Virtualized EPC will wrest control of the cellular network away from MNOs

One of the most interesting aspects of the emerging new mobile network architecture -whether the radios are 4G or 5G – is the potential for non-MNOs to harness the capabilities of a cellular platform. This is not possible just through an MVNO deal, but in ways that give enterprises, government agencies or web services providers new levels of control, and new ways to monetize the connectivity.

The two most important examples are options to run LTE in unlicensed or shared spectrum; and for a non-MNO to deploy its own localized and specialized mobile core. Until true 5G network slicing is widespread, these two developments are the most realistic ways to start to extend control and monetization beyond the MNO, if it is not ideal to use WiFi (or other unlicensed technologies like LoRa).

With LTE-Unlicensed or LTE-LAA, this still requires an anchor network in licensed airwaves, but still opens the opportunity for a cableco, for instance, or a vertical market enterprise, to build and run its own ‘subnet’ of small cells in a band such as 5 GHz or 3.5 GHz, only relying on an MVNO deal to support wide area mobility on the macro network.

Even more control would be achieved by a technology like MuLTEfire, which allows LTE to run in unlicensed or shared spectrum without any host network, putting the advantages of cellular technology (which, of course, are hotly contested by the WiFi community) fully into the hands of MSOs, enterprises or Googles. For some vertical industry players, this could be a far less burdensome option than deploying a whole private network, though this is also a rising trend as the Internet of Things (IoT) starts to become real for some sectors (see separate item on Nokia in verticals).

On the core side, there is also a rising tendency for some organizations to seize control of their own networks by implementing an evolved packet core (EPC) of their own, linked to the MNO’s main core only for wide area functionality. This core can then be optimized for the location and services it needs to support, whether those are security and data offload in an office environment, or mobile services in a remote location like a mine, or a moving one like a military truck.

Specialists have pioneered this field – like Quortus, which has implemented a virtualized EPC on many easily deployable local platforms from small cells to backpacks to a Raspberry Pi; and Connectem (acquired by Brocade and now, in the wake of that firm’s sale to Broadcom, a crown jewel that may soon come to market).

The giants are also getting into the game, including Cisco, Huawei and Nokia. Last week, Cisco announced that it is seeing many customers transition to a software-based packet core (its Ultra Packet Core or UPC, part of its Ultra Services Platform). Cisco gave operator examples, such as AT&T, which has implemented UPC for its connected car and other projects; and XL Axiata of Indonesia, which has moved its whole customer base to the virtualized core.

More interestingly, Cisco said it was seeing non-MNOs deploying their own UPC, including “government agencies, military, enterprise, and mining companies”. This is a significant opportunity for the vendor, because, without a RAN offering, it lacks the incumbent position with the large MNOs that Ericsson and its rivals possess. In a non-MNO environment, however, Cisco will often have better established links to enterprises than the cellular giants.

Figure 1 Cisco UPC Wins as of December 2016

Many customers will be moving from Cisco’s own traditional packet core, the ASR 5000, acquired with Starent, but of course, this may also be a chance to win a strategic place in a new customer, and start to build towards 5G even without a New Radio offering.

Not that the radio vendors will stand still. Nokia got serious about the virtualized core earlier this year when it announced a managed version of its Cloud Packet Core, part of its push into targeted verticals (see separate item). This offering is designed to enable organizations in the mining, oil and gas, transport and utility sectors, as well governments and regional operators, to deploy an LTE network easily in remote or emergency situations. It can also be used to support localized or larger private networks for smart cities and other environments.

This sees Nokia making its carrier-scale Cloud Packet Core available at a scale and cost which is accessible to smaller, more localized organizations. The product supports access from up to 50,000 devices at once, and up to 100 base stations or small cells, supporting mobile broadband or IoT services. The vendor is particularly talking up its capabilities for city authorities, to “accelerate the move to smart cities, improve the safety and efficiency of employees and expand mobile applications across a variety of industries”.

Such statements always raise the question of why these things cannot be accomplished on the public network, but Nokia says – and most agree – that “private LTE networks are increasingly becoming the preferred approach to deliver business and mission-critical services in industry segments such as railways, aviation, the energy sector and with governments. Estimated by some analysts to surpass $800m in global investment by the end of 2016, the private LTE network market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 32% by 2020.”

If this prediction proves true, it will be welcome for LTE vendors which are seeing their margins squeezed in their traditional MNO market – private and critical networks may represent incremental business, moving organizations away from proprietary systems and specialized vendors, as well as better margins.

Nokia cited some examples of its target applications:

  • Transportation : operational services such as train control (an important safety feature) and real-time CCTV video feeds and alarm notifications, as well as passenger services such as mobile ticketing, broadband access for infotainment services and more.
  • Oil and Gas : control and monitoring of oil/gas processing in the refinery, with real-time processing and relaying of rig production information to Nokia’s Network Operations Center (NOC). Provide mission-critical Push-to-Talk voice, video and data services for end users.
  • Mining: provide end-to-end visibility for controllers and schedulers at the NOC. Offer a high-bandwidth, low-latency CCTV view of operational plant equipment, real-time alarm notifications and control equipment monitoring, and optimize vehicle movement throughout the mine with real-time positioning as well as automating mining operations via driverless vehicles and other measures.
  • Utilities: Establish Field Area Networks (FAN) to provide high-speed data links to connect sensors, sub-stations, facilities, intelligent electronic devices and other grid components; help ensure the safety, reliability and resiliency of electrical distribution grids.

The solution leverages the Cloud Mobility Manager (CMM) and Cloud Mobile Gateway (CMG) software from Nokia’s original Cloud Packet Core, so that the private and localized networks can interconnect with MNOs’ macro networks for wide area roaming and network operational continuity.