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Fronthaul/C-RAN

Infinera, Nokia Chase 'Anyhaul' Dollars

With mobile as well as fixed line operators facing a capacity crunch that will only intensify once the 5G era arrives, infrastructure vendors are developing new or, at the very least, updated products designed to let cellular service providers shift their data traffic efficiently between the edge and core of their networks.

Two well-known vendors -- Infinera Corp. (Nasdaq: INFN) and Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) -- made related pitches in this sphere Tuesday, both targeting the "anyhaul" (fronthaul and backhaul) parts of the network and both promising 5G-ready mobile transport solutions, but from different angles.

Fronthaul, you may recall, is the connection between the centralized baseband controllers and remote standalone radio heads at cell sites that comprise a C-RAN architecture (with C-RAN being either centralized RAN or cloud RAN, depending on which way you swing...). (See What the [Bleep] Is Fronthaul?)

Optical transport vendor Infinera is best known for its long-haul and data center interconnect optical platforms, but it has had a broader metro and, to a certain extent, access side to its business since its acquisition of Transmode in the second half of 2015. (See Infinera Makes $350M Offer for Sweden's Transmode and Infinera-Transmode Closing Imminent; Karl's in Charge... of Metro.)

Now it has leveraged that heritage to launch a set of products designed to efficiently shunt data traffic between the various hops that stretch from cell sites to aggregation points in metro networks. The full list of products and details can be found in the company's official release -- see Infinera Launches Mobile Transport Products -- but the key message the company is sending is that it can deliver network elements that are suitable for 4G as well as 5G environments, that are programmable (can be managed using SDN controllers) and flexible.

Specifically, Sten Nordell, CTO of Infinera's Metro Business Group, claims the new mobile transport portfolio is unique in the market in that it supports both Ethernet for backhaul and the Common Public Radio Interface (CPRI) and Open Base Station Architecture Initiative (OBSAI) mobile fronthaul protocols in the same architecture. He also touts very low latency and claims higher CPRI throughput rates (up to 12 Gbit/s) than other fronthaul systems, though he declined to identify those others.

But does Infinera have enough clout in the anyhaul market? Won't it be edged out by the major infrastructure vendors that can deliver integrated anyhaul and radio access solutions?

In some cases that will happen, admits Nordell, though he believes that operators will also want to avoid vendor lock-in and opt for a transport-optimized solution designed to support multi-vendor environments.

"Infinera has added some important new features needed to deploy and operate C-RANs," says Gabriel Brown, senior analyst at Heavy Reading . "My main thought, however, is that the company is looking to the longer-term with a solution that should cover a range of deployment scenarios. One of the issues is that the functional split on the 5G RAN architecture is not yet decided, and in any case, we're likely to see quite diverse implementations across LTE and 5G. This underlines the need for fronthaul transport that can be upgraded and reconfigured, as far as possible, in software."

Andrew Schmitt, industry analyst and founder of research firm Cignal AI, notes that "this is a very small market outside of China, but as Western operators look towards 5G upgrades and the increased density and bandwidth required, a new fronthaul/backhaul infrastructure is mandatory. This is a market that Transmode has been focused on for some time -- well before it was acquired -- and is a good example of the kinds of engineering skills that Infinera acquired outside of its traditional area of expertise."

Nokia, meanwhile, is approaching the anyhaul sector with some strategic tweaks to its fiber broadband access portfolio, already deployed or being trialed in many fixed access networks globally, to support C-RAN and small cell deployments. (See Nokia Pitches Its Broadband Gear at Mobile Operators .)

The vendor notes that its ISAM access node platform can now support synchronization capabilities and, in a proof of concept based around its next-generation symmetrical 10GBit/s PON platform (XGS-PON), can demonstrate its applicability for "low latency applications such as mobile fronthaul. "By adding gateway functionality to a next-generation PON network, Nokia is able to convert mobile fronthaul CPRI signals to Ethernet," it states.

What both vendors are amplifying with these announcements is that the key focus areas for mobile operators right now, as they prepare for 5G, is in bulking up their data transport network capacity, and not on the next-gen radio access (for which, of course, the standards are still being developed).

— Ray Le Maistre, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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