Nokia chases number one spot in unified cable access

After the sale of its devices business and the $16bn acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent, finalized in 2016, Nokia ended up with a significantly different portfolio mix. Through the ALU deal, it turned back on its mobile broadband-only strategy – the result of another of its serial restructurings in the first half of the decade – and made a massive step into fixed broadband and transport, as well as pay-TV infrastructure and integration.

The ALU deal also coincided with its re-entry into the handset business through the back door, following the launch of Finnish start-up HMD Global in early 2016. This firm has licensed the Nokia name and some intellectual property, enabling it to launch a low cost smartphone, plus featurephones, including one based on the original Nokia design. Launched at Mobile World Congress 2017 in Barcelona, 126m of the upgraded Nokia 3310 phones, priced at around $60, had sold by June 2017.

Meanwhile Nokia has become a major player in pay-TV, with a strong presence in systems integration as well as a foothold in cable migration. It moved to build on the latter through the September 2016 takeover of US start-up Gainspeed. This company had, since its foundation in 2012, grown to become one of the leaders in DAA (Distributed Access Architecture) technology for the cable industry with its Virtual CCAP (Converged Cable Access Platform) product line.

This gave Nokia a product portfolio including the Gainspeed Access Controller, a software-driven orchestration tool for managing network nodes, as well as a video engine for converting QAM video before it travels over a digital fiber link. The latter has emerged to play a key role in cable migration towards distributed operation where the PHY is located at the edge of the operator’s fiber network. Nokia also gained the Access Node SC-2D supporting DOCSIS data delivery over a last-mile coaxial network, as well as the Access Node SF-4X for DOCSIS delivery over a 10G-EPON last-mile fiber link.

It took a while for Nokia to assimilate this portfolio into an expanded range, but it has now unveiled that (see inset), together with a major statement of intent to become the number one vendor in unified cable access. The timing is good, because many cablecos are preparing to embark on migration towards DAA and many have complex infrastructures which may make Nokia’s flexible platform appealing.

The main selling point is that Nokia is enabling cable operators to avoid having to choose between the two principal versions of universal access node, called R-PHY and R-MAC-PHY.

The difference is that R-PHY distributes the PHY function to the fiber nodes while retaining central control over all the MAC functions; while R-MAC-PHY retains more complex MAC functions centrally, but distributes the traditional Layer 2 functions to fiber nodes as well as the PHY.

Other vendors offer these as either:or options and the success of Nokia’s approach will depend on how many operators want to mix and match the two. It will also depend on whether large operators previously leaning towards R-PHY, as many have done, will be interested in keeping both technologies, on the grounds that one might be better in specific locations. Several top tier operators, including Liberty Global, are leaning away from R-MAC-PHY towards R-PHY, believing it would simplify migration and management. Now, Nokia’s Gainspeed cable access node allows operators to switch between the two at the press of a button.

Nokia contends that having to choose between the two options greatly restricts flexibility to deploy the best technology for each use case. This has forced some operators to decide on one or the other before fully understanding the potential impact on their network, risking a poor choice.

Other vendors such as Cisco argue that operators are best off incurring the extra pain of migrating to R-PHY now because they will then enjoy greater efficiencies and cost savings. Nokia has countered that to an extent by presenting the choice between R-PHY and R-MAC-PHY as one that operators can make in the short term while still easily being able to go all R-PHY in the longer term. This also exploits the virtualization of the whole cable modem termination (CMTS), which can now be placed in the optimal location, which could be the data center, head end, hub, OSP (outside plant) street cabinet, or the access node itself. While this virtualization capability is not unique to Nokia it dovetails well with the option to choose between R-PHY and R-MAC-PHY when that is in the access node.

Irrespective of how compelling this particular selling point is, Nokia has now amassed a powerful cable access portfolio and will be a strong match for rivals such as Arris and Cisco in this area.

Cloud-native tops the bill in Nokia’s Intelligent Access range:

To achieve the coveted market lead, and continue to build on it, Nokia will need to drive some of the emerging approaches to network deployment, such as SDN/NFV, as those start to affect the broadband and cable access sectors. Last week, it launched a range of cloud-native products, including a virtualized access platform for fixed broadband, called Altiplano; and the Lightspan programmable access nodes.

These elements make up a software-defined access network (SDAN) solution that will support multivendor interoperability and lower operating costs, the vendor says, and will tick the key telco boxes for software-driven deployments – cloud-native software,
open programmable hardware, scalabilty and automation.

Altiplano implements open interfaces and open data models, drawing on work by a range of industry initiatives such as Open Broadband, ON.LAB, the Open Networking Foundation, CORD, ONAP and the Broadband Forum.

The Lightspan access nodes are specifically designed for SDAN use cases, distributing cloud resources to the copper and fibre outside plant. They feature what Nokia says is the world’s first 16-port reverse-powered micro-node, which can be reverse-powered from households.

Among the use cases targeted with an SDAN are network slicing, virtual access networks, wavelength mobility, cloud-based provisioning, automated operations and edge-cloud architectures to enable 5G and IoT applications, said the vendor.

“We deliberately go for an open, standardized, vendor-agnostic approach that smoothly integrates legacy as well as new cloud services,” said Federico Guillén, president of Nokia Fixed Networks. “Our fixed access virtualization portfolio now covers copper, fibre, coax networks and professional services, which makes us ideally placed to transform the operator’s network, operations, and business just as the opportunities of 5G begin to accelerate.”

Among the operators which fed into Nokia’s development process, especially in terms of use cases, were SK Telecom, Australia’s NBN and the UAE’s Du.

The SDAN is part of Nokia’s broader Intelligent Access solution, also unveiled last week, which includes fixed wireless access (FWA) and carrier-grade home WiFi options to complement wirelines. It claims several firsts, including the cable sector’s first virtualized distributed access architecture (vDAA), and the first wireless passive optical network (PON) solution that fully integrates WiGig, the 60 GHz implementation of WiFi. This will help operators to accelerate fiber-to-the-home by crossing the last few meters using WiGig, as well as supporting gigabit WiFi speeds around the home.

New fiber and high speed DSL options include outdoor and data center fiber nodes and DSL backhaul remote nodes.

“The technologies, nodes, traffic and services needed to support today’s ultra-broadband requirements are adding significant complexity to the network and those who can master this complexity the fastest will come out ahead,” said Guillén.