Fixed broadband access network disaggregation: State of play

Network Innovation

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Fixed operators see network disaggregation as a way to reduce deployment and operational costs, remove vendor lock-in, and combine residential, business and other types of access into a single infrastructure. This report examines progress and learnings from early movers.

Fixed network disaggregation vs. telco cloud

The landscape of fixed broadband is extremely diverse. It spans numerous access technologies, different consumer and business customer segments, and a variety of CSP types and scale. This report focuses on what is occurring in the last mile access domain in terms of disaggregation, virtualisation and programmability.

The importance of physical wires, switches, local exchanges/central offices, and IP and optical hardware (and human engineers) in fixed access tends to mean more emphasis on disaggregation of large boxes into smaller ones, or into hardware and virtualised software elements, primarily for control. Cloud is, to an extent, a secondary or next-horizon goal in the access network.

This report also covers aspects of adjacent elements such as CPE and management software/operational support software (OSS), although the topic of automation will be covered in forthcoming STL reports. This report also offers comparisons with some key parallel trends in mobile technology, especially in the core and radio network. See the graphic below.

While there are references to other aspects such as network transport and IP core, as well as the business support system (BSS) layer, these are not the primary area of coverage. As the following section explains, the common and all-embracing notion of telco cloud is used less frequently in the fixed world than in mobile.

Focus areas of this report

Source: STL Partners

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Telco cloud is less meaningful for fixed than for mobile

Given STL Partners’ focus on cloud in telecoms, as well as our Telco Cloud Manifesto 2.0, we should address its relevance and meaning here. There is far less use of the term telco cloud in the fixed telecoms industry, compared with the mobile industry. This conundrum was one of the main catalysts for this report: Why the different emphasis? Is it about architectural differences, underlying problems and cost structures to fix, or simply semantics?

All of those are important, but there are also other factors in play – timing and coordination.

Mobile networks have several changes occurring in parallel, all of which are pushing towards a vision of cloud-native capabilities and cloud-oriented software architectures simultaneously. The shift to the 5G standalone core is probably the anchor tenant and primary catalyst, but it is happening alongside moves to RAN, development of mobile-oriented edge compute concepts, application programming interface (API) and capability exposure, updates to user-facing BSS to support online or app-based channels for interaction, and so on.

The debate has instead centred on public vs. private clouds, and how much complex elements like the radio (which may need special accelerators or dedicated chips) can be integrated into the same systems as normal compute-oriented network functions. Operators, network vendors, semiconductor firms, cloud companies and others have all been roughly aligned, or at least talking about the same themes.

In other words, the broad principles underlying a telco cloud vision are agreed in mobile, and the arguments are now mostly about the details. There is a separate argument whether that singular vision is realistic, but that is covered by our reports in STL Partners’ Network Innovation service.

The fixed industry is far less homogeneous in its approach towards virtualisation and cloud platforms, in terms of both vision and timing. It does not have any of the same singular “heavy-lift”, cloud-native projects, equivalent to the deployment of the 5G core, to catalyse the immediate need for cloud platforms and act as an anchor. Disaggregation is more about hardware considerations, and the software virtualisation aspects are (mostly) a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Disaggregation and abstraction: Towards open broadband access
    • Decoupling and recombining of network elements, rather than softwarisation of network functions
    • Disaggregation is driven by imperatives of cost, scale and converged service management
    • Disaggregation is mainly led by Tier 1 operators
    • Pathways for fixed broadband access disaggregation
    • Recommendations
    • Next steps
  • Introduction
    • Fixed network disaggregation vs. telco cloud
    • Telco cloud is less meaningful for fixed than for mobile
  • Fixed disaggregation encompasses a wide range of technologies and service providers
    • Where is disaggregation taking place in fixed broadband?
    • Disaggregation priorities differ between fixed broadband providers
    • Fixed disaggregation is a response to four key challenges for fixed broadband operators
    • Many parts of the broadband access network are candidates for disaggregation
  • Deep dive I: Disaggregated domains and network functions
    • Overview of fixed network architectural elements impacted by disaggregation and openness
    • Domains impacted by disaggregation and openness
    • Other disaggregation domains
  • Deep dive II: Deployment and vendor landscape
    • Deployments and trials of disaggregated broadband access
    • Vendor landscape
  • Conclusion: Fixing the network as an engine of growth
  • Appendix
  • Index

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Dean Bubley

Dean Bubley

Dean Bubley

Associate Director

Dean is the founder of analyst and futurist firm, Disruptive Analysis and leader of the STL Partners Network Futures stream.