The promise of cloud radio access network (C-RAN) technology has always been great, but what was needed was the support of one of the major radio and base station original equipment manufacturers. After all, for the last three decades or so, mobile operators have purchased outdoor RAN equipment for a specific market from a single vendor, because the interfaces between the various RAN components are not generally open.
When small cell architectures were first discussed, many believed that those architectures would open up the RAN to other vendors. But when it came to implementation, the same proprietary interfaces were still there, and the outdoor small cell vendors were all forced to look for new markets in-building. As a result, the Long Term Evolution (LTE) RAN market consisted of the same RAN vendors. After a series of mergers and acquisitions, we are now left with five vendors who operate globally: Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung and ZTE. All are stronger or weaker in various markets, and the vast majority of operators buy RAN equipment from one or more of these vendors. Some operators (usually operating in rural markets) have deployed other vendors for specific markets; Vanu is a good example.
Virtualization of the mobile network has started with the core and slowly expanded outward toward the RAN. The RAN is generally seen as the last part of the network to be virtualized, with the deployment of a virtual baseband unit (vBBU) and radio using off-the-shelf components with open interfaces. Just as virtualization has reduced the cost of deploying and maintaining an Evolved Packet Core (EPC), so the goal is the same for the RAN — reduced capital expense (capex) and operating expense (opex).
xRAN, a membership organization named after extensible RAN (xRAN), provides a good example of the current work going on in RAN virtualization. The goal of the industry group is simply to develop, standardize and promote a software-based, extensible RAN and to standardize critical elements of the extensible RAN architecture. xRAN members include some of the biggest and most advanced operators in the industry: AT&T Mobility, Deutsche Telekom, Telstra, Verizon Wireless and SK Telecom. Note that these operators have been pushing virtualization hard and are also moving ahead to 5G as quickly as possible. xRAN vendor members include Intel, Cisco, Mavenir, Amdocs and others.
What has been missing industry groups involved in the open C-RAN debate is the involvement of the big RAN OEMs. Without one or more of the big vendors willing to move to an open C-RAN architecture, there is little chance of getting C-RAN deployed meaningfully into the major markets for outdoor cells.
So now the big news: Nokia has joined xRAN. The Finnish company has been working behind the scenes for a few months and has now executed all the necessary paperwork (and, I assume, has written a check for the dues).
When I discussed this news with someone in the industry, their first reaction was skepticism, because the major OEMs have joined similar virtualization and open forums in the past, only to use the opportunity as a fact-finding exercise without making any changes in their strategy or the openness of their products. But having spent a week in December in Finland at Nokia’s industry analyst event, I concluded that Nokia is sincere: The company has made a big move to cloud architectures using open interfaces, and xRAN is the latest development with this strategy. In short, it does not appear that Nokia is simply in this to sit back and listen, but to contribute to the forum and move toward open RAN interfaces as quickly as possible.
It is also worth remembering that building, optimizing and operating radio networks is always harder than it appears. Although some people draw comparisons to Wi-Fi, LTE and soon-to-come 5G are completely different animals. 5G will support network slicing and prioritization of traffic. All cellular networks hand off between cells to (hopefully) maintain the connection. These all add complexity to the network and operators. As such, Nokia and its major OEM competitors have considerable experience and expertise building and operating networks, expertise that will be as valuable as it has ever been as the industry moves to 5G.
Nokia is unlikely to lose its place in the industry simply because the company is moving to open RAN interfaces. With open architectures and virtualized 5G networks, there are considerable opportunities for network analytics, optimization and professional services. There will be no shortage of things to do.
The question now is, assuming this initiative is successful and continues to make progress, what will Samsung, Huawei, ZTE and Ericsson do. Nokia’s move has put pressure on the other OEMs to follow suit, if not by joining xRAN, then at least by demonstrating a viable, open RAN architecture. 2018 is going to be interesting.
Read the rest of the March AGL Magazine HERE.
Iain Gillott is the founder and president of iGR, a market strategy consultancy focused on the wireless and mobile communications industry. The company researches and analyzes the effect new wireless and mobile technologies will have on the industry, on vendors’ competitive positioning and on its clients’ strategic business plans. Visit www.igr-inc.com.
The wireless industry has long held that it has problems caused by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which seek to protect historic properties and the environment, respectively, from construction. With small cell deployments soaring, the money spent on NHPA and NEPA reviews was expected to do the same.
Sprint estimates that it has done preliminary NEPA checklists for thousands of sites at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. Of those sites, 250 demanded environmental assessment that cost $1,300. NEPA and NHPA reviews comprised, on average, 26 percent of the costs for Verizon’s small cell deployments in 2017. In the coming months, AT&T expects to spend $45 million on NEPA and NHPA compliance for thousands of small cells.
In the FCC’s proposed Wireless Infrastructure Streamlining Report and Order (WT Docket No. 17-79), which seeks to reduce regulatory costs and streamline its rules, small cell deployments would not be required to undergo a review under the NHPA and the NEPA.
“We deem the costs of that resulting [NHPA and NEPA] review to be unduly burdensome in light of the nature of small wireless facility deployment, the benefits of efficient and effective deployment, and the minimal anticipated benefits of NHPA and NEPA review in this context,” the FCC wrote in its draft order.
AT&T estimates that such an action would reduce small cell NEPA/NHPA compliance costs by up to 80 percent, which would fund over 1,000 additional small cell nodes annually and reduce the small cell deployment timeline by 60-90 days. The item will be voted on at next Thursdays open meeting on March 22.
Last week ExteNet Systems announced that it has deployed a Part 96-ready fixed wireless LTE-based network for Peak Internet, which provides broadband internet services to residential, small business, enterprise and government customers in Colorado Springs and Pike’s Peak.
ExteNet deployed a software-based distributed evolved packet core (EPC) with Nokia’s Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS)-ready LTE radios on the premises of Peak Internet to enable the service over the licensed 3.65 GHz band with a future, software-only upgrade path to the 3.5 GHz CBRS band. The deployment includes a will support future mobile roaming services for Tier 1 providers.
It is not ExteNet’s first foray into fixed wireless. Last September, it announced a similar deployment with a Cal.net, which provides broadband Internet services to rural communities in the Sierra Nevada foothills ranging from the northeast to the southeast of Sacramento.
In the past WISPs had to depend on WiMAX, Wi-Fi and some other proprietary wireless technologies, operating in the Part 90 spectrum. But things are changing for these mostly small, rural operators as LTE becomes more pervasive and affordable.
Five or six years ago, ExteNet, which is known for distributed antenna systems and distributed network systems, began mapping out what would be the next area of growth beyond the booms in wireless coverage and capacity. The next phase would be functionality, they decided.
“We needed typical core functionality to be distributed closer to the edge of the network,” said Tormod Larsen, ExteNet chief technology officer. “It couldn’t be based on expensive proprietary hardware, so we found a partner to develop a flexible software-based solution that resides on standard hardware platforms. We went to the rural markets with this scalable, software-driven effective packet core to enable WISPs and other operators to develop their LTE networks.” Additionally, a radio access network (RAN) vendor neutral approach was chosen, allowing the customer to choose its preferred RAN vendor.
ExteNet is making LTE more affordable by offering it on an infrastructure-as-a-service basis, distributing intelligence and control to the internet at the edge of the network and not in a carrier’s centralized core. ExteNet typically partners with the operator and offers them an economical avenue to purchase the EPC and the RAN equipment as an infrastructure as a service (IaaS) solution.
“The management platforms for Ericsson and Nokia can be expensive,” Larsen said. “ExteNet invests in the technology and requires long-term agreements from its customers. We spread the cost over multiple customers.”
ExteNet Systems Partners with Illinois Valley Cellular to Enable 4G LTE Connectivity
ExteNet’s game plan goes well beyond wireless internet service providers to bring enhanced broadband wireless connectivity to rural cellular carriers and building owners. Last October, the ExteNet announced a partnership with Illinois Valley Cellular (IVC) to enable 4G LTE broadband connectivity for north central Illinois.
ExteNet’s localized packet core served as a replacement to IVC’s hosted core approach, which greatly reduced backhaul costs and reduced latency by up to 75 percent. Additionally, it will eventually support mobile roaming services for Tier 1 providers while being 5G ready.
“Our combined EPC with our small cell and distributed network technology will help rural carriers compete with the tier-one carriers from a cost perspective,” Larsen said.
In the future, Larsen thinks the IaaS business model the virtual EPC will allow ExteNet to market CBRS private LTE systems to building owners in-building wireless systems or municipalities for IoT applications.
J. Sharpe Smith
J. Sharpe Smith joined AGL in 2007 as contributing editor to the magazine and as editor of eDigest email newsletter. He has 27 years of experience writing about industrial communications, paging, cellular, small cells, DAS and towers. Previously, he worked for the Enterprise Wireless Alliance as editor of the Enterprise Wireless Magazine. Before that, he edited the Wireless Journal for CTIA and he began his wireless journalism career with Phillips Publishing, now Access Intelligence.
According to analysts at Dell’Oro Group, small cells are one of the fastest-growing segments of the wireless infrastructure market, with yearly growth of at least 50 percent for the last four years. Carriers have been deploying indoor and outdoor small cells while also selling indoor small cells to their customers, both of which have contributed to the increase.
Two major factors in the growth of DAS and small cells have been the new demand for 5G networks as the outdoor small cell market is taking off to support carrier needs and the adaptation of smart cities.
A new analysis from iGR shows that the outdoor small cell market will become a necessary part of our mobile networks. As most network carriers transition to 5G and the demand for high-quality data services on LTE networks grows, the use of outdoor small cells is integral for these processes.
Small cells will have to do more with the installation of these technologies, because they help with powering, backhaul problems, regulations and cost efficiency. A survey commissioned by Ixia and conducted by Dimensional Research queried more than 300 executives from enterprise and service-provider companies globally regarding the growth of 5G networks. According to its research, reported in RCR Wireless News, 96 percent of the organizations surveyed said that they plan to use 5G technologies, and 67 percent of them have evaluated or will evaluate 5G technologies in the next 12 months.
Smart city applications and the internet of things have been increasing all over the world, especially in metropolitan areas. The platforms of distributed antenna system (DAS) networks, small cells, Wi-Fi and other internet-of-things infrastructures are making these cities smart.
“Smart city applications will have a huge economic impact on cities around the world,” said Todd Landry, corporate vice president of product and market strategy at JMA Wireless, as quoted in a news release from Bigbelly, a smart city solutions provider. JMA Wireless previewed Bigbelly’s telecom cabinet at the Mobile World Congress Americas in September 2017. Smart city applications have been making roads, waste management, energy, security, water supply and weather reporting extremely efﬁcient for everyone in those cities. The technology behind small cells is playing a huge part in this adaption of urban areas, increasing the demand for them even more. According to Machine Research, as reported in Telecoms Tech News, 6 billion North Americans will have an internet-of-things connection by 2025.
Figures 1 shows the forecasted growth in the upcoming years.
To ensure connectivity and communications are enabled everywhere, companies cannot have a wireless network without a wireline one. One of the industry’s biggest trends is the convergence of wireline and wireless technologies.
In its most recent fourth-quarter earnings report, Dycom stressed the need for investment in wireline networks, particularly in regard to 4G expansion and 5G planning. The CEO of Dycom, Steven Nielsen, quoted in FierceTelecom, said he believes that the convergence of wireless and wireline networks is fundamental to connectivity. “Emerging wireless technologies are now beginning to drive signiﬁcant incremental wireline deployments,” he said. “It’s clear that a complementary wireline investment cycle will be required to facilitate what is expected to be a decades-long deployment of converged wireless/wireline networks.” The company is also seeing a trend with wireline providers growing their ﬁber networks, especially in metropolitan areas.
According to experts from CommScope, one of the biggest strategies for companies that want to converge networks is the use of ﬁber networks. In “Where Wireless Meets Wireline: Converging Mobile Fronthaul/Backhaul and FTTH Networks” published by WirelessWeek, Mike Wolfe and Erik Gronvall from CommScope said, “Solutions in convergence lie in making sure the network is built in such a way that any of the ﬁbers can be used for whatever service makes sense. … It’s not just a matter of throwing a ton of ﬁber into the network. Rather, it means taking a broader look at the available ﬁber maximization technologies and how they might be used.”
Experts believe that a lot of careful deliberation will go into the convergence of wireless and wireline networks, not just with large carrier providers, but also with network providers, investors and consultants. If done correctly and diligently, companies can maximize their efforts and investments. If not, they will ﬁnd themselves spending more than they expected.
Ilissa Miller is president of the Northeast DAS + Small Cell Association. She is the founder and CEO of iMiller Public Relations.
American Tower and Philips Lighting will provide mobile connectivity, LED lighting and smart city with the newly developed Smart Fusion Poles. Designed to meet capacity challenges in dense, busy areas in the United States, the Smart Fusion Pole provides the infrastructure necessary for wireless broadband connectivity in an aesthetically designed, energy efficient street light pole that is designed to blends into the urban landscape. When Smart Fusion Poles are deployed, the City of Huntington Beach will be the first city in the country to use this shared wireless infrastructure smart pole technology.
American Tower’s agreement with the City of Huntington Beach provides exclusive access to 200 existing light pole locations for the deployment of Smart Fusion Poles. These locations are situated predominantly along the Pacific Highway and downtown areas, close to restaurants and retail establishments.
“We want to be a leader in smart city initiatives to provide residents, businesses and visitors a better city experience and quality of life,” said City of Huntington Beach Mayor Mike Posey. “Equally important is the ability to maintain the aesthetics of this beautiful seaside city I call home. That’s why I am excited about the Smart Fusion Pole; it provides the connectivity required for our smart city initiatives without sacrificing the beauty and vista of our city.”
The Smart Fusion Pole includes integrated antennas that are concealed and can support services from multiple mobile operators on a single pole. The pole is optimized for small cell deployment to help solve today’s network challenges, while its plug-and-play design provides future-ready access for next-generation technologies, such as 5G and the Internet of Things. Integrated with Philips Hadco and Philips Lumec LED luminaires respectively, the Smart Fusion Poles will also provide high quality and energy efficient light to further enhance the spaces where the poles are installed.
“Philips Lighting is known for combining high quality, energy efficient LED lighting with cutting-edge technology to help city leaders transform how they operate, manage resources and improve services to their citizens,” said Roger Karner, head of Market U.S. at Philips Lighting. “With the Smart Fusion Pole, you don’t have to worry about losing your smart phone signal and the light quality is second to none. This new technology amplifies our position as the lighting company for the IoT.”