Fibre for 5G and edge: Who does it and how to build it?

Opportunities for fibre network operators

4G/5G densification and the growth in edge end points will place fresh demands on telecoms network infrastructure to deliver high bandwidth connections to new locations. Many of these will be sites on the streets of urban centres without existing connections, where installation of new fibre cables is costly. This will require careful planning and optimum selection of existing infrastructure to minimise costs and strengthen the business cases for fibre deployment.

While much of the growth in deployment of small cells and edge end points will be on private sites, their deployment in public areas, in support of public network services, will pose specific challenges to providing the broad bandwidth connectivity required. This includes both backhaul from cell sites and edge end points to the fibre transport network, plus any fronthaul needs for new open RAN deployments, from baseband equipment to radio units and antennas. In almost all cases this will entail installing new fibre in areas where laying a new duct is at its most expensive, although in a few cases fixed point-to-point radio links could be deployed instead.

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Global deployments of small cells and non-telco edge end points
in public areas

Source: Small Cell Forum, STL research and analysis

In addition, operators of 5G small cells and public cloud edge sites will require access to fibre links for backhaul to their core networks to provide the high bandwidths required. In some cases, they may need multiple fibres, especially if diverse paths are needed for security and resilience purposes.

Many newer networks have been built for a specific purpose, such as residential or business FTTP. Others are trunk routes to connect large businesses and data centres, and may serve local, regional, national or international areas. In addition, changing regulations have encouraged the creation of new businesses such as neutral hosts (also called “open access” for wholesale fibre) and, as a result, the supply side of the market is composed of an increasing variety of players. If this pattern were to continue, then it would very likely prove uneconomic to build dedicated networks for some applications, such as small cell densification or some standalone edge applications.

However, provided build qualities meet the required standard and costs can be contained there is no reason why networks deployed to address one market cannot be extended and repurposed to serve others. For new fibre builds being planned, it is also important to consider these new FTTX opportunities upfront and in some detail, rather than as an afterthought or just a throw-away bullet point on investor slide-decks.  

This report looks at the opportunities these developments offer to fibre network operators and considers the business cases that need to be made. It looks at the means and scope for minimising costs necessary to profitably satisfy the widest range of needs.

The fibre market is changing

FTTH/P has been largely satisfied in many countries, and even in slower markets such as the UK and Germany, the bulk of the network is expected to be in place by 2025/6 for most urban premises, at least on the basis of “homes passed”, if not actually connected.

By contrast the requirement of higher bandwidth connectivity for mobile base stations being upgraded from 3G to 4G and 5G is current and ongoing. Demand for links to small cells needed to support 5G densification, standalone edge, and smart city applications is only just beginning to appear and is likely to develop significantly over the next 10 years or more. In future high speed broadband links will be required to support an increasing range of applications for different organisations: for example, autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicle (V2X) applications operated by government or city authorities.

Both densification and edge will need local connections for fronthaul and backhaul as well as longer connections to provide backhaul to the core network. Building from scratch is expensive owing to the high costs associated with digging in the public highway, especially in urban centres. Digging can be complex, depending on the surfaces and buried services encountered, and extensions after the initial main build can be very expensive.

Laying fibre and ducts are a long-term investment and can usually be amortised over 15 to 20 years.  Nevertheless, network operators need to be sure of a good return on their investment and therefore need to find ways to minimise costs while maximising revenues. In markets with multiple players, there will also be a desire by potential acquisition targets to underscore their valuations, by maximising their addressable market, while reducing any post-merger remedial or expansion costs. Good planning, including watching for new opportunities and trends and the smart use of existing assets to minimise costs, can help ensure this.

  • Serving multiple markets through good forecasting and planning can help maximise revenues.
  • Operators and others can make use of various infrastructure assets to reduce costs, including incumbents’ physical duct/pole infrastructure sewers, disused water and hydraulic pipes, neutral hosts’ networks, council ducts, and traffic management ducts. Obviously these will not extend everywhere that fibre is required, but can make a meaningful contribution in many situations.

The remaining sections of this report examine in more detail the specific opportunities offered to fixed network operators, by densification of mobile base stations and growth of edge computing. It covers:

  • Market demand, including drivers of demand, and end users’ and the industry’s needs and options
  • The changing supply side and regulation
  • Technologies, build options and costs
  • How to maximise revenues and returns on investment.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • The fibre market is changing
  • Small cell and edge: Demand
    • Demand for small cells
    • Demand for edge end points
  • Small cell and edge: Supply
    • The changing network supply structure
  • Build options
    • Pros and cons of seven building options
  • How do they compare on costs?
  • Impact of regulation and policy
  • How to mitigate unforeseen costs
  • The business case
  • Conclusions
  • Index

Related Research

 

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Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G core deep dive

Deep dive: 5G core deployments 

In this July 2022 update to STL Partners’ Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker, we present granular information on 5G core launches. They fall into three categories:

  • 5G Non-standalone core (5G NSA core) deployments: The 5G NSA core (agreed as part of 3GPP Release in December 2017), involves using a virtualised and upgraded version of the existing 4G core (or EPC) to support 5G New Radio (NR) wireless transmission in tandem with existing LTE services. This was the first form of 5G to be launched and still accounts for 75% of all 5G core network deployments in our Tracker.
  • 5G Standalone core (5G SA core) deployments: The SA core is a completely new and 5G-only core. It has a simplified, cloud-native and distributed architecture, and is designed to support services and functions such as network slicing, Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLLC) and enhanced Machine-Type Communications (eMTC, i.e. massive IoT). Our Tracker indicates that the upcoming wave of 5G core deployments in 2022 and 2023 will be mostly 5G SA core.
  • Converged 5G NSA/SA core deployments: this is when a dual-mode NSA and SA platform is deployed; in most cases, the NSA core results from the upgrade of an existing LTE core (EPC) to support 5G signalling and radio. The principle behind a converged NSA/SA core is the ability to orchestrate different combinations of containerised network functions, and automatically and dynamically flip over from an NSA to an SA configuration, in tandem – for example – with other features and services such as Dynamic Spectrum Sharing and the needs of different network slices. For this reason, launching a converged NSA/SA platform is a marker of a more cloud-native approach in comparison with a simple 5G NSA launch. Ericsson is the most commonly found vendor for this type of platform with a handful coming from Huawei, Samsung and WorkingGroupTwo. Albeit interesting, converged 5G NSA/SA core deployments remain a minority (7% of all 5G core deployments over the 2018-2023 period) and most of our commentary will therefore focus on 5G NSA and 5G SA core launches.

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75% of 5G cores are still Non-standalone (NSA)

Global 5G core deployments by type, 2018–23

  • There is renewed activity this year in 5G core launches since the total number of 5G core deployments so far in 2022 (effective and in progress) stands at 49, above the 47 logged in the whole of 2021. At the very least, total 5G deployments in 2022 will settle between the level of 2021 and the peak of 2020 (97).
  • 5G in whichever form now exists in most places where it was both in demand and affordable; but there remain large economies where it is yet to be launched: Turkey, Russia and most notably India. It also remains to be launched in most of Africa.
  • In countries with 5G, the next phase of launches, which will see the migration of NSA to SA cores, has yet to take place on a significant scale.
  • To date, 75% of all 5G cores are NSA. However, 5G SA will outstrip NSA in terms of deployments in 2022 and represent 24 of the 49 launches this year, or 34 if one includes converged NSA/SA cores as part of the total.
  • All but one of the 5G launches announced for 2023 are standalone; they all involve Tier-1 MNOs including Orange (in its European footprint involving Ericsson and Nokia), NTT Docomo in Japan and Verizon in the US.

The upcoming wave of SA core (and open / vRAN) represents an evolution towards cloud-native

  • Cloud-native functions or CNFs are software designed from the ground up for deployment and operation in the cloud with:​
  • Portability across any hardware infrastructure or virtualisation platform​
  • Modularity and openness, with components from multiple vendors able to be flexibly swapped in and out based on a shared set of compute and OS resources, and open APIs (in particular, via software ‘containers’)​
  • Automated orchestration and lifecycle management, with individual micro-services (software sub-components) able to be independently modified / upgraded, and automatically re-orchestrated and service-chained based on a persistent, API-based, ‘declarative’ framework (one which states the desired outcome, with the service chain organising itself to deliver the outcome in the most efficient way)​
  • Compute, resource, and software efficiency: as a concomitant of the automated, lean and logically optimal characteristics described above, CNFs are more efficient (both functionally and in terms of operating costs) and consume fewer compute and energy resources.​
  • Scalability and flexibility, as individual functions (for example, distributed user plane functions in 5G networks) can be scaled up or down instantly and dynamically in response to overall traffic flows or the needs of individual services​
  • Programmability, as network functions are now entirely based on software components that can be programmed and combined in a highly flexible manner in accordance with the needs of individual services and use contexts, via open APIs.​

Previous telco cloud tracker releases and related research

Each new release of the tracker is global, but is accompanied by an analytical report which focusses on trends in given regions from time to time:

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6G: Hype versus reality

What is 6G and why does it matter?

Who’s driving the 6G discussion?

There already are numerous 6G visions, suggested use-cases and proposed technical elements. Many reflect vendors’ or universities’ existing specialist research domains or IPR in wireless, or look to entrench and extend existing commercial models and “locked-in” legacy technology stacks.

Others start from broad visions of UN development goals and policymakers’ desires for connected societies, and try to use these to frame and underpin 6G targets, even if the reality is that they will often be delivered by 5G, fibre or other technologies.

The stakeholder groups involved in creating 6G are wider than for 5G – governments, cloud hyperscalers / tech-co’s, industrial specialists, NGOs and many other groups seem more prominent than in the past, when the main drivers came from MNOs, large vendors and key academic clusters.

Over time, a process of iteration and “triangulation” will occur for 6G, initially starting with a wide funnel of ideas, which are now starting to coalesce into common requirements – and then to specific standards and underlying technical innovations. By around 2024-25 there should be more clarity, but at present there are still many directions that 6G could take.

What are they saying?

Discussions with and available material from parties interested in 6G discusses a wide range of new technologies (e.g. ultra-massive MIMO) and design goals (e.g. speeds of 1Tbps). These can be organised into six categories to provide a high-level set of futuristic statements that underpin the concept of 6G,  as articulated by the various 6G consortia and governing bodies:

  1. Provision of ultra-high data rate and ultra-low latency: Provision of up to 1Tbps speeds and as low as 1 microsecond latency – both outdoors and – implicitly at least – indoors.
  2. Use of new frequencies and interconnection of new network types: Efficient use of high, medium, and low-frequency bands, potentially including visible light and >100GHz and even THz spectrum. This will include possible coordination between non-terrestrial networks and other existing networks, and new types of radio and antenna to provide ubiquitous coverage in a dispersed “fabric” concept, rather than traditional discrete “cells”.
  3. Ultra-massive MIMO and ultra-flexible physical and control layers: The combination of ultra-large antenna arrays, intelligent surfaces, AI and new sensing technologies working in a range of frequency bands. This will depend on the deployment of a range of new technologies in the physical and control layers to increase coverage and speed, while reducing cost and power consumption.
  4. High resolution location: The ability to improve locational accuracy, potentially to centimetre-level resolutions, as well as the ability to find and describe objects in 3D orientation.
  5. Improved sensing capabilities: Ability to use 6Gradio signals for direct sensing applications such as radar, as well as for communications.
  6. General network concepts: A variety of topics including the concept of a distributed network architecture and a “network of networks” to improve network performance and coverage. This also includes more conceptual topics such as micro-networks and computing aware networks. Finally, there is discussion on tailoring 6Gfor use of / deployment by other industries beyond traditional telcos (“verticals”), such as enhancements for sectors including rail, broadcast, agriculture, utilities, among others, which may require specific features for coverage, sector-specific protocols or legacy interoperability.

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How is 6G different to 5G?

In reality, the boundaries between later versions of 5G and 6G are likely to be blurred, both in terms of the technology standards development and in the ways marketers present network products and services. As with 5G, the development of 6G will take time to reach many of the goals above. From 3GPP Release 18 onwards, 5G is officially being renamed as “5G Advanced”, mirroring a similar move in the later stages of 4G/LTE development. Rel18 standards are expected to be completed around the end of 2023, with preliminary Rel19 studies also currently underway. Rel20 and Rel21 will continue the evolution.

Figure 1: Roadmap for 6G

Source: Slides presented by Bharat B Bhatia President, ITU-APT Foundation of India at WWRF Huddle 2022

However, from 2024 onwards, the work done at 3GPP meetings and in its various groups will gradually shift from enhancing 5G to starting the groundwork for 6G – initially defining requirements in 2024-25, then creating “study items” in 2025-26. During that time, new additions to 5G in Rel20/21/22 will get progressively thinner as resources are devoted to 6G preparations.

The heavy lifting efforts on “work items” for 6G will probably start around 2026-27, with 5G Advanced output then dwindling to small enhancements or maintenance releases. It is still unclear what will get included in 5G Advanced, versus held over until 6G, but the main emphasis for 6G is likely to be on:

  • Greater performance and efficiency for mobile broadband, with attention paid to MIMO techniques, better uplink mechanisms and improved cell-to-cell handover
  • Additional features for specific verticals, as well as V2X deployments and IoT
  • Support of new spectrum bands
  • Improvements in mapping and positioning
  • Enhanced coverage and backhaul, for instance by establishing “daisy-chains” of cell sites and extensions and repeaters, including using 5Gfor backhaul and access
  • More intelligence and automation in the 5Gnetwork core, including improvements to slicing and orchestration
  • Better integration of non-terrestrial networks, typically using satellites or high-altitude platforms
  • Capabilities specifically aimed at AR/VR/XR
  • Direct device-to-device connections (also called “sidelink”) that allow communication without the need to go via a cell tower.

We can expect these 5G Advanced areas to also progress from requirements, to study, and then to work items during the period from 2022-27.

However, these features will mostly be an evolution of 5G, rather than a revolution by 5G. While there may be a few early moves on areas such as wireless sensing, Releases 18-21 are unlikely to include any radical breakthroughs. The topics we discuss elsewhere in this report, such as potential use of terahertz bands, blending of O-RAN principles of disaggregation, and new technology domains such as smart surfaces, will be solidly in the 6G era.

An important point here is that the official ITU standard for next-gen wireless, likely to be called IMT2030, is not the same as 3GPP’s branding of the cellular “generation”, or individual MNOs service names. There may well be early versions of 6G cellular, driven by market demand, that don’t quite match up to the ITU requirements. Ultimately 3GPP is an industry-led organisation, so may follow the path of expediency if there are urgent commercial opportunities or challenges.

In addition, based on the experience of 4G and 5G launches, it is probable that at least one MNO will try to call a 5G Advanced launch “6G” in their marketing. AT&T caused huge controversy – and even lawsuits – by calling a late version of LTE “5Ge” (5G evolution), even including the icons on some phones’ screens, while Verizon’s early 5G FWA systems were actually a proprietary pre-standard version of the technology.

If you’re a purist about these things – as we are – prepare to be howling in frustration around 2027-28 and describing new services as “fake 6G”.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • What is 6G?
    • Key considerations for telcos and vendors around 6G
    • What should telcos and vendors do now?
    • 6G capabilities: Short-term focus areas
    • Other influencing factors
  • What is 6G and why does it matter?
    • Who’s driving the 6G discussion?
    • What are they saying?
    • The reality of moving from 5G Advanced to 6G
    • Likely roll out of 6G capabilities
  • Regulation and geopolitics
    • The expected impact of regulation and geopolitics
    • Summary of 6G consortiums and other interested parties
  • 6G products and services
  • Requirements for 6G
    • AI/ML in 6G
    • 6G security
    • 6G privacy
    • 6G sustainability
  • Drivers and barriers to 6G deployment
    • Short-term drivers
    • Short-term barriers
    • Long-term drivers
    • Long-term barriers
  • Conclusion: Realistic expectations for 6G
    • The reality: What we know for certain about 6G / IMT2030
    • Possibilities: Focus areas for 6G development
    • The hype: Highly unlikely or impossible by 2030

Related research

 

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Telco cloud: short-term pain, long-term gain

Telcos have invested in telco cloud for several years: Where’s the RoI?

Over a number of years – starting in around 2014, and gathering pace from 2016 onwards – telcos have invested a large amount of money and effort on the development and deployment of their ‘telco cloud’ infrastructure, virtualised network functions (VNFs), and associated operations: long enough to expect to see measurable returns. As we set out later in this report, operators initially hoped that virtualisation would make their networks cheaper to run, or at least that it would prevent the cost of scaling up their networks to meet surging demand from spiralling out of control. The assumption was that buying commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and running network functions as software over it would work out less costly than buying proprietary network appliances from the vendors. Therefore, all things being equal, virtualisation should have translated into lower opex and capex.

However, when scrutinising operators’ reported financials over the past six years, it is impossible to determine whether this has been the case or not:

  • First, the goalposts are constantly shifting in the telecoms world, especially in recent years when massive 5G and fibre roll-outs have translated into substantial capex increases for many operators. But this does not mean that what they buy is more (or less) expensive per unit, just that they need more of it.
  • Most virtualisation effort has gone into core networks, which do not represent a large proportion of an operator’s cost base. In fact, overall expenditure on the core is dwarfed by what needs to be spent on the fixed and mobile access networks. As a ballpark estimate, for example, the Radio Access Network (RAN) represents 60% of mobile network capex.
  • Finally, most large telco groups are integrated operators that report capex or opex (or both) for their fixed and mobile units as a whole; this makes it even more difficult to identify any cost savings related to mobile core or any other virtualisation.

For this reason, when STL Partners set out to assess the economic benefit of virtualisation in the first half of 2022, it quickly became apparent that the only way to do this would be through talking directly to telcos’ CTOs and principal network engineers, and to those selling virtualisation solutions to them. Accordingly, STL Partners carried out an intensive interview programme among leading operators and vendors to find out how they quantify the benefits, financial or otherwise, from telco cloud.

What emerged was a complex and nuanced picture: while telcos struggle to demonstrate RoI from their network cloudification activities to date, many other benefits have accrued, and telcos are growing in their conviction that further cloudification is essential to meet the business, innovation and technology challenges that lie ahead – many of which cannot (yet) be quantified.

The people we spoke to comprised senior, programme-leading engineers, executives and strategists from eight operators and five vendors.

The operators concerned included: four Tier-1 players, three Tier-2 and one Tier-3. These telcos were also evenly split across the three deployment pathways explained below: two Pathway 1 (single-vendor/full-stack); three Pathway 2 (vendor-supported best-of-breed); and three Pathway 3 (DIY best-of-breed).

Four of the vendors interviewed were leading global providers of telco cloud platforms, infrastructure and integration services, and one was a challenger vendor focused on the 5G Standalone (SA) core. The figure below represents the geographical distribution of our interviewees, both telcos and vendors. Although we lacked interviewees from the APAC region and did not gain access to any Chinese operators, we were able to gain some regional insight through interviewing a new entrant in one of the major Asian markets.

Geographical distribution of STL Partners’ telco cloud benefit survey

 

Source: STL Partners

Virtualisation will go through three phases, corresponding to three deployment pathways

This process of telco cloudification has already gone through two phases and is entering a third phase, as illustrated below and as decribed in our Telco Cloud Manifesto, published in March 2021:

Phases of telco cloudification

Source: STL Partners

Effectively, each of these phases represents an approximately three to five-year investment cycle. Telcos have begun these investments at different times: Tier-1 telcos are generally now in the midst of their Phase 2 investments. By contrast, Tier-2s and -3s, smaller MNOs, and Tier-1s in developing markets are generally still going through their initial, Phase 1 investments in virtualisation.

Given that the leading Tier-1 players are now well into their second virtualisation investment cycle, it seems reasonable to expect that they would be able to demonstrate a return on investment from the first phase. This is particularly apt in that telcos entered into the first phase – Network Functions Virtualisation (NFV) – with the specific goal of achieving quantifiable financial and operational benefits, such as:

  • Reduction in operational and capital expenditures (opex and capex), resulting from the ability to deliver and run NFs from software running on COTS hardware (cheaper per unit, but also more likely to attract economies of scale), rather than from expensive, dedicated equipment requiring ongoing, vendor-provided support, maintenance and upgrades
  • Greater scalability and resource efficiency, resulting from the ability to dynamically increase or decrease the capacity of network-function Virtual Machines (VMs), or to create new instances of them to meet fluctuating network capacity and throughput requirements, rather than having to purchase and maintain over-specified, redundant physical appliances and facilities to guarantee the same sort of capacity and resilience
  • Generation of new revenue streams, resulting from the ability that the software-centricity of virtualised networks provides to rapidly innovate and activate services that more closely address customer needs.

Problem: With a few exceptions, telcos cannot demonstrate RoI from virtualisation

Some of the leading telco advocates of virtualisation have claimed variously to have achieved capex and/or opex reductions, and increases in top-line revenues, thanks to their telco cloud investments. For example, in January 2022, it was reported that some technical modelling had vindicated the cost-reduction claims of Japanese greenfield, ‘cloud-native’ operator Rakuten Mobile: it showed that Rakuten’s capex per cell site was around 40% lower, and its opex 30% lower, than the MNO incumbents in the same market. Some of the savings derived from automation gains related to virtualisation, allowing cell sites to be activated and run remotely on practically a ‘plug and play’ basis.

Similarly, Vodafone claimed in 2020 that it had reduced the cost of its mobile cores by 50% by running them as VNFs on the VMware telco cloud platform.

The problem is that the few telcos that are willing to quantify the success of their virtualisation programmes in this way are those that have championed telco cloud most vocally. And these telcos have also gone further and deeper with cloudification than the greater mass of the industry, and are now pushing on with Phase 3 virtualisation: full cloud-native. This means that they are under a greater pressure to lay claim to positive RoI and are able to muster data points of different types that appear to demonstrate real benefits, without being explicit about the baseline underpinning their claims: what their costs and revenues would, or might, have been had they persisted with the old physical appliance-centric model.

But this is an unreal comparison. Virtualisation has arisen because telco networks need to do more, and different things, than the old appliance-dependent networks enabled them to do. In the colourful expression of one of the industry experts we interviewed as part of our research, this is like comparing a horse to a computer.

In the first part of this report, we discuss the reasons why telcos generally cannot unequivocally demonstrate RoI from their telco cloud investments to date. In the second part, we discuss the range of benefits, actual and prospective, that telcos and vendors have observed from network cloudification, broken down by the three main pathways that telcos are following, as referred to above.

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Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Telcos have invested in telco cloud for several years: Where’s the RoI?
    • Virtualisation will go through three phases, corresponding to three deployment pathways
    • Problem: With a few exceptions, telcos cannot demonstrate RoI from virtualisation
  • Why do operators struggle to demonstrate RoI from their telco cloud investments to date?
    • For some players, it is clear that NFV did not generate RoI
    • It has also proved impossible to measure any gains, even if achieved
  • Is virtualisation so important that RoI does not matter?
  • Short-term pain for long-term gain: Why telco cloud is mission-critical
    • Cost savings are achievable
    • Operational efficiencies also gather pace as telcos progress through the telco cloud phases
    • Virtualisation both drives and is driven by organisational and process change
    • Cloud-native and CI/CD are restructuring telcos’ business models and cost base
  • Conclusion: Telco cloud benefits are deferred but assured
  • Index

Related research

Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: Open RAN deep dive

Telco Cloud: Open RAN is a work in progress

This report accompanies the latest release and quarterly update of STL Partners ‘Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of VNFs (Virtual Network Functions), CNFs (cloud-native network functions) and SDN (Software Defined Networking) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. In this update we have added some additional categories to the database to reflect the different types of virtualised / open RAN:

  1. Open RAN / O-RAN: Fully open, disaggregated, virtualised / cloud-native, with CU / DU split
  2. vRAN: Virtualised CU/DU, with open interfaces but implemented as an integrated, single-vendor platform
  3. Cloud RAN: Single-vendor, virtualised / centralised BU, or CU only, with proprietary / closed interfaces

Cloud RAN is the most limited form of virtualised RAN: It is based on porting part or all of the functionality of the legacy, appliance-based BU into a Virtual Machine. vRAN and open RAN are much more significant, in both technology and business-model terms, breaking open all parts of the RAN to more competition and opportunities for innovation.

Accordingly, the report presents data on only open RAN and vRAN deployments however a granular analysis of each category of RAN deployment can be carried out using the Telco Cloud Tracker tool.

Access our online Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker tool here

Download the additional file for the full dataset of Telco Cloud deployments

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Open RAN and vRAN deployments, 2018 – 2022

Open-RAN-Deployments-Apr-2021-STL-Partners

Source: STL Partners

Open RAN and vRAN

Both Open RAN and vRAN are virtualised (with the exception of NTT DoCoMo as outlined in the report), but ‘open RAN’ implies full disaggregation of the different parts of the RAN (hardware, software and radio), and open interfaces between them. By contrast, vRAN incorporates the open interfaces but is generally deployed as a pre-integrated, single-vendor solution: hardware, software and radio supplied by the same vendor.

To date, there have been significantly more open RAN than vRAN deployments. But vRAN is emerging as a potentially competitive alternative to pure open RAN: offering the same operational benefits and – in theory – multi-vendor openness, but without the overhead of integrating components from multiple vendors, and a ‘single neck to choke’ if things go wrong. Deployments in 2020 were mostly small-scale and / or 4G, including trials which continued to carry live traffic after the trial period came to an end.

The stark contrast between 2021 and 2022 reflects a slight hiatus in commercial deployments as work intensified around integration and operational models, trials, performance optimisation, and cost economics. However, major deployments are expected in 2022, including greenfield networks 1&1 Drillisch (Germany) and DISH (US), Verizon, Vodafone UK, and MTN (Africa and ME).

Scope and content of the Tracker

The data in the latest update of our interactive tool and database covers the period up to March 2022, although reference is made in the report to events and deployments after that date. The data is drawn predominantly from public-domain information contained in news releases from operators and vendors, along with reputable industry media.

We apply the term ‘deployment’ to refer to the total set of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, and their associated management software and infrastructure, deployed at an operator – or at one or more of an operator’s opcos or natcos – in order to achieve a defined objective or support particular services (in the spreadsheet, we designate these as the ‘primary purpose’ of the deployment). For example, this could be:

  • to deploy a 5G standalone core
  • to launch a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) service
  • or to construct a ‘telco cloud’ or NFV infrastructure (NFVi): a cloud infrastructure platform on which virtualised network services can be introduced and operated.

The Tracker is provided as an interactive tool containing line-by-line analysis of over 900 individual deployments of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, which can be used to drill down by:

  • Region where deployed
  • Operator
  • Technology vendor
  • Primary purpose
  • Type of telco cloud function deployed
  • …and more filters

Telco Cloud Trial Deployment Tracker

Take a look at the trial of our interactive tool with live, commercial deployments of VNFs, CNFs and SDN technologies worldwide

Previous telco cloud tracker releases

Each new release of the tracker is global, but is accompanied by an analytical report which focusses on trends in given regions from time to time:

 

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MWC 2022: Sensing the winds of change

What did STL’s analysts find at MWC 2022?

This report is a collection of our analyst’s views of what they saw at the 2022 Mobile World Congress (MWC 2022). It comprises our analysts’ perspectives on its major themes:

  • How the industry is changing overall
  • The impact of the metaverse
  • New enterprise and consumer propositions
  • Progress towards telco cloud
  • Application of AI, automation and analytics (A3)

We would like to thank our partners at the GSMA for a good job done well. The GSMA say that there were 60,000 attendees this year, which is down from the 80-100k of 2019 but more than credible given the ongoing COVID-19 situation. It was nonetheless a vibrant and valuable event, and a great opportunity to see many wonderful people again face to face, and indeed, meet some great new ones.

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MWC 2022 in context of its time

It is impossible to write about MWC 2022 without putting it context of its time. It has taken place three days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine started on February 24th, 2022.

Speakers made numerous direct and indirect mentions of the war, and it was clear that a sense of sadness was felt by everyone we spoke to. This slightly offset the enthusiasm and warmth that we and many others felt on being back together in person, with our clients and the industry.

Broad support for the Ukraine was visible among many delegates and there was no Russian delegation. While totally appropriate, the Fira was a little poorer for that as one of the joys of MWC is its truly global embodiment of a vibrant industry.

We all hope for a speedy and peaceful resolution to that situation, and to see our Russian and Ukrainian colleagues again in peace soon. Sadly, as we write from and just after Barcelona, bombs and shells are falling on civilians on the same continent and the route to peace is not yet evident.

As this new and shocking war has come in Europe while COVID is still in a pandemic phase it is a reminder that change and challenge never ends. The telecoms industry responded well to COVID, and now it must again for this and all the challenges it will face in the future, which include further geopolitical risks and shocks and many more opportunities too.

The biggest opportunity for telecoms, and telcos in particular, is to build on the momentum of change rather than rest on its laurels. The threat is that it will settle for a low risk but ultimately lower value path of sticking to the same old same.  We look at the evidence for telcos successfully changing their mindset in New enterprise business: Opening, if not yet changed mindsets.

Connecting technologies

This is my 11th MWC. I came looking for what’s changed and what it means. This is what I found. Andrew Collinson, Managing Director, STL Partners Research.

Cross-dressing and role play

Trying to leave the war at the door, what else did we find at the Fira? One of the mind-bending tasks of walking through the cacophony of sights and sounds of a huge industry ecosystem on display is trying to make sense of what is going on. Who is here, and what are they trying to tell me?

First impressions count. The simple things about how companies present themselves initially mean a great deal. They often show the identity they are trying to project – who or what they are trying to be seen as more than all the detail put together. The first impression I got at MWC 2022 was that almost everyone was trying to dress like someone else.

Microsoft showed photos of cell towers on its stand while all the telco CEOs talked about the “new tech order” and becoming techcos. McKinsey talked about its ‘old friends’ in the telecoms industry and talked about sustainability on its hard-edged stand, while AWS had an advert on the frontage of the Fira and a stand in the “Four Years from Now” zone.

We’re all telcos / techcos now

We're all telcos techcos now

Source: STL Partners, AWS, Microsoft, McKinsey

It’s all about “connecting technologies”

Regular readers of STL’s material will have heard of the Coordination Age: our concept that there is a universal need for better use of resources which will be met in part by the application of connecting technologies (e.g. fibre, mobile, 5G, AI, automation, etc.).

Once upon a time, it was simply people that needed to be connected to each other. Now a huge variety of stuff needs connecting: e.g., devices, computer applications, business processes, business assets and people.

A big question in all this is whether operators have really understood how outdated their traditional operator centric view of the world has become as the industry has changed. Sure, new telecoms networks still need to be built and extended. But it isn’t just operators using licensed technologies that can do this anymore, and the value has increasingly moved to the players that can make all the stuff work: systems integrators and other technology and software players. We’ll cover operators’ mindsets more in the section titled New enterprise business: Opening, if not yet changed mindsets.

Private matters

Private networks was also a big area of focus at MWC 2022, and understandably so too as there is a lot of interest in the concept in various sectors, especially in ports and airports, mining, and manufacturing. Much of the interest for this comes from the hype around 5G which has attracted other industries to look at the technology. However, while there are some interesting developments in practice (for example Huawei and others at Shenzen port in China), many of the applications are at least as well served, and in some cases, better served by other connectivity technologies, e.g. Wi-Fi, wired connections, narrow-band IoT, and 3G / 4G, edge computing and combinations thereof. So 5G is far from the only horse in the race, and we will be looking closely at the boundary conditions and successful use cases for Private 5G in our future research.

Would you pay for “unexpected benefits”?

One great stumbling block for telcos and other business used to traditional business thinking has been “how do you make a business case for new technology?”

The classic telecoms route is to dig around for a cost-saving and revenue enhancement case and then try to bend the CFO’s ear until they give you some money to do your thing. This is fair enough, to a point.

The challenge is, what do you do when you don’t know what you are going to find and/or you can’t prove it? Or worse still, you can only prove it after everybody else in the market has proven it for you and you are then at a competitive disadvantage.

One story I saw and see elsewhere repeated endlessly is that of “unexpected benefits”. This was a phrase that Alison Kirkby, CEO Telia, used to describe what happened when the value of its population movement data was recognised by the Swedish Government during the COVID crisis. It had pulled together the data for one set of reasons, and suddenly this very compelling use came to light.

Another I heard from Qualcomm, which told of putting IoT driven shelf price signs in retail. Originally it was developed to help rapid repricing for consumers in store, then COVID struck a few weeks after installation. This meant people switched to online shopping and the stores were then mainly used by  pickers assembling orders for delivery. The retailer found that by using the signs to help the pickers assemble their loads faster they could make the process about a third more productive. That’s a lot in retail.

This is the reality of transformational business models and technologies. It is incredibly hard to foresee what is really going to work, and how. Even after some time with a new way of working new uses continue to emerge. That’s not to say that you can’t narrow it down a bit – and this is something we spend a lot of our time working on. However, a new thing I will be asking our analysts to help figure out is “how can you tell when and where there are likely to be unexpected benefits?”

 

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • MWC 2022 in context of its time
  • MWC 2022: Connecting technologies
    • Cross-dressing and role play
    • Would you pay for “unexpected benefits”?
    • Getting physical, getting heavy
    • Glasses are sexy (again)
    • Europe enviously eyes eastwards
  • New enterprise business: Opening, if not yet changed mindsets
    • Customer centricity: Starting to emerge
    • Becoming better partners: Talking the talk
    • New business models: Not quite there
  • The Metaverse: Does it really matter?
    • Can the Metaverse be trusted?
    • Exploding supply, uncertain quality
    • The non-fungible flexibility paradox
    • A coordinating role for telcos?
    • Don’t write it off, give it a go
  • Consumers: XR, sustainability and smarthome
    • Operators: Aiming for smart and sustainable
    • Vendors and techcos: Would you like AI with that?
    • More Metaverse, VR and AR
    • Other interesting finds: Commerce, identity, video
  • Telco Cloud: The painful gap between theory and practice
    • Brownfield operators are still on their virtualisation journey
    • Greenfield operators: Cloud native and automated from day one
    • Telcos on public could: Shall I, shant I?
  • AI and automation: Becoming adaptive
    • Looking out for good A3 use cases / case studies
    • Evidence of a maturing market?
    • Welcome signs of progress towards the Coordination Age

 

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The new telcos: A field guide

Introduction

The traditional industry view is that “telcos” are a well-defined and fairly cohesive group. Industry associations like GSMA, ETNO, CTIA and others have typically been fairly homogeneous collections of fixed or mobile operators, only really varying in size. The third-ranked mobile operator in Bolivia has not really been that different from AT&T or Vodafone in terms of technology, business model or vendor relationships.

Our own company, STL Partners used to have the brand “Telco 2.0”. However, our main baseline assumption then was that the industry was mostly made up the same network operators, but using a new 2.0 set of business models.

This situation is now changing. Telecom service providers – telcos – are starting to emerge in a huge variety of new shapes, sizes and backgrounds. There is fragmentation in technology strategy, target audiences, go-to-market and regional/national/international scope.

This report is not a full explanation of all the different strategies, services and technological architecture. Instead of analysing all of the “metabolic” functions and “evolutionary mechanisms”, this is more of a field-guide to all the new species of telco that the industry is starting to see. More detail on the enablers – such as fibre, 5G and cloud-based infrastructure – and the demand-side (such as vertical industries’ communications needs and applications) can be found in our other output.

The report provides descriptions with broad contours of motivation, service-offerings and implications for incumbents. We are not “taking sides” here. If new telcos push out the older species, that’s just evolution of those “red in tooth and claw”. We’re taking the role of field zoologists, not conservationists.

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Field guides are collections/lists of natural & human phenomena

animal-species-telcos-stl-partners

Source: Amazon, respective publishers’ copyright

The historical landscape

The term “telco” is a little slippery to define, but most observers would likely agree that the “traditional” telecoms industry has mostly been made up of the following groups of CSPs:

  • MNOs: Countries usually have a few major mobile network operators (MNOs) that are typically national, or sometimes regional.
  • Fixed operators: Markets also have infrastructure-based fixed telcos, usually with one (or a small number) that were originally national state-owned monopolies, plus a select number of other licensed providers, often with greenfield FTTX fibre. Some countries have a vibrant array of smaller “AltNets”, or competitive carriers (originally known as CLECs in the US).
  • Converged operators: These combine fixed and mobile operations in the same business or group. Sometimes they are arms-length (or even in different countries), but many try to offer combined or converged service propositions.
  • Wholesale telcos: There is a tier of a few major international operators that provide interconnect services and other capabilities. Often these have been subsidiaries (or joint ventures) of national telcos.

In addition to these, the communications industry in each market has also often had an array of secondary connectivity or telecom service providers as a kind “supporting cast”, which generally have not been viewed as “telecom operators”. This is either because they fall into different regulatory buckets, only target niche markets, or tend to use different technologies. These have included:

  • MVNOs
  • Towercos
  • Internet Exchanges
  • (W)ISPs
  • Satellite operators

Some of these have had a strong overlap with telcos, or have been spun-out or acquired at various times, but they have broadly remained as independent organisations. Importantly, many of these now look much more like “proper telcos” than they did in the past.

Why are “new telcos” emerging now?

To some extent, many of the classes of new telco have been “hiding in plain sight” for some time. MVNOs, towercos and numerous other SPs have been “telcos in all but name”, even if the industry has often ignored them. There has sometimes been a divisive “them and us” categorisation, especially applied when comparing older operators with cloud-based communications companies, or what STL has previously referred to as “under the floor” infrastructure owners. This attitude has been fairly common within governments and regulators, as well as among operator executives and staff.

However, there are now two groups of trends which are leading to the blurring of lines between “proper telcos” and other players:

  • Supply-side trends: The growing availability of the key building blocks of telcos – core networks, spectrum, fibre, equipment, locations and so on – is leading to democratisation. Virtualisation and openness, as well as a push for vendor diversification, is helping make it easier for new entrants, or adjacent players, to build telecom-style networks
  • Demand-side trends: A far richer range of telecom use-cases and customer types is pulling through specialist network builders and operators. These can start with specific geographies, or industry verticals, and then expand from there to other domains. Private 4G/5G networks and remote/underserved locations are good examples which need customisation and specialisation, but there are numerous other demand drivers for new types of service (and service provider), as well as alternative business models.

Taken together, the supply and demand factors are leading to the creation of new types of telcos (sometimes from established SPs, and sometimes greenfield) which are often competing with the incumbents.

While there is a stereotypical lobbying complaint about “level playing fields”, the reality is that there are now a whole range of different telecom “sports” emerging, with competitors arranged on courses, tracks, fields and hills, many of which are inherently not “level”. It’s down to the participants – whether old or new – to train appropriately and use suitable gear for each contest.

Virtualisation & cloudification of networks helps newcomers as well as existing operators

virtualisation-cloudification-networks-STL-Partners

Source: STL Partners

Where are new telcos likeliest to emerge?

Most new telcos tend to focus initially on specific niche markets. Only a handful of recent entrants have raised enough capital to build out entire national networks, either with fixed or mobile networks. Jio, Rakuten Mobile and Dish are all exceptions – and ones which came with a significant industrial heritage and regulatory impetus that enabled them to scale broadly.

Instead, most new service providers have focused on specific domains, with some expanding more broadly at a later point. Examples of the geographic / customer niches for new operators include:

  • Enterprise private 4G/5G networks
  • Rural network services (or other isolated areas like mountains, offshore areas or islands)
  • Municipality / city-level services
  • National backbone fibre networks
  • Critical communications users (e.g. utilities)
  • Wholesale-only / shared infrastructure provision (e.g. neutral host)

This report sets out…

..to through each of the new “species” of telcos in turn. There is a certain level of overlap between the categories, as some organisations are developing networking offers in various domains in parallel (for instance, Cellnex offering towers, private networks, neutral host and RAN outsourcing).

The new telcos have been grouped into categories, based on some broad similarities:

  • “Evolved” traditional telcos: operators, or units of operators, that are recognisable from today’s companies and brands, or are new-entrant “peers” of these.
  • Adjacent wireless providers: these are service provider categories that have been established for many years, but which are now overlapping ever more closely with “traditional” telcos.
  • Enterprise and government telcos: these are other large organisations that are shifting from being “users” of telecoms, or building internal network assets, towards offering public telecom-type services.
  • Others: this is a catch-all category that spans various niche innovation models. One particular group here, decentralised/blockchain-based telcos, is analysed in more detail.

In each case, the category is examined briefly on the basis of:

  • Background and motivation of operators
  • Typical services and infrastructure being deployed
  • Examples (approx. 3-4 of each type)
  • Implications for mainstream telcos

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Overview
    • New telco categories and service areas
    • Recommendations for traditional fixed/mobile operators
    • Recommendations for vendors and suppliers
    • Recommendations for regulators, governments & advisors
  • Introduction
    • The historical landscape
    • Why are “new telcos” emerging now?
    • Where are new telcos likeliest to emerge?
    • Structure of this document
  • “Evolved” traditional telcos
    • Greenfield national networks
    • Telco systems integration units
    • “Crossover” Mobile, Fixed & cable operators
    • Extra-territorial telcos
  • Adjacent wireless providers
    • Neutral host network providers
    • TowerCos
    • FWA Fixed Wireless Access (WISPs)
    • Satellite players
  • Enterprise & government telcos
    • Industrial / vertical MNOs
    • Utility companies offering commercial telecom services
    • Enterprises’ corporate IT network service groups
    • Governments & public sector
  • New categories
    • Decentralised telcos (blockchain / cryptocurrency-based)
    • Other “new telco” categories
  • Conclusions

Related Research

 

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Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G standalone and RAN

Telco cloud 2.0, fuelled by 5G standalone and RAN, is on the starting grid

This report accompanies the latest release and update of STL Partners ‘Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of VNFs (Virtual Network Functions), CNFs (cloud-native network functions) and SDN (Software Defined Networking) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. It builds on an extensive body of analysis by STL Partners over the past nine years on NFV and SDN strategies, technology and market developments.

Access our Telco Cloud Tracker here

Download the additional file for the full dataset of Telco Cloud deployments

Scope and content of the Tracker

The data in the latest update of our interactive tool and database covers the period up to September 2021, although reference is made in the report to events and deployments after that date. The data is drawn predominantly from public-domain information contained in news releases from operators and vendors, along with reputable industry media.

We apply the term ‘deployment’ to refer to the total set of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, and their associated management software and infrastructure, deployed at an operator – or at one or more of an operator’s opcos or natcos – in order to achieve a defined objective or support particular services (in the spreadsheet, we designate these as the ‘primary purpose’ of the deployment). For example, this could be:

  • to deploy a 5G standalone core
  • to launch a software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) service
  • or to construct a ‘telco cloud’ or NFV infrastructure (NFVi): a cloud infrastructure platform on which virtualised network services can be introduced and operated.

The Tracker is provided as an interactive tool containing line-by-line analysis of over 900 individual deployments of VNFs, CNFs or SDN technology, which can be used to drill down by:

  • Region where deployed
  • Operator
  • Technology vendor
  • Primary purpose
  • Category of NFV/SDN technology deployed
  • …and more filters

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5G standalone (SA) will hit an inflection point in 2022

5G standalone (SA) core is beginning to take off, with 19 deployments so far expected to be completed in 2022. The eventual total will be higher still, as will that of NSA core, as NSA 5G networks continue to be launched. As non-standalone (NSA) cores are replaced by SA, this will result in another massive wave of core deployments – probably from 2023/4 onwards.

Standalone 5G vs non-standalone 5G core deployments

STL-5G-standalone-core-cloud-tracker-2021

Source: STL Partners

 

Previous telco cloud tracker releases

Each new release of the tracker is global, but is accompanied by an analytical report which focusses on trends in given regions from time to time:

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Why and how to go telco cloud native: AT&T, DISH and Rakuten

The telco business is being disaggregated

Telcos are facing a situation in which the elements that have traditionally made up and produced their core business are being ‘disaggregated’: broken up into their component parts and recombined in different ways, while some of the elements of the telco business are increasingly being provided by players from other industry verticals.

By the same token, telcos face the pressure – and the opportunity – to combine connectivity with other capabilities as part of new vertical-specific offerings.

Telco disaggregation primarily affects three interrelated aspects of the telco business:

  1. Technology:
    • ‘Vertical’ disaggregation: separating out of network functions previously delivered by dedicated, physical equipment into software running on commodity computing hardware (NFV, virtualisation)
    • ‘Horizontal’ disaggregation: breaking up of network functions themselves into their component parts – at both the software and hardware levels; and re-engineering, recombining and redistributing of those component parts (geographically and architecturally) to meet the needs of new use cases. In respect of software, this typically involves cloud-native network functions (CNFs) and containerisation
    • Open RAN is an example of both types of disaggregation: vertical disaggregation through separation of baseband processing software and hardware; and horizontal disaggregation by breaking out the baseband function into centralised and distributed units (CU and DU), along with a separate, programmable controller (RAN Intelligent Controller, or RIC), where all of these can in theory be provided by different vendors, and interface with radios that can also be provided by third-party vendors.
  2. Organisational structure and operating model: Breaking up of organisational hierarchies, departmental siloes, and waterfall development processes focused on the core connectivity business. As telcos face the need to develop new vertical- and client-specific services and use cases beyond the increasingly commoditised, low-margin connectivity business, these structures are being – or need to be – replaced by more multi-disciplinary teams taking end-to-end responsibility for product development and operations (e.g. DevOps), go-to-market, profitability, and technology.

Transformation from the vertical telco to the disaggregated telco

3. Value chain and business model: Breaking up of the traditional model whereby telcos owned – or at least had end-to-end operational oversight over – . This is not to deny that telcos have always relied on third party-owned or outsourced infrastructure and services, such as wholesale networks, interconnect services or vendor outsourcing. However, these discrete elements have always been welded into an end-to-end, network-based services offering under the auspices of the telco’s BSS and OSS. These ensured that the telco took overall responsibility for end-to-end service design, delivery, assurance and billing.

    • The theory behind this traditional model is that all the customer’s connectivity needs should be met by leveraging the end-to-end telco network / service offering. In practice, the end-to-end characteristics have not always been fully controlled or owned by the service provider.
    • In the new, further disaggregated value chain, different parts of the now more software-, IT- and cloud-based technology stack are increasingly provided by other types of player, including from other industry verticals. Telcos must compete to play within these new markets, and have no automatic right to deliver even just the connectivity elements.

All of these aspects of disaggregation can be seen as manifestations of a fundamental shift where telecoms is evolving from a utility communications and connectivity business to a component of distributed computing. The core business of telecoms is becoming the processing and delivery of distributed computing workloads, and the enablement of ubiquitous computing.

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Telco disaggregation is a by-product of computerisation

Telco industry disaggregation is part of a broader evolution in the domains of technology, business, the economy, and society. This evolution comprises ‘computerisation’. Computing analyses and breaks up material processes and systems into a set of logical and functional sub-components, enabling processes and products to be re-engineered, optimised, recombined in different ways, managed, and executed more efficiently and automatically.

In essence, ‘telco disaggregation’ is a term that describes a moment in time at which telecoms technology, organisations, value chains and processes are being broken up into their component parts and re-engineered, under the impact of computerisation and its synonyms: digitisation, softwarisation, virtualisation and cloud.

This is part of a new wave of societal computerisation / digitisation, which at STL Partners we call the Coordination Age. At a high level, this can be described as ‘cross-domain computerisation’: separating out processes, services and functions from multiple areas of technology, the economy and society – and optimising, recombining and automating them (i.e. coordinating them), so that they can better deliver on social, economic and environmental needs and goals. In other words, this enables scarce resources to be used more efficiently and sustainably in pursuit of individual and social needs.

NFV has computerised the network; telco cloud native subordinates it to computing

In respect of the telecoms industry in particular, one could argue that the first wave of virtualisation (NFV and SDN), which unfolded during the 2010s, represented the computerisation and digitisation of telecoms networking. The focus of this was internal to the telecoms industry in the first instance, rather than connected to other social and technology domains and goals. It was about taking legacy, physical networking processes and functions, and redesigning and reimplementing them in software.

Then, the second wave of virtualisation (cloud-native – which is happening now) is what enables telecoms networking to play a part in the second wave of societal computerisation more broadly (the Coordination Age). This is because the different layers and elements of telecoms networks (services, network functions and infrastructure) are redefined, instantiated in software, broken up into their component parts, redistributed (logically and physically), and reassembled as a function of an increasing variety of cross-domain and cross-vertical use cases that are enabled and delivered, ultimately, by computerisation. Telecoms is disaggregated by, subordinated to, and defined and controlled by computing.

In summary, we can say that telecoms networks and operations are going through disaggregation now because this forms part of a broader societal transformation in which physical processes, functions and systems are being brought under the control of computing / IT, in pursuit of broader human, societal, economic and environmental goals.

In practice, this also means that telcos are facing increasing competition from many new types of actor, such as:

  • Computing, IT and cloud players
  • More specialist and agile networking providers
  • And vertical-market actors – delivering connectivity in support of vertical-specific, Coordination Age use cases.

 

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Three critical success factors for Coordination Age telcos
    • What capabilities will remain distinctively ‘telco’?
    • Our take on three pioneering cloud-native telcos
  • Introduction
    • The telco business is being disaggregated
    • Telco disaggregation is a by-product of computerisation
  • The disaggregated telco landscape: Where’s the value for telcos?
    • Is there anything left that is distinctively ‘telco’?
    • The ‘core’ telecoms business has evolved from delivering ubiquitous communications to enabling ubiquitous computing
    • Six telco-specific roles for telecoms remain in play
  • Radical telco disaggregation in action: AT&T, DISH and Rakuten
    • Servco, netco or infraco – or a patchwork of all three?
    • AT&T Network Cloud sell-off: Desperation or strategic acuity?
    • DISH Networks: Building the hyperscale network
    • Rakuten Mobile: Ecommerce platform turned cloud-native telco, turned telco cloud platform provider
  • Conclusion

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Driving the agility flywheel: the stepwise journey to agile

Agility is front of mind, now more than ever

Telecoms operators today face an increasingly challenging market, with pressure coming from new non-telco competitors, the demands of unfamiliar B2B2X business models that emerge from new enterprise opportunities across industries and the need to make significant investments in 5G. As the telecoms industry undergoes these changes, operators are considering how best to realise commercial opportunities, particularly in enterprise markets, through new types of value-added services and capabilities that 5G can bring.

However, operators need to be able to react to not just near-term known opportunities as they arise but ready themselves for opportunities that are still being imagined. With such uncertainty, agility, with the quick responsiveness and unified focus it implies, is integral to an operator’s continued success and its ability to capitalise on these opportunities.

Traditional linear supply models are now being complemented by more interconnected ecosystems of customers and partners. Innovation of products and services is a primary function of these decentralised supply models. Ecosystems allow the disparate needs of participants to be met through highly configurable assets rather than waiting for a centralised player to understand the complete picture. This emphasises the importance of programmability in maximising the value returned on your assets, both in end-to-end solutions you deliver, and in those where you are providing a component of another party’s system. The need for agility has never been stronger, and this has accelerated transformation initiatives within operators in recent years.

Concepts of agility have crystallised in meaning

In 2015, STL Partners published a report on ‘The Agile Operator: 5 key ways to meet the agility challenge’, exploring the concept and characteristics of operator agility, including what it means to operators, key areas of agility and the challenges in the agile transformation. Today, the definition of agility remains as broad as in 2015 but many concepts of agility have crystallised through wider acceptance of the importance of the construct across different parts of the organisation.

Agility today is a pervasive philosophy of incremental innovation learned from software development that emphasises both speed of innovation at scale and carrier-grade resilience. This is achieved through cloud native modular architectures and practices such as sprints, DevOps and continuous integration and continuous delivery (CI/CD) – occurring in virtuous cycle we call the agility flywheel.

The Agility Flywheel

agility-flywheel

Source: STL Partners

Six years ago, operators were largely looking to borrow only certain elements of cloud native for adoption in specific pockets within the organisation, such as IT. Now, the cloud model is more widely embraced across the business and telcos profess ambitions to become software-centric companies.

Same problem, different constraints

Cloud native is the most fundamental version of the componentised cloud software vision and progress towards this ideal of agility has been heavily constrained by operators’ underlying capabilities. In 2015, operators were just starting to embark on their network virtualisation journeys with barriers such as siloed legacy IT stacks, inelastic infrastructures and software lifecycles that were architecture constrained. Though these barriers continue to be a challenge for many, the operators at the forefront – now unhindered by these basic constraints – have been driving a resurgence and general acceleration towards agility organisation-wide, facing new challenges around the unknowns underpinning the requirements of future capabilities.

With 5G, the network itself is designed as cloud native from the ground up, as are the leading edge of enterprise applications recently deployed by operators, alleviating by design some of the constraints on operators’ ability to become more agile. Uncertainty around what future opportunities will look like and how to support them requires agility to run deep into all of an operators’ processes and capabilities. Though there is a vast raft of other opportunities that do not need cloud native, ultimately the market is evolving in this direction and operators should benchmark ambitions on the leading edge, with a plan to get there incrementally. This report looks to address the following key question:

Given the flexibility and driving force that 5G provides, how can operators take advantage of recent enablers to drive greater agility and thrive in the current pace of change?

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Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Agility is front of mind, now more than ever
    • Concepts of agility have crystallised in meaning
    • Same problem, different constraints
  • Ambitions to be a software-centric business
    • Cloudification is supporting the need for agility
    • A balance between seemingly opposing concepts
  • You are only as agile as your slowest limb
    • Agility is achieved stepwise across three fronts
    • Agile IT and networks in the decoupled model
    • Renewed need for orchestration that is dynamic
    • Enabling and monetising telco capabilities
    • Creating momentum for the agility flywheel
  • Recommendations and conclusions

Fixed wireless access growth: To 20% homes by 2025

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Download the additional file on the left for the PPT chart pack accompanying this report

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Fixed wireless access growth forecast

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) networks use a wireless “last mile” link for the final connection of a broadband service to homes and businesses, rather than a copper, fibre or coaxial cable into the building. Provided mostly by WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) or mobile network operators (MNOs), these services come in a wide range of speeds, prices and technology architectures.

Some FWA services are just a short “drop” from a nearby pole or fibre-fed hub, while others can work over distances of several kilometres or more in rural and remote areas, sometimes with base station sites backhauled by additional wireless links. WISPs can either be independent specialists, or traditional fixed/cable operators extending reach into areas they cannot economically cover with wired broadband.

There is a fair amount of definitional vagueness about FWA. The most expansive definitions include cheap mobile hotspots (“Mi-Fi” devices) used in homes, or various types of enterprise IoT gateway, both of which could easily be classified in other market segments. Most service providers don’t give separate breakouts of deployments, while regulators and other industry bodies report patchy and largely inconsistent data.

Our view is that FWA is firstly about providing permanent broadband access to a specific location or premises. Primarily, this is for residential wireless access to the Internet and sometimes typical telco-provided services such as IPTV and voice telephony. In a business context, there may be a mix of wireless Internet access and connectivity to corporate networks such as VPNs, again provided to a specific location or building.

A subset of FWA relates to M2M usage, for instance private networks run by utility companies for controlling grid assets in the field. These are typically not Internet-connected at all, and so don’t fit most observers’ general definition of “broadband access”.

Usually, FWA will be marketed as a specific service and package by some sort of network provider, usually including the terminal equipment (“CPE” – customer premise equipment), rather than allowing the user to “bring their own” device. That said, lower-end (especially 4G) offers may be SIM-only deals intended to be used with generic (and unmanaged) portable hotspots.
There are some examples of private network FWA, such as a large caravan or trailer park with wireless access provided from a central point, and perhaps in future municipal or enterprise cellular networks giving fixed access to particular tenant structures on-site – for instance to hangars at an airport.

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FWA today

Today, fixed-wireless access (FWA) is used for perhaps 8-9% of broadband connections globally, although this varies significantly by definition, country and region. There are various use cases (see below), but generally FWA is deployed in areas without good fixed broadband options, or by mobile-only operators trying to add an additional fixed revenue stream, where they have spare capacity.

Fixed wireless internet access fits specific sectors and uses, rather than the overall market

FWA Use Cases

Source: STL Partners

FWA has traditionally been used in sparsely populated rural areas, where the economics of fixed broadband are untenable, especially in developing markets without existing fibre transport to towns and villages, or even copper in residential areas. Such networks have typically used unlicensed frequency bands, as there is limited interference – and little financial justification for expensive spectrum purchases. In most cases, such deployments use proprietary variants of Wi-Fi, or its ill-fated 2010-era sibling WiMAX.

Increasingly however, FWA is being used in more urban settings, and in more developed market scenarios – for example during the phase-out of older xDSL broadband, or in places with limited or no competition between fixed-network providers. Some cellular networks primarily intended for mobile broadband (MBB) have been used for fixed usage as well, especially if spare capacity has been available. 4G has already catalysed rapid growth of FWA in numerous markets, such as South Africa, Japan, Sri Lanka, Italy and the Philippines – and 5G is likely to make a further big difference in coming years. These mostly rely on licensed spectrum, typically the national bands owned by major MNOs. In some cases, specific bands are used for FWA use, rather than sharing with normal mobile broadband. This allows appropriate “dimensioning” of network elements, and clearer cost-accounting for management.

Historically, most FWA has required an external antenna and professional installation on each individual house, although it also gets deployed for multi-dwelling units (MDUs, i.e. apartment blocks) as well as some non-residential premises like shops and schools. More recently, self-installed indoor CPE with varying levels of price and sophistication has helped broaden the market, enabling customers to get terminals at retail stores or delivered direct to their home for immediate use.

Looking forward, the arrival of 5G mass-market equipment and larger swathes of mmWave and new mid-band spectrum – both licensed and unlicensed – is changing the landscape again, with the potential for fibre-rivalling speeds, sometimes at gigabit-grade.

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Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • FWA today
    • Universal broadband as a goal
    • What’s changed in recent years?
    • What’s changed because of the pandemic?
  • The FWA market and use cases
    • Niche or mainstream? National or local?
    • Targeting key applications / user groups
  • FWA technology evolution
    • A broad array of options
    • Wi-Fi, WiMAX and close relatives
    • Using a mobile-primary network for FWA
    • 4G and 5G for WISPs
    • Other FWA options
    • Customer premise equipment: indoor or outdoor?
    • Spectrum implications and options
  • The new FWA value chain
    • Can MNOs use FWA to enter the fixed broadband market?
    • Reinventing the WISPs
    • Other value chain participants
    • Is satellite a rival waiting in the wings?
  • Commercial models and packages
    • Typical pricing and packages
    • Example FWA operators and plans
  • STL’s FWA market forecasts
    • Quantitative market sizing and forecast
    • High level market forecast
  • Conclusions
    • What will 5G deliver – and when and where?
  • Index

Telco Cloud Europe update: Open RAN approaching tipping point

Telco Cloud deployments on track for growth again in 2020

Ninth update of the ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’: from ‘NFV’ to ‘telco cloud’

This report accompanies the ninth release of STL Partners’ ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’ database. This contains data on deployments of NFV (Network Functions Virtualisation), SDN (Software Defined Networking) and cloud-native network functions (CNFs) in the networks of the leading telcos worldwide. This analytical report focuses on trends in Europe, set in global context.

For this update and hereafter, we have changed the name of the database from ‘NFV Deployment Tracker’ to ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’. The name change reflects STL Partners’ new focus on ‘Telco Cloud’ as both a research stream and consultancy practice. But the change also corresponds to the fact that the telecoms industry has now embarked on the second phase of its journey towards more integrally software-based networks – the first phase of which went under the banner of ‘NFV’. This journey is not just about a migration towards ‘software in general’, but cloud-native software: based on design principles developed by the cloud industry, which have the potential to bring cloud-scale economics, programmability and automation to connectivity and connectivity-dependent services.

The Tracker database is provided as an interactive Excel tool containing line-by-line analysis of more than 760 individual deployments of NFV, SDN and CNFs, which can be used to drill down on trends by company and region.

We will produce further research and reports on different aspects of cloud-native software and its impact over the coming months.

Growth in 5G core offset by declines in other areas

Telco cloud deployments so far

After a slight drop in the overall number of deployments in 2019, 2020 is set to be a year of modest growth, as is illustrated by the figure below:

Total number of deployments worldwide, 2014 to July 2020

Source: STL Partners

The data for 2020 is split up into completed, ‘pending’ and estimated additional deployments. We have recorded 63 completed deployments between January and July 2020. Pending deployments (totalling 72) are those previously announced that we are expecting to be completed during 2020 but which – to our knowledge – had not yet gone live in the commercial network by the end of July. The estimated additional deployments are derived from extrapolating to the full year 2020 from the total of completed implementations in the first seven months. This results in around 45 further deployments. On this basis, the total for the year as a whole would reach around 180 deployments: just above the previous record year of 2018 (178).

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Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction: Telco cloud deployments on track for growth again in 2020
    • Ninth update of the ‘Telco Cloud Tracker’: from ‘NFV’ to ‘telco cloud’
    • Scope and content of the Tracker
  • 5G core drives new growth in 2020
    • Deployments are on the rise again
    • Growth has been consistent across almost all regions
    • Europe also on track to maintain its record of year-on-year growth
    • Deployments in Europe are still dominated by the major players, but smaller telcos are catching up
    • Vendors: Ericsson in close second place behind Cisco owing to strong presence in mobile core
  • Open RAN at a TIPping point in Europe
    • European telcos are playing a leading role in open RAN
  • Conclusion: Growth being driven by 5G – with open RAN waiting in the wings
    • Worldwide surge in NSA 5G core deployments
    • NSA 5GC is now nearly the leading VNF overall in Europe
    • … with cloud-native, SA 5GC coming down the pipeline
    • … and waiting in the wings: open RAN
    • These overlapping waves of innovation will make telco cloud mainstream

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Open RAN: What should telcos do?

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Related webinar: Open RAN: What should telcos do?

In this webinar STL Partners addressed the three most important sub-components of Open RAN (open-RAN, vRAN and C-RAN) and how they interact to enable a new, virtualized, less vendor-dominated RAN ecosystem. The webinar covered:

* Why Open RAN matters – and why it will be about 4G (not 5G) in the short term
* Data-led overview of existing Open RAN initiatives and challenges
* Our recommended deployment strategies for operators
* What the vendors are up to – and how we expect that to change

Date: Tuesday 4th August 2020
Time: 4pm GMT

Access the video recording and presentation slides

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For the report chart pack download the additional file on the left

What is the open RAN and why does it matter?

The open RAN’ encompasses a group of technological approaches that are designed to make the radio access network (RAN) more cost effective and flexible. It involves a shift away from traditional, proprietary radio hardware and network architectures, driven by single vendors, towards new, virtualised platforms and a more open vendor ecosystem.

Legacy RAN: single-vendor and inflexible

The traditional, legacy radio access network (RAN) uses dedicated hardware to deliver the baseband function (modulation and management of the frequency range used for cellular network transmission), along with proprietary interfaces (typically based on the Common Public Radio Interface (CPRI) standard) for the fronthaul from the baseband unit (BBU) to the remote radio unit (RRU) at the top of the transmitter mast.

Figure 1: Legacy RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

This means that, typically, telcos have needed to buy the baseband and the radio from a single vendor, with the market presently dominated largely by the ‘big three’ (Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia), together with a smaller market share for Samsung and ZTE.

The architecture of the legacy RAN – with BBUs typically but not always at every cell site – has many limitations:

  • It is resource-intensive and energy-inefficient – employing a mass of redundant equipment operating at well below capacity most of the time, while consuming a lot of power
  • It is expensive, as telcos are obliged to purchase and operate a large inventory of physical kit from a limited number of suppliers, which keeps the prices high
  • It is inflexible, as telcos are unable to deploy to new and varied sites – e.g. macro-cells, small cells and micro-cells with different radios and frequency ranges – in an agile and cost-effective manner
  • It is more costly to manage and maintain, as there is less automation and more physical kit to support, requiring personnel to be sent out to remote sites
  • It is not very programmable to support the varied frequency, latency and bandwidth demands of different services.

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Moving to the open RAN: C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN

There are now many distinct technologies and standards emerging in the radio access space that involve a shift away from traditional, proprietary radio hardware and network architectures, driven by single vendors, towards new, virtualised platforms and a more open vendor ecosystem.

We have adopted ‘the open RAN’ as an umbrella term which encompasses all of these technologies. Together, they are expected to make the RAN more cost effective and flexible. The three most important sub-components of the open RAN are C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN.

Centralised RAN (C-RAN), also known as cloud RAN, involves distributing and centralising the baseband functionality across different telco edge, aggregation and core locations, and in the telco cloud, so that baseband processing for multiple sites can be carried out in different locations, nearer or further to the end user.

This enables more effective control and programming of capacity, latency, spectrum usage and service quality, including in support of 5G core-enabled technologies and services such as network slicing, URLLC, etc. In particular, baseband functionality can be split between more centralised sites (central baseband units – CU) and more distributed sites (distributed unit – DU) in much the same way, and for a similar purpose, as the split between centralised control planes and distributed user planes in the mobile core, as illustrated below:

Figure 2: Centralised RAN (C-RAN) architecture

Cloud RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

Virtual RAN (vRAN) involves virtualising (and now also containerising) the BBU so that it is run as software on generic hardware (General Purpose Processing – GPP) platforms. This enables the baseband software and hardware, and even different components of them, to be supplied by different vendors.

Figure 3: Virtual RAN (vRAN) architecture

vRAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

Open-RANnote the hyphenation – involves replacing the vendor-proprietary interfaces between the BBU and the RRU with open standards. This enables BBUs (and parts thereof) from one or multiple vendors to interoperate with radios from other vendors, resulting in a fully disaggregated RAN:

Figure 4: Open-RAN architecture

Open-RAN architecture

Source: STL Partners

 

RAN terminology: clearing up confusion

You will have noticed that the technologies above have similar-sounding names and overlapping definitions. To add to potential confusion, they are often deployed together.

Figure 5: The open RAN Venn – How C-RAN, vRAN and open-RAN fit together

Open-RAN venn: open-RAN inside vRAN inside C-RAN

Source: STL Partners

As the above diagram illustrates, all forms of the open RAN involve C-RAN, but only a subset of C-RAN involves virtualisation of the baseband function (vRAN); and only a subset of vRAN involves disaggregation of the BBU and RRU (open-RAN).

To help eliminate ambiguity we are adopting the typographical convention ‘open-RAN’ to convey the narrower meaning: disaggregation of the BBU and RRU facilitated by open interfaces. Similarly, where we are dealing with deployments or architectures that involve vRAN and / or cloud RAN but not open-RAN in the narrower sense, we refer to those examples as ‘vRAN’ or ‘C-RAN’ as appropriate.

In the coming pages, we will investigate why open RAN matters, what telcos are doing about it – and what they should do next.

Table of contents

  • Executive summary
  • What is the open RAN and why does it matter?
    • Legacy RAN: single-vendor and inflexible
    • The open RAN: disaggregated and flexible
    • Terminology, initiatives & standards: clearing up confusion
  • What are the opportunities for open RAN?
    • Deployment in macro networks
    • Deployment in greenfield networks
    • Deployment in geographically-dispersed/under-served areas
    • Deployment to support consolidation of radio generations
    • Deployment to support capacity and coverage build-out
    • Deployment to support private and neutral host networks
  • How have operators deployed open RAN?
    • What are the operators doing?
    • How successful have deployments been?
  • How are vendors approaching open RAN?
    • Challenger RAN vendors: pushing for a revolution
    • Incumbent RAN vendors: resisting the open RAN
    • Are incumbent vendors taking the right approach?
  • How should operators do open RAN?
    • Step 1: Define the roadmap
    • Step 2: Implement
    • Step 3: Measure success
  • Conclusions
    • What next?

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