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April 1, 2009
Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) today took the wraps off its much anticipated all-IP packet core offering for proto-4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks, revealing that its edge routers will play a key role in its mobile broadband ambitions.
AlcaLu's Mary Chan, president of end-to-end 4G/LTE networks, told Unstrung last month that the company didn't need outside help or partnerships for Evolved Packet Core (EPC) and that it was developing a solution in-house. Today the vendor revealed the platform choices and products she was referring to that make up the packet core proposition, which marks AlcaLu's first significant entry into the packet core space with homegrown equipment. (See Interview: Alcatel-Lucent's Mary Chan and Hail Mary: Chan Takes 4G Helm at AlcaLu.)
There are four elements in the EPC: a Mobility Management Entity (MME), Policy and Charging Rules Function (PCRF), the Serving Gateway, and the Packet Data Network Gateway.
At the heart of AlcaLu's EPC is the widely deployed 7750 service router and a purpose-built ATCA platform. Serving Gateway and Packet Data Network Gateway hardware and software modules will plug into the 7750 service router. AlcaLu's ATCA platform will house the MME and PCRF, which is needed for control over bandwidth, charging, and network usage.
By choosing the 7750 service router as its platform for two key packet core elements, AlcaLu can leverage its IP expertise and benefits of scale that comes from having shipped more than 30,000 7750 nodes to 260 operators. (See AlcaLu Beefs Up Its Routers.)
Heavy Reading senior analyst Gabriel Brown says AlcaLu's platform choices make sense. With the flat, all-IP architecture of the EPC, a key feature is that the bearer and control plane functions are split in a way that they haven't been before.
"The fact that you're splitting out the control and bearer planes makes their platform choices logical," says Brown. "It mirrors the split in the architecture."
The packet core in LTE networks will take on far greater significance than it has in 2G or 3G networks because for the first time in 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) -specified networks the core will be all-IP. There is no circuit switch domain specified for LTE networks. And that means the EPC will be responsible for real-time services and carrier-grade VoIP.
For mobile operators, implementing the EPC will be a monumental network transition. And that's where AlcaLu's IP routing prowess comes in handy.
"After WiMax, LTE is the first major all-IP wireless standard to hit the global telecom market," says Patrick Donegan, senior analyst at Heavy Reading.
"Alcatel-Lucent has a head start over Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and Nokia Networks in its understanding, expertise and deployment references for IP networks. If Alcatel-Lucent can be fully competitive on the radio side of the LTE networks equation, then with its IP pedigree the company has a very real chance to go toe-to-toe with the big wireless vendors in LTE."
AlcaLu's EPC will first be put to the test in Verizon Wireless 's LTE network. The vendor, along with Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and Starent Networks Corp. (Nasdaq: STAR) are the EPC suppliers for the U.S. operator's ambitious mobile broadband network. (See MWC 2009: Verizon Picks LTE Vendors.)
But Alcatel-Lucent's weakness is its lack of installed base of 2G and 3G core network equipment, especially compared with Ericsson, Nokia Networks , and Starent. Historically, AlcaLu supplied core network equipment through partnerships with the likes of Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Starent. Experience with 2G/3G core networks is important because the EPC will need to be integrated with legacy core networks and, ultimately, it's expected to become the converged core network for 2G/3G and LTE radio access technologies.
Strategically, though, the EPC is important for vendors' radio access business. In the early phases of LTE deployments, operators will tend to source EPC and radio access equipment from the same vendor, according to Brown.
So a strong EPC offering could boost a vendor's radio access network prospects.
"You'll have to have a packet core to be successful in radio access," says Brown. "It's a necessity."
— Michelle Donegan, European Editor, Unstrung
Michelle Donegan is an independent technology writer who has covered the communications industry for the last 20 years on both sides of the Pond. Her career began in Chicago in 1993 when Telephony magazine launched an international title, aptly named Global Telephony. Since then, she has upped sticks (as they say) to the UK and has written for various publications including Communications Week International, Total Telecom and, most recently, Light Reading.
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