2021 Predictions: Three Things to Watch in the CSP Transport & Routing Sector This Year

Glen Hunt, Principal Analyst

Summary Bullets:

  • Orchestration of IP infrastructure resources will become mainstream, replacing fragmented element and network management solutions to reduce complexity and operational cost.
  • 5G private network initiatives will go global as operators position to capture lucrative new 5G network opportunities and address the needs of multiple vertical markets.

Resource Orchestration Matures

5G services and applications are driving more routed IP traffic into the network, with the traditional role of switched Layer 2 Ethernet traffic being sidelined and replaced by more dynamic routed IP flows. This is prevalent in the mobile transport and business Ethernet services domains, which were the last frontier that could claim a cost and simplicity advantage by remaining at Layer 2. The maturation of SDN, which supports a centralized control plane and distributed data plane, has been augmented with simplified routing protocols such as segment routing and Ethernet VPN (EVPN), which minimize the need for complex node-based management and control intelligence. It is painfully clear that the telco infrastructure must be fully automated in order to avoid being crushed by its own weight.

Network deployments in 2021 will benefit from multiple years of operator-vendor learnings, trials, and early successes that have established a strong set of best practices. Automation and analytics will be top of mind, with operators taking full advantage of new management capabilities.

Open Source and Broad Ecosystems

Open source software plays a key role moving forward, especially with respect to resource orchestration. As vendors deliver advanced network capabilities, the need to effectively manage and reduce complexity becomes a top concern. For years, operators have been stymied by high operational costs, which can only be conquered through a comprehensive set of automation and analytical tools – an area in which open source software plays a key role. A rich set of open source tools has emerged leveraging standard interfaces that expose the inter-workings of the infrastructure. The open source community offers innovative building blocks that can be integrated into operator and vendor solutions. New deployment models will leverage cloud-native components coupled with a broad ecosystem of partners and developers.

For 2021, open source components will be prevalent in vendor and operator solutions. Organizations such as the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF) and others provide critical components for use by the global technology infrastructure.

Private 5G Networks – Ripe for Growth

Enterprise demand for private networks has prompted regulators to allocate portions of their 5G frequency bands for private networks to clear the way forward. Examples include mmWave band and CBRS. With unlicensed spectrum options, enterprises can – at least in theory – roll out and manage their own in-building networks without a mobile operator. An opportunity exists for non-traditional competitors such as cable companies (using CBRS spectrum), incumbent vendors, and new entrants to supply turnkey solutions or offer best-of-breed components within an ecosystem. IP access based on bare-metal platforms and disaggregated software provides the endpoint solutions, while a 5G standalone (5G SA) mobile core has paved the way for 5G private network deployments.

Key Private Network Opportunities:

  • CSPs are deploying private 4G LTE and trialing 5G in enterprise buildings and campuses. Some services have been productized, such as Vodafone’s Mobile Private Network, which promises secure, private reserve capacity that is walled off from the public network.
  • Mobile infrastructure vendors such as Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei, and others provide private wireless networks, often in partnership with their operator customers and/or sold directly to enterprises. Vendors are offering infrastructure equipment, security, edge computing, and software platforms for device and application management.
  • Enterprise network equipment vendors remain largely tied to proven and widely deployed WiFi for in buildings and on campuses. WiFi service providers such as Boingo are seeing traction in stadiums and other in-building deployments. The question is whether WiFi 6, WiFi 6E, or – in a few years – WiFi 7 will ever be as effective as 5G to support real-time ultra-low latency use cases and massive IoT for industry 4.0.
  • New entrants, including wireline operators and cable companies, provide services based on fiber, coax, Ethernet, and WiFi for businesses. Recent bids for CBRS spectrum licenses show that the market for mid-band cellular spectrum, which performs well in-building and outside dense urban areas, is sought out by many providers. Many CBRS license winners will augment existing coverage, but others seek to use it to provide wireless private networks. Enterprises and utilities with spectrum assets could deploy their own networks. CBRS specialists such as Federated Wireless, which offers a unique spectrum-as-a-service model, represent yet a new market opportunity.

After multiple years industry hype related to SDN, 5G, massive capacity increases, automation, useful analytics, and the promise of new, more lucrative business models for operators, 2021 is the year when it all comes together. The trials and limited deployments logged in 2020 will begin to break out into broad deployments, driven by the rapid turn up of 5G for traditional mobile and fixed line networks. The real upside, however, will come from vendors and operators capturing the B2B market opportunities promised by effective deployment of 5G private networks and advanced 5G use cases that leverage edge computing and premises-based networks in support of what is commonly considered Industry 4.0 applications.

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