Bell Canada Is Binning Black Boxes Before 5G Buildout

LONDON -- Global Mobile Broadband Forum 2017 -- Bell Canada is ripping out the customized hardware it uses in its core network systems as it prepares for the launch of 5G technology in the next few years.

Stephen Howe, the Canadian telco's executive vice president, said the goal was go from a core network comprising "90% customized hardware and 10% software" to one that is "10% common hardware and 90% software."

The details point to greater investment in so-called white box technologies, whereby network functions are turned into software programs running over common off-the-shelf servers.

Telcos have traditionally relied on black boxes that marry software capabilities to Howe's "customized hardware." By shifting to cheaper, dumber hardware, and introducing more sophisticated software into the mix, operators hope to reduce costs and become less dependent on a small number of suppliers pushing proprietary gear.

Bell Canada's white box overhaul is happening as it works on transforming its central offices into data centers that can support new types of services for residential and enterprise customers.

By taking the IT resources normally housed in much larger facilities, and placing these in data centers that are closer to customers, operators should be able to minimize latency -- the delay that occurs when a signal is sent over a data network.

Unless they can reduce latency to just a few milliseconds, telcos will struggle to support 5G connections for autonomous vehicles, remote-control surgery and factory automation, say industry observers.

Speaking at Huawei's Global Mobile Broadband Forum in London earlier today, Howe said that converting central offices into data centers was "easier said than done" due to the old age of some of its facilities.

The immaturity of white box technology in telco networks, and concerns surrounding interoperability and the use of open source code, also threaten to hold up progress in this area.

An industry initiative known as CORD (which stands for "central office re-architected as a data center") has been set up to provide support to operators like Bell Canada that are keen to redesign their networks. CORD is overseen by an industry group called the Open Networking Foundation (ONF), which does not currently list Bell Canada as a member, and is heavily backed by US telco giant AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), which is pioneering the rollout of software and virtualization technologies.

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Nevertheless, the overhaul that Howe describes shows how much work lies ahead of operators as they prepare for the launch of 5G services. While previous generations of mobile technology were simply about the rollout of a new radio system, 5G will demand a redesign of networks from top to bottom, said operators at today's event.

"5G is a new architecture and not just boxes at each end," said Erol Hepsaydir, the head of radio access networks for UK mobile operator 3. "Without new architecture you will not be able to get the benefits, and operators must plan for that architecture today if they want a smooth migration to 5G."

That transformation is putting enormous pressure on traditional network vendors -- including Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. as well as Sweden's Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and Finland's Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) -- that have previously flourished by selling black box and proprietary technologies to service providers around the world.

Besides changing its core network architecture, BCE Inc. (Bell Canada) (NYSE/Toronto: BCE) has also been investing heavily in fiber networks to support higher-speed mobile services. "Everything starts with the wireline network," said Howe. "Without fiber, we cannot get the mobile broadband speeds we need."

The Canadian telco plans to have connected 3.7 million premises to fiber-to-the-home networks by the end of this year, representing 40% of its ultimate target for FTTH connections.

— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading

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