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5G and Mobile Transport Are Making Progress in Spite of a Challenging 2020

December 8, 2020
By Jon Baldry
Director, Metro Networking

Earlier in the year, just at the start of lockdown here in the U.K. and elsewhere, I wrote a blog outlining some of the major architectural changes that 5G is driving into optical transport networks, as well as the trends we at Infinera have been seeing as customers evolve their networks to support 5G. 2020 has been a very different year in many ways.

But that hasn’t held network operators back in their ambitions to rapidly roll out initial enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) 5G services and to continue the long process of network evolution for future advanced 5G services based around ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) capabilities.

In recent weeks, we at Infinera have been involved in a flurry of 5G-related events, including webinars with both Light Reading and Lightwave and the Light Reading 5G Transport & Network Strategies event. These events gave us and fellow presenters from across the industry an excellent opportunity to discuss the state of 5G transport network deployments as we move toward the close of 2020.

5G Transport & Network Strategies is fairly unique in the industry as the only event with a focus on the transport network aspects of the evolution to 5G. Due to this focus, I have attended since it became a full-day event in 2018. It is usually held in New York City, so moving to an online virtual format meant we lost some of the great face-to-face dialogue, but we gained a much wider global audience.

With over 400 people attending the live online event and many more registering and hopefully watching the recordings later, it certainly pulled in a fantastic audience. Speakers included representatives from the sponsoring vendors plus representatives from the carrier community from Verizon, Colt Technology, Telefónica (also representing the Telecom Infra Project [TIP]), Digital Realty, and TELUS – so a great cross-section of those involved in 5G transport networks.

So, what are the key findings from this event, as well as the other recent 5G webinars on Lightwave and Light Reading that we participated in?

The 5G hot topics are still hot, but they take a very long time to happen

Naturally, there is a lot of focus on the major architectural changes that 5G is driving into transport networks, such as multi-access edge compute (MEC) and network slicing, at industry events. However, these are huge network transitions and, as I outlined in the previous blog, they will take years to be fully rolled out in networks. Progress is being made, but there is still a long way to go, and most of the progress in 2020 has been behind-the-scenes planning and development rather than actual network rollouts.

As an example, it was very interesting to hear Mark Gilmour from Colt describe the large amount of work Colt has been doing to prepare for a future end-to-end slicing environment during his panel discussion at the event. Colt already supports mobile operator customers with wholesale capacity, but they aren’t yet hearing requests from mobile network operators for transport slices as these operators are still focused on understanding how to implement slicing in the radio access network (RAN) and the core.

So, while there is a lot of planning and preparation for a full end-to-end sliced 5G networking environment, we are still a long way from full implementation.

Open networking is accelerating

We also heard from Victor Lopez from Telefónica, who was also representing TIP at the event, as he outlined the vast array of “open” projects within Telefónica. These projects cover everything from home gateways and set-top boxes to fixed and mobile access networks, IP and optical transport networks, and Telefónica’s global network virtualization and telco cloud strategies.

Victor outlined the work that Telefónica’s Open Optical Packet Transport Group is undertaking in more detail and used their work on the Disaggregated Cell Site Gateway (DCSG) project as a great example of the rapid progress being made in this space. We at Infinera are of course very happy to be supporting Telefónica in this project in multiple countries, including Germany and Peru.

My colleague Tim Doiron also discussed the rapid progress in open initiatives in the Light Reading Getting the Right 5G Transport Technology Mix webinar, where he outlined not only DCSG activities but also open optical networking within DWDM networks.

Underlying transport network performance is key

Understandably, industry events focus on the hot topics, as I outlined above. But multiple speakers at the Light Reading event, including myself, also highlighted the renewed focus this year on some of the less glamorous aspects of 5G transport networks.

I use the term “glamorous” in a relative way of course as most people outside our sphere of networking probably wouldn’t consider any of this glamorous at all! Anyhow, one of the key trends we have seen in 2020 is the increased level of attention on key areas of the underlying performance of the transport network to enable 5G.

In particular, network synchronization was an area that a few of the presenters addressed during the Light Reading event. I was also able to cover the topic in more depth a week later on the 5G and Optical Transport: A 2020 Rollout Checkpoint and Look at 2021 webinar that we held with Lightwave. Joe Neil from Microchip Technology joined me on this webinar, and we were able to dive into the progress being made in 5G synchronization distribution within transport networks in more detail.

It is clear from these events and 2020 network operator decision-making that preparation for advanced 5G RAN techniques and Phase 2 5G services are driving an increased focus on synchronization performance. We will return to this very important topic in a future blog.

If you want to learn more about 5G transport network progress in 2020, then I’d recommend catching up with the replays of one or more of these events:

  • Light Reading webinar: Getting the Right 5G Transport Technology Mix (October 28, 2020)
  • Light Reading virtual event: 5G Transport & Network Strategies (November 5, 2020)
  • Lightwave webinar: 5G and Optical Transport: A 2020 Rollout Checkpoint and Look at 2021 (November 11, 2020)

Links to all these events, and more, can be found here.

So, to close, even with the unique challenges that 2020 has given us, the industry has made significant progress this year within 5G transport networks as we evolve these networks to enable future Phase 2 5G services. There is still a long way to go before we deploy more advanced 5G services, but good progress has been made.