"5G" conjures images of smart cities, automated factories, remote surgery, industrial drones and other advanced services that largely do not exist today. It is impossible to predict which visions will translate to reality, but a common thread is that they require the full 5G standard functionality of 3GPP Release 16, which was frozen in July 2020. With Release 16 standardization, 5G moves into an exciting phase in which its true potential can be unleashed. Transport networks will play a crucial role in turning 5G visions into reality.
In order to understand how transport networks will evolve to support 5G services, Heavy Reading launched the Operator Strategies for 5G Transport Market Leadership Study with collaboration partners Anritsu, Ericsson, Fujitsu and Infinera in May 2020. The survey attracted 86 qualified network operator respondents from around the world that shared their views on transport deployment issues and timelines, fronthaul networks and radio access network (RAN) centralization, routing and synchronization, and testing 5G networks.
This blog is the second in a four-part series highlighting the key findings from the 2020 study.
Motivations to modernize
The industry focuses a lot on the technical issues around 5G, and these are clearly important. However, Heavy Reading wanted to understand the high-level motivations that are driving operators to modernize their transport networks for 5G in the first place. In other words, what do operators hope to achieve by upgrading their networks?
In the survey, Heavy Reading asked operators to rank a list of nine transport network modernization motivations (or drivers) from most significant (1) to least significant (9).
The need for higher data rates (speed) and increased transport capacity topped the list, ranking first and second, respectively, followed by the need for greater reliability. The focus on higher speed interfaces and greater overall capacity is consistent with the trend Heavy Reading has seen in backhaul network upgrades in which operators have been migrating from 1Gbit/s Ethernet to 10Gbit/s Ethernet (and boosting overall system capacities when they do so). The finding is also consistent with requirements for early 5G commercial launches, which focus on enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) use cases that are characterized by higher data rates compared to 4G.
The relatively high priority placed on reliability (ranking third) is interesting, as it also ranked above the requirement for generating revenue. Reliability is a hallmark of the ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) set of advanced use cases that require 3GPP Release 16. The survey data indicates that operators are looking to adopt these advanced use cases in the near future and that the transport network will play a critical role in deploying these new applications.
Motivations that formed the bottom tier of the ranked list are also interesting — specifically, reduced opex, more programmable infrastructure and reduced capex. The results indicate that 5G transport network investments are driven less by the need to save money and more by the need to support new services, generate revenue and activate the required network features.
The role of white box
Another hot topic in 5G transport is white box switching and routing. White box is a subset of disaggregation in which the underlying hardware is based on open specifications defined in groups that include the Open Compute Project (OCP) and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP). It is produced to spec by contract manufacturers. White box is a further step along the disaggregation road and has its own benefits and challenges. It has long been championed by hyperscalers, such as Google and Facebook, and the trend has moved into traditional telecom networks.
In the survey, Heavy Reading wanted to understand the extent to which white box switching and routing is gaining traction, specifically for 5G transport networks. Results show that on a global level, white box interest is high. Two-thirds (66%) of respondents reported that white box switches/routers are at least "very important," with 14% of the group reporting that 5G transport will not be deployed without white box. Among North American respondents, the trend is even stronger, with 86% reporting that white box switches/routers are at least "very important."
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This blog is sponsored by Infinera.
— Sterling Perrin, Senior Principal Analyst, Optical Networking & Transport, Heavy Reading