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November 21, 2019
Telecom network operators have long complained of being trapped in the R&D cycles of their main technology suppliers. Now, after years of false dawns, there are signs they could break free from some of the shackles of so-called "vendor lock-in" thanks to a number of contributing factors, a number of which were in evidence at the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) Summit in Amsterdam last week.
The first factor is the current state of telecom operator finances and the looming impact of 5G. Even ahead of widespread 5G service rollout, data traffic volumes are rising, ARPU levels are falling and the current network investment model is creaking at the seams. New technology and cost models are needed to make the numbers add up, so operators are open like never before to alternative ways to build and run networks.
As it happens, some alternative options are now available and being seized upon by major network operators. The TIP has been up and running for about three years and, after several years of R&D efforts, field trials and encouraging noises, the fruits of the group's labors are turning up in major plans and live networks, with the likes of Telefónica (live deployment) and Vodafone (field trials and eyebrow-raising RFI) leading the way.
What's key to note here is that TIP's mission isn't to introduce new standards or impose specifications on the industry, but instead to focus on the development and deployment of alternative "disaggregated" systems that enable operators to build multi-vendor networks using a combination of disparate network elements that could, if they wish, include white box hardware elements. For specifications and standards, TIP is forging partnerships and alliances, such as the one announced last week with the ONF.
The jury is out on whether using network technology developed based on TIP models results in a lower total cost of ownership and other operational efficiencies, though the early signs are encouraging if the Telefónica team's calculations are accurate (up to 50% reduction in the cost of the network electronics in a network build in Peru).
Figure 1: The crowds were sizable at this year's cubist-inspired TIP Summit in Amsterdam, reflecting the growing interest in alternative network technology developments.
But what these efforts tell us is that the technology developed under the auspices of TIP are carrier-grade, ready for the big time. These aren't just lab toys: Vodafone, which has already committed to significant OpenRAN field trials in Africa, is not going to put its mobile services business in jeopardy by introducing sub-standard technology as part of a broad revamp of its European infrastructure (if indeed it gets to that point at all… for the full background on Vodafone's plan and thinking, see this article by Iain Morris).
What's more, there is an increasing number of commercially available products that conform to TIP guidelines: In addition to the likes of the Parallel Wireless and Edgecore Networks -- arguably the two vendor "stars" of the TIP event, given their involvement in deployments and the number of on-stage references they received -- there are a multitude of vendors ready to respond to TIP-friendly RFIs/RFPs, including Altran, Athonet, Benetel, IP Infusion, Kontron, Lime Microsystems, Mavenir, Radisys, Volta Networks and more. Handily there is now a TIP Exchange where operators can check out what the vendors are producing. That list of vendors also includes names familiar to the optical transport community, including ADVA Optical Networking and Infinera (courtesy of the ex-Tellabs unit that came on board as part of the Coriant acquisition... I can't believe I'm writing about Tellabs again.)
TIP is on the verge of becoming part of the mobile network mainstream -- that's a big deal.
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Another important factor is money -- not just the potential savings for network operators from adopting disaggregated systems, but the injection of capital into the TIP ecosystem. The Amsterdam TIP Summit was attended by private equity investors that have smelled a business opportunity to pump funds into a market sector that has the hallmarks of medium-term growth and returns. Just the presence of investment banks marks a new stage in the TIP ecosystem -- success attracts money and confidence.
Part of that confidence, I believe, comes from a more even distribution of power between operators and vendors. I get the very real sense that operator executives feel more empowered, more in control of their network and service destinies by having the additional options that TIP infrastructure offers. That is very much in evidence at Vodafone but is also encouraging operators like Sprint to get on board in a meaningful way: Durga Satapathy, Director, Technology Innovation & Architecture, at Sprint confirmed in Amsterdam that the US operator has included TIP requirements in its 5G request for information (RFI) to get a sense of the readiness of the vendor community, including the dominant incumbent suppliers, to deliver distributed units that can enable the development of a cloud RAN platform.
All of these factors point towards the potential for operators to boost their technology options and reduce their reliance on a few dominant suppliers.
No silver bullet
But that doesn't mean things will change overnight or, indeed, change a great deal even in the medium or long term. "Better the devil you know" is not an official module in MBA courses, but it's an idiom that impacts many business decisions and, as my much more learned colleague at Heavy Reading, Gabriel Brown, has pointed out on more than one occasion, including in his look back at the TIP Summit, those incumbent mobile network equipment vendors -- Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia -- are good at what they do. Their stuff works and it works in a known way, in combinations and architectures that are familiar to network operators (though access network models are morphing, for sure).
And while TIP-approved technology elements are becoming available and the community is working on bringing more white box server platforms, there are still major questions about how disaggregated network elements sourced from multiple vendors will be pieced together in a harmonious way… and in a way that enables any of those elements to be swapped out without drama and major downtime.
For the large Tier 1 operators, there's the option of doing some or much of this work in-house -- and new TIP member Rakuten Mobile has some tips about how this can be handled more efficiently than in the past -- but, for many, a systems integrator will be needed.
Tie me up, tie me down
And here's what might be one of the major hurdles to broad TIP technology uptake -- the threat of replacing vendor lock-in with systems integrator lock-in: No operator wants to be in the dark about how its network has been stitched together and have to call in/pay an SI every time there's a fix/change/update.
The danger of SI lock-in was raised and acknowledged as a potential problem on a number of occasions in Amsterdam but while a number of SIs were on hand, and even had their own session to put minds at rest and explain how the spirit of more open and flexible networking would be aided by their involvement, I heard little to suggest the SI community isn't drooling at the business opportunity of long-term, lucrative relationships. If there's one sub-set of the TIP community that needs to put the overt marketing messages away and address operator concerns, it's the systems integrators.
What's also needed is greater operator visibility. Telefónica, Vodafone and MTN, which plans to deploy TIP OpenRAN technology at 5,000 rural sites in Africa, have set a great example to the other operators -- and there are plenty of them in the TIP membership roster (I count more than 70 on the body's website). While TIP representatives say there are many operator projects underway, greater operator numbers and scale is needed to imbue further confidence that this isn't just a phase, a networking fad.
Of course, it's a chicken and egg situation -- more operators will be driven to act once they see others have committed. But Telefónica, Vodafone and MTN have hatched their eggs -- now others need to get into the spotlight and be counted if TIP is to have a meaningful and lasting impact on the communications networking sector.
For more on this, see:
— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading
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