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Mobile NGN: A Step Toward IMS & the All-IP CoreMobile NGN: A Step Toward IMS & the All-IP Core

Mobile NGN: A Step Toward IMS & All-IP CoreSoftswitch and IP technology is having a disruptive impact on mobile core network design, with knock-on effects on the vendor landscape

June 15, 2005

4 Min Read
Mobile NGN: A Step Toward IMS & the All-IP Core

Distributed switching and IP transport is set to revolutionize the mobile core network as operators turn away from the monolithic mobile-services switching centers (MSCs) that have powered circuit-switched voice for well over a decade.

Also known as mobile NGN (next-generation network), softswitch architectures promise to substantially reduce core network operating costs, and make it less expensive to increase capacity and expand geographically, finds this month’s Unstrung Insider Wireless Softswitching: The Next-Gen Mobile Core. In the longer term, IP core networks are essential to introducing IP multimedia subsystems (IMS) and the new era of innovation in mobile services this will create.

The mobile softswitch concept splits the classic MSC into two functional components: centralized MSC servers, which handle mobile call control, and media gateways, which process user-plane traffic and are distributed towards the edge of the network (or wherever is most appropriate). In the GSM/UMTS world, this architecture is defined by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project's (3GPP) Bearer Independent Circuit-Switched Core Network specifications (For more details, see this 3GPP document: TS 23.205 [PDF 1.2MB].)

Initially, the key advantages of distributed switching are opex-related, with savings derived from lower on-site costs and more efficient transport. For example, a metro area that today requires ten to 15 classic MSCs, all linked together by a TDM core, to serve, say, a couple of million subscribers, could be served by just two MSC servers and eight media gateways connected over IP.

Vendors covered in the report say, based on real case studies, it is possible to cut core network opex by around 50 percent. Interviewed for the report, Bill Mayberry, executive director of MSC planning at Cingular Wireless LLC, put it this way: “You can save a ton of money from an efficiency standpoint.”

On the capex side (important for expansion), there are also savings to be had. Sources say the upfront hardware costs of a distributed switching platform can be as much as 80 percent lower than the costs of monolithic MSCs, while the overall cost, including software licenses, can be around 30 percent lower.

From the vendor perspective, distributed switching is a hot, “here and now” market. And given that operators are investing in the infrastructure that will support the next ten years of mobile voice, it’s imperative to have a competitive mobile softswitch play.

In large part, it’s the established MSC vendors that have the scale, the relationships, and the know-how to win in this market. The initial strategy is to provide operators with an elegant upgrade to their installed base by offering an “H.248 Plug” to upgrade monolithic MSCs and turn them into MSC servers capable of controlling distributed media gateways.

Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERICY) and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) already appear to have carved out prime portions of new business using this strategy. And to a lesser extent, Nortel Networks Ltd. (NYSE/Toronto: NT) has had some success.

But distributed switching and the transition to an all-IP mobile core is also a disruptive force that gives other vendors, such as Alcatel (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), Motorola Inc. (NYSE: MOT), and Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd., a great chance to break into this strategically important market.

Huawei has latched on to the opportunity afforded by mobile softswitching more aggressively than any other vendor. And with good reason -- distributed switching is the obvious choice for greenfield and emerging market operators. Using Huawei systems, China Mobile Communications Corp. is currently the world’s largest mobile softswitch network, finds the Insider report.

Alcatel and Motorola, historically weak in mobile core switching, have both made acquisitions to get their hands on MSC server technology. Their strategy is to leapfrog the market with purpose-built products, which they claim are more flexible and efficient than the repurposed ATM-based switch platforms used by the incumbents. And so far, both vendors can point to considerable successes, such as T-Mobile USA (Alcatel) and Vivo in Brazil (Motorola).

Looking at the big picture, the market for softswitch MSCs will no doubt develop at different rates, according to operator priorities and vendor capabilities. But across the board, it seems, in the mobile core, operators are moving as fast as they can to cap investment in legacy products. New money is reserved for the transition to IP.

— Gabriel Brown, Chief Analyst, Unstrung Insider

The report, Wireless Softswitching: The Next-Gen Mobile Core, is available as part of an annual subscription (12 monthly issues) to Unstrung Insider, priced at $1,350. Individual reports are available for $900. To subscribe, please visit: www.unstrung.com/insider.

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