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29 July 2019

Three UK taps Azure, Nokia and others for its cloud-native core

Three UK has emerged as a perhaps unlikely frontrunner in the race to deploy a cloud-native 5G core, and therefore have the capability to deliver the diversity of services promised for ‘true 5G’, as well as achieving the cost efficiencies that will be essential to make its low cost challenger strategy towards pricing economically viable.

The Hutchison-owned MNO has two advantages over its UK rivals – EE, Vodafone and O2. One is its lean IT infrastructure and staffing, which is enabling it to move to cloud platforms and full automation more rapidly than many. It has made a string of announcements recently, relating to many of its operations from BSS/IT, to network operations, to the 5G core (though not a cloud-native RAN as yet).

The second advantage is a large amount of midband 5G spectrum around 3.5 GHz, which will further improve its ability to lower the cost of data delivery and help it be aggressive, yet profitable, in the UK’s 5G price war. With the acquisition of UK Broadband, an ISP with significant assets in 3.5 GHz, Three finally turned itself into an MNO with a spectrum advantage, rather than the deficit of airwaves with which it struggled in the 4G era.

It is now gearing up to move to a standalone 5G network with a cloud-native 5G core ahead of its rivals. EE will make the move in 2022 (see separate item above), while the other two have not provided dates, though both are part of telco groups with ambitious cloud and virtualization programs, which they may be able to leverage to accelerate their own deployments (Telefónica’s Unica and Vodafone’s Project Ocean).

Three is adopting a hybrid approach to the cloud. The core will run on its private cloud, which will also host latency sensitive IT applications, while it will use various public clouds (AWS, Google and Microsoft Azure) for non-latency sensitive IT applications. Its primary partner is Azure, and it claims to be one of the largest UK customers for that cloud now.

The private cloud will run in 20 new data centers across the UK, which Three claims will be sufficient to support low latency edge computing services nationwide (the number is similar to the one BT has quoted as being sufficient to enable its edge cloud, while apparently ignoring the larger potential that rests in the industrial and on-premises edges, which will need to be far closer to the end users).

The old data centers will be retained for now to run legacy 3G services but then sold off, as 3G is shut down or migrated to SingleRAN architectures, within two years.

Three said its £2bn cloud core project will deliver increased security, flexibility, resilience against outages and cost savings, allowing it to scale up quickly and deliver the “UK’s fastest 5G network”.

As well as speed, the new network will enable a far greater variety of services with different network behaviors, with the potential to expand its revenue model. Mike Eales, Three’s head of network services strategy and architecture, said in an interview last week: “At the moment, with Non-Standalone, you can only do slicing with the core. Standalone opens up more options and different business models because you can slice end-to-end and offer guaranteed service in the RAN as well as the core.”

Three’s new standalone network will also support far better coverage, Eales added, because its routing decisions will be more intelligent and there is no need to share resources with 4G (in the current Non-Standalone networks, 4G and 5G devices use Dual Connectivity to link to the same 4G core).

“You can just have 5G and so all the power goes into 5G and there is a big coverage improvement. The uplink to the device only has one radio running and that expands the overall coverage.”

Three is also blazing a trail – like NTT Docomo, round the world in Japan – for a long-held MNO dream, the multivendor core. It is working with Nokia for the cloud core, cloud infrastructure and some applications. Additionally, Nokia will provide systems integration, security and managed services capabilities as well as  routing, software and mobile radio technology.

The core currently supports 4G functionality in a virtualized environment, but is 5G-ready. It will support the launch, next month, of Three’s Non-Standalone 5G RAN, and will be the basis of the cloud-native 5G core.

Other suppliers within that platform are yet to be finalized. Two independent virtualized core suppliers, Affirmed and Mavenir, are already providing applications that run on the Nokia virtualized core in 4G (traffic management and messaging respectively). “We are already in a multivendor environment and it is likely we’ll reuse those vendors going into a 5G core as well,” Eales told LightReading.

Three UK is also working with Exfo, Mycom and BMC for OSS solutions, and the SDN layer will be managed by Nuage from Nokia for the complete “end-to-end automation of the network”.

Eales said Three hopes to make its final 5G vendor selections, for core applications and Release 16 enhancements to the RAN to support Standalone, “very quickly”. Huawei is currently the sole provider of Three’s 5G RAN and the MNO is replacing its Samsung 4G base stations with Huawei SingleRAN 4G/5G kit.

“This industry needs to be disrupted. We believe that it is far too dormant at the moment,” Three UK’s director for business transformation, Tim Boyd, told a press conference to announce its latest cloud plans. “If you’re not on the cloud you’re not going to be able to do true 5G.”

He added: “The reason why we chose to do this greenfield is because looking at it, upgrading would have taken longer than starting again and brought all the legacy with it. This way we can reduce cost by 50%.”

“Our new core network is part of a series of connected investments, totalling £2bn, that will provide a significant step change in our customers’ experience,” said CEO Dave Dyson. “UK consumers have an insatiable appetite for data as well as an expectation of high reliability.  We are well positioned to deliver both as we prepare for the launch of the UK’s fastest 5G network.”