This week's MWC Barcelona 2021 had several themes; the most important was that several outsiders to the telecom industry were ever-present. The new entrants – the party-crashers - included Starlink, Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, Google Compute, and NVidia. These new players are forcing change either through economics, new technology, or new regulatory frameworks, or combinations thereof. We’ll touch on the importance of these crashers and then circle back to a few other ongoing themes that continue to remain relevant in this article.
Satellite broadband, while not exactly a mobile technology, will catalyze significant changes to the mobile industry. Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite services, evangelized today by SpaceX-owned Starlink, announced plans to spend as much as $30B in building out its constellation over its lifespan. Yet, it will reach users across the globe. Elon Musk said Starlink is in beta in 12 countries, and it plans to have ½-million users in the next 12 months. The billionaire highlighted that Starlink’s ability to reach rural populations is unlike that of terrestrial players. We think the rural reach of LEO broadband is precisely why Starlink will be so important. Musk’s pitch to the mobile industry was that of a partnership – he said that Starlink is partnering with 5G MNOs to offer satellite backhaul and rural broadband services. We view satellite broadband, and later 3GPP satellite, as critical components in the telecommunications industry, and therefore we chose to write about satellite first in this article.
All three hyperscalers, Azure, AWS, and GCP, made a splash at MWC21. As a group, these infrastructure providers have already changed the way telcos operate. In fact, the hyperscalers’ architectures were the inspiration behind the decade-old telco push for Network Functions Virtualization (NFV). But, these days, hyperscalers’ operations are more than an inspiration to the telcos. MNOs are now moving some of their workloads to hyperscaler infrastructures. The evolution of these workload migrations to hyperscalers is moving in three phases, phase 1, the back-office, then phase 2, telecom core, and last, phase 3, the access layer. In the weeks leading up to MWC21, we’ve seen progress on all three workload migrations, including that on Mobile RAN. Incoming AWS CEO Adam Selipsky said at MWC that AWS is talking to “virtually every telecom operator.”
Some examples of announcements made surrounding the MWC show include:
With Open RAN capabilities come the possibility that MNOs can source various RAN components from multiple vendors. Rakuten has already technically demonstrated multi-vendor sourcing (Altiostar baseband and Nokia and NEC radios). In addition to system-level multi-vendor interoperability, in previous years, multiple semiconductor companies had been bolstering their RAN offerings (Marvell, Qualcomm, EdgeQ). Marvell had previously crashed MWC (MWC19 and MWC20) and is now a RAN supplier to Samsung and Nokia. For MWC21, we saw yet another entrant to the RAN chip market, NVidia. NVidia has received pubic endorsements from Ericsson, Fujitsu, Mavenir, and Radisys. NVidia’s current chip offering is called “AI-on-5G,” and the company’s offering starts in 2021 as an “on a server.” NVidia’s next offering is expected in the 2022-2023 era and will be an “on a card” offering. Then, after 2024, NVidia will offer its “on a chip” offering.
Keynotes at the NFV World & Zero-Touch Congress in San Jose, California were very interesting today. We share our observations and view of the main themes from these interesting presentations by Nokia, NEC/Netcracker, Google, CenturyTel. The main theme of these presentations, we think, is this: NFV/SDN is now deeply in the deployment and commercial phase, where compared to 3-4 years ago, it was just a concept.
Nokia. The company announced that its Airframe server platform, which is an OCP based design, comes available with either embedded acceleration or pluggable acceleration. This comment includes its software acceleration. The company explained that its Reefshark chipset can be equipped on the Airframe server and can perform better than a non-accelerated server:
In explaining functions that an Airframe with Reefshark can perform, the company gave a good example: massive MIMO beamforming can be assisted by the machine learning capabilities.
NEC/Netcracker. Enrique Gracia presented several uses cases of the NEC/Netcracker customers that related to NFV/SDN. He explained that 16 customers have deployed one or more of these uses cases.
Full Stack OSS/BSS/MANO. A customer deployed this system in 12 weeks to launch a VNF. The system managed both physical and virtual devices.
Expand to a new territory using VNFs from home region. A customer now delivers services to a customer outside the home territory by deploying the software and service from the network location at the home location. In this particular case, NEC/Netcracker and its customer do revenue sharing and VNFs include SD-WAN, virtual firewall and others. The service provider is expected to expand its customer addressable base by 40%, mainly targeting small/medium businesses in this non-home region. This system uses MANO, OSS, BSS and the marketplace. The company says in this case, time to revenue is expected to take 50% less time to deploy new VNFs in the future.
uCPE (Universal Customer Premises Equipment) deployment instead of branded hardware. The company worked with a service provider company to enable uCPE to be deployed as an alternative to Cisco, Juniper and others' gear.
Google Cloud. Vijoy Pandey, who represented Google Cloud, presented on the topic of using AI/ML to reconfigure its data center system. The company's cloud data center architecture has been evolving continuously since it was first introduced. Currently, the company is using its own AI/ML system to learn from current network traffic patterns in order to design its future network architecture.
CenturyTel. The company has deployed Broadcom based Ethernet switches using its own Network OS. These switches do their own packet forwarding. Additionally, the company has built its own orchestration system called VICTOR. It draws upon Ansible, NetCONF, uses the service logic interpreter from ONAP and uses parts of Open Daylight. The company plans to open source this development and the spokesperson Adam Dunstan said, perhaps jokingly, that this might be called ONAP-lite.