Optical Networking Gets the Football Pulled Away Again

Like Lucy always does to Charlie Brown, 5G is likely another new technology that teased optical networking vendors with massive, sustained spending, then quickly yanked back expectations.

James Kisner, Contributing columnist

March 13, 2019

5 Min Read
Optical Networking Gets the Football Pulled Away Again

Last week at OFC, several network operators (namely Zayo, Verizon and BT) testified about their progress in bringing the world the promise of 5G in a panel titled, "5G Applications and Networks: Real World Operator Case Studies." Despite all the talk in the last couple of years about all the fiber optics that will be needed to deliver whiz-bang, low-latency 5G services, the talk didn't give vendors too much to excited about near term for either optics vendors or optics consumers -- only that three to five years from now, the promise of 5G will come.

I have to say that I walked out of the panel feeling a bit downtrodden that carriers seem to pull the football away every time the optical community thinks it's about to kick one through the goal posts with a period of accelerated and potentially more lasting growth.

Heavy Reading's Sterling Perrin set the stage for the optical vendors in attendance by noting how little 5G is going to matter to the transport network over the next couple of years. (See, Sterling, this is why you don't get invited to the cool "optical-bro" parties anymore! Leave your sleeveless fleece at the door.)

Perrin noted that while 69% of carriers polled in Heavy Reading's February 2019 5G Network & Services Strategy Report stated they expected to launch commercial 5G services in some way by 2020, most carriers were just planning to use 5G to deliver faster speeds to and to improve system capacity. The intent to offer new markets and services only pop up when asked about the carriers' five-year plans. These same carriers, according to the survey, project that fiber will only modestly increase its share of mobile transport connections from 58% to 63% for 5G as providers of wireless connections like microwave backhaul just keep innovating!

Part of the problem, as Christopher Parra, Zayo's VP of Z5G business development and strategy, said is the sheer magnitude of the construction project represented by 5G. His company, by 2023, sees a world of massive connection density (1 million devices per square kilometer), peak data rates of 10 Gbit/s (1 Gbit/s user data rates) and sub 1ms latency. But to achieve that vision, he sees a small cell mounted every roughly 500 feet in a major urban area like downtown San Diego, or roughly on every other intersection.

Parra expects easily three to six radios on each small cell poll, and carriers historically want dedicated fibers to each of those radios. Scalability becomes an issue as one cascades those fiber requirement across hundreds of small cells in a heavy metro environment that home back to two or three small cell CRAN hubs. During the Q&A, Parra threw out a heuristic of sorts that the ratio of small cells to macrocells in the metro might be 10:1 (a stat that no one else was ready to jump on), and that each major metro area might need 5,000-6,000 small cells. He also predicts that eventually, carriers will feel pressure to packetize what will initially be CPRI connections to reduce fiber capacity utilization, but there are real challenges in implementing that as well. After all, it's not trivial to put a 2RU, environmentally hardened box on the side of a pole to enable eCPRI connections in locales ranging from Miami to Minnesota.

Albert Rafel, an optical networks consultant for BT (who was also presenting work from the European Metro-Haul 5G "Project"), seemed to agree with prior speakers and noted that 5G poses a "very complex problem to solve" as it requires a control plane that can react to "events" in the network and involve elements in both the optical and packet layers of the network.

However, Rafel also discussed two very interesting service demonstrations in the next year, including one video security application being tested in Berlin at Deutsche Telekom that would use intelligence and movable cameras to track the movement of suspected criminals. (And with that, my backup career in "smash and grab" operations in Europe went up in smoke.) The other key demo he mentioned was "crowdsourcing" video streams at an event at a public venue such as a stadium to allow users to choose whatever aspects of an event they'd like to watch.

Rajesh Yadav, associate fellow at Verizon Communications, was also in the wings with a cold, wet blanket to toss on the optical industry. He spoke at length at the great flexibility brought by 10G NG-PON2 that when paired with Verizon's Intelligent Edge, the carrier, too, could perhaps join its peers in continuing to not pay the optics industry significantly more, even while offering a variety of increasingly capable residential, business and wireless services.

Yadav elaborated during the Q&A that with the architectural choices Verizon has made for its 5G network (Perrin called it a "mid-haul" instead of "front-haul" architecture), 10G transceivers -- instead of the 25G versions the optical industry might have been hoping to sell -- should be "sufficient for a long time." On the positive side, Zayo noted that it's too early to tell what the majority of wireless carriers are going to choose in terms of architecture, so the optical industry may yet to kick that 5G football through the uprights yet.

Until then... as Charlie Brown would say while flying through the air: "AAAAAUGH!”

— James Kisner, Consulting Analyst, LightCounting

About the Author(s)

James Kisner

Contributing columnist

James is a consulting analyst at LightCounting Market Research. He's a former equity research analyst for Jefferies & Company and J.P. Morgan.  

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