple, or devices at all. If nothing else, we already noted yesterday that 5G was set to be a major show topic, including key 5G component technologies like C-RAN, SDN and NFV.

I was lucky enough to be a part of some of those conversations. Specifically, I moderated panels on C-RAN and SDN/NFV as a part of CTIA’s Mobile Intelligence Conference. With panelists from Affirmed Networks, Altiostar, AT&T, Brocade, Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia Networks and Verizon, the insights shared during these sessions were both broad and deep. A number of key points, however, stand out.

SDN & NFV. I’ve often lamented the fact that a handful of forward-thinking (mostly large) operators have been moving the SDN and NFV spaces forward – with much less visibility into the moves of smaller players. The fact that CTIA’s SDN & NFV session included two U.S. operators (AT&T and Verizon) that had actually launched commercial SDN-based services, then, didn’t promise to break new ground in terms of shared insights. Indeed, we heard that the market focus has evolved from CapEx efficiencies to OpEx efficiencies to new revenues, but that employee skills and retraining remain key obstacles. Along with the suggestion that all operators are now, at least, investigating SDN and NFV, little of this was likely a revelation for anyone. Against this backdrop, a vendor plea that operators actually begin leveraging SDN and NFV to launch new services at an accelerated pace was refreshing. Likewise, an operator plea that more vendors commit resources to driving SDN and NFV standards and specifications suggests that too many vendors may be fighting against an operator interest in being “open” – no matter what those vendors say publicly.

Cloud RAN. Carrying forward the notion of an operator interest in vendors being “open,” it was telling that the C-RAN session included the hope that vendors would open up their CPRI implementations in order to support C-RAN. At the same time, a vendor request for better audits of operator transport assets (what types of fiber, Ethernet and microwave capabilities are available, for example) suggests that there’s plenty of work to be done by all parties in order to move the market forward. Regardless of who has more C-RAN work ahead of them, everyone was in agreement that the entire concept is best understood as a spectrum that runs from baseband pooling and coordination to centralized baseband virtualization – a path that Verizon acknowledged it was currently going down. Somewhere in between, of course, are split architectures where L1, L2 and L3 functions are distributed. What the right distribution is (where to site those functions) is perhaps the biggest question facing C-RAN, and one that will likely have no single answer but will be dependent on operator assets and requirements.

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