5G and Beyond

Ericsson Links 5G Hands With Juniper & ECI, Snubs Cisco & Ciena

Ericsson has chosen Juniper over Cisco and ECI Telecom over Ciena as its 5G transport network partners, believing their optical and packet network expertise will round out its product portfolio and give it the end-to-end capability to satisfy customer needs and stand up to its main rivals.

The Swedish equipment vendor, which competes primarily against China's Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. and Finland's Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) in the mobile networks market, will use Juniper's edge and core packet transport technologies (the MX and PTX series platforms) to support connectivity between radio cell sites and an operator's core network. Ericsson will continue to offer its own Router 6000 and microwave products as packet backhaul options for 5G transport network deployments. (See Juniper, Ericsson Team on 5G Transport, Security.)

Ericsson will also integrate and sell Juniper's SRX Series Services Gateway network security system.

A separate partnership with ECI Telecom Ltd. will give it an optical transport offering in the metro market for service providers as well as so-called "critical infrastructure" customers. (See ECI Telecom Strikes Optical Transport Partnership With Ericsson.)

The big questions on the lips of many observers will be why Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) has shunned the packet and optical transport platforms available from Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) or Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN), two of its existing partners, and what its latest alliances mean for those companies.

When it came to Cisco, the main stumbling block appears to have been an awkward overlap with Ericsson's own product portfolio. While Ericsson has been on the lookout for prospective partners in the core and the edge, "radio near" IP technologies (the Router 6000 and microwave systems) remain a priority for in-house development. Cisco, unfortunately, has its own "radio near" product portfolio as well as core and edge capabilities, while Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) is focused on the latter. "With Juniper there is no overlap and a good fit," says Nishant Batra, Ericsson's global head of network products.

This will inevitably cast an even bigger shadow over the tie-up with Cisco, which is widely regarded as a dismal failure by market watchers. Yet Batra insists the Cisco partnership is alive and well. "The intent [with Cisco] was to look at alternative IP solutions, with strengths in enterprise and service provider segments coming together," he tells Light Reading. "That intent still exists, but with IP backhaul we've both realized this is not ideal and so parted ways." (See Cisco Lands One on Ericsson With Open vRAN Initiative.)

And what about Ciena? Ericsson announced a "global strategic agreement" with the optical equipment specialist back in 2014, when the plan was to develop joint transport solutions. That would have seemed to make Ciena the perfect optical partner on 5G, and yet Ericsson clearly preferred the look of ECI's offering.

"Ciena's assets are more suited for the optical core and we were looking for optical in the metro space, where ECI fits well," says Batra. Again, he insists the partnership with Ciena is still in place and doing "healthy business" in some areas.

To Ericsson's critics, this partnership approach will further highlight the company's portfolio shortcomings when compared with Huawei and Nokia, both of which claim to offer a more comprehensive package of fixed, mobile and IP technologies that operators will need for 5G deployments. But Ericsson's renewed focus on the radio access network (RAN), and willingness to partner with highly regarded specialists in other areas, could translate into a market advantage if its alliances work out as planned. (See Ericsson vs. Nokia: Who's Ahead in 5G Right Now?)

And importantly, Ericsson notes that the Juniper and ECI platforms are "fully interoperable with Ericsson's transport portfolio and will be managed by the same Ericsson management and orchestration solution. This will simplify the overall management and control of 5G across the radio, transport and core network." It adds that the "management and orchestration solution will also provide integrated software-defined networking (SDN) control for Ericsson, Juniper and ECI nodes, enabling automated network control for applications such as network slicing and traffic optimization, to ensure the best possible user experience."

"The partnerships help us strengthen areas where we are not building organically," says Batra. "Instead of making a blanket commitment to be in IP, we have segmented into radio near, core and edge, and it's the radio-near part we'll address with our own products."

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While Ericsson had nothing to say about the fronthaul part of the network in today's announcement, it continues to sell its own optical fronthaul products in the mobile market, says Batra. Some of these are based on technologies it acquired with its 2005 takeover of Marconi, he explains. (Fronthaul, as a reminder, refers to the transport links between remote radio heads and a centralized pool of baseband processing capacity in a disaggregated 5G network, with fiber regarded as the optimal medium for such connections.)

There are other fronthaul options available to the Swedish vendor, though. In the fixed access market, Ericsson has been collaborating with Calix Inc. (NYSE: CALX) since 2012, when it announced the sale of its GPON assets to the US broadband vendor. (GPON is a passive optical network standard for providing high-speed broadband connectivity.) That partnership with Calix is still going, according to Batra: Indeed, Ericsson and Calix are working together to deliver NG-PON2 systems to Verizon. (See Next-Gen Calix OLT Gives Verizon an Edge and Verizon Advances NG-PON2 With OpenOMCI Spec.)

Besides forging new 5G alliances, the Swedish vendor has also given its Ericsson Radio System a polish with the addition of new features.

The "5G-ready" RAN platform, which now accounts for the vast bulk of Ericsson's radio shipments, should in future give service providers more control over RAN functionality and allow them to use spectrum resources more efficiently.

"The portfolio we are launching now is for 2019 and 2020 and will allow operators to deploy 5G more seriously with thousands of sites," says Batra. Among other things, the RAN Compute features that Ericsson has promised should make it easier for an operator to deploy cloud or virtualized RAN systems, whereby the baseband functions are run as software programs on common, off-the-shelf equipment. (See Eurobites: Turin Shrouded in vRAN by TIM, Ericsson and Is vRAN Still Too Hot to Handle?)

Thanks to new spectrum-sharing software, customers will also be able to allocate spectrum to a particular network technology on a dynamic, millisecond basis, according to Batra. "There is more demand for this technology than I have ever seen," he says. "This is the first time in the last few years that I have had six or seven leading operators say they want to be the first to launch."

— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading

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