While a few cheerleaders like AT&T and SK Telecom have blazed the trail in virtualizing their networks and moving away from dedicated, proprietary hardware, others are starting to follow suit. Bell Canada is preparing to replace its core network in readiness for 5G, with a target of moving from “90% customized hardware and 10% software to 10% common hardware and 90% software”, according to EVP Stephen Howe.
The shift towards commoditized white box servers and switches running network functions as software – to replace complex, dedicated boxes with their own software – is designed to make the Canadian incumbent more flexible and cost-effective. The change will be implemented in tandem with a process of transforming its central offices into data centers and adopting the ONAP (Open Network Automation Protocol) open source technology to orchestrate and automate the new-look network (see separate item).
Howe told Huawei’s Global Mobile Broadband Forum event in London last week that there were still significant concerns about white box strategies, despite their obvious advantages – these included the challenge of converting ageing data centers, the immaturity of white box technology for the telecoms market, and the complexities of implementing open source platforms while protecting quality, performance and interoperability.
Bell Canada is also investing heavily in fiber networks to support high speed mobile services. “Everything starts with the wireline network,” said Howe. “Without fiber, we cannot get the mobile broadband speeds we need.”
“5G is a new architecture and not just boxes at each end,” said Erol Hepsaydir, head of RAN at UK operator Three, also addressing the Huawei event. “Without new architecture you will not be able to get the benefits, and operators must plan for that architecture today if they want a smooth migration to 5G.”