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Syncing Up at ITSF 2021

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November 11, 2021
By Jon Baldry
Director, Metro Networking

Live events start to make a comeback

Last week I attended my second conference this year that focused on the detailed topic of timing and synchronization. I’m happy to add that this was also my first real live face-to-face conference of any kind since February 2020, so it was great to do this one in person! The event in question was the International Timing and Synchronization Forum (ITSF), which was incredibly well attended considering that many of those planning to attend still had to stay away due to COVID-related travel restrictions within their companies.

There were 235 attendees from 120 different companies and 30 different countries. This was only slightly down from the last live ITSF event in 2019, which, when you consider all those who still had travel restrictions in place, is an excellent turnout. This might sound like a small number when you compare it to the big events like OFC or MWC, but remember this event addresses the synchronization community within our industry, which is a very small and focused group.

Photo from ITSF 2021

Overall, the other presenters and I delivered 55 presentations over the three days of the main event – quite an undertaking for both the presenters and the audience. Most presenters were live at the event, but a few joined remotely due to their company’s COVID travel restrictions. The event provided a deep dive into all aspects of timing and synchronization, with a considerable amount of the program covering areas that impact telecommunications networks, especially 5G. Most of us in the telecommunications world mainly associate the need for optical transport networks to support demanding synchronization requirements with 5G, but the event also addresses synchronization within other areas, such as the power utility and broadcast media industries. Both these industries are connected to telecoms as they often utilize telecoms infrastructure to interconnect their facilities. I actually covered some of these applications in the last of a series of sync blogs that I wrote earlier this year.

So, what were my key takeaways from this year’s ITSF event?

5G Sync Is on a Roll

Transporting synchronization over DWDM transport networks is really starting to take hold as operators upgrade their mobile transport networks for 5G. In addition to my presentation that shared some of Infinera’s findings as we roll out these networks, there were presentations from TDC in Denmark, A1 in Austria, and Virgin Media in the U.K. on their initial deployments and findings.

To be clear, we’ve been deploying mobile transport networks for many years where SyncE-based frequency synchronization performance has been a key factor. The key difference now is that 5G is driving the uptake of 1588v2 Precision Timing Protocol (PTP)-based phase synchronization and driving ever tighter sync performance specifications into networks.

Some of the performance figures shared at the conference highlighted to me that the subtle differences in how synchronization is carried over a DWDM network can have a significant impact on the performance that can be achieved both in terms of limiting the time error that the network adds to the PTP flows and the distances that can be supported within the allowable time error budgets. At a quick glance, timing/sync over DWDM solutions can look very similar, but the small differences can have a significant impact.

Transport Networks Are Still Complex and a Challenge for Synchronization

As I outlined in my WSTS recap blog earlier this year, sync is a complex topic and can be a significant challenge for network operators. This is still the case, and the benefit of a live event is the amount of post-presentation conversations that I was able to have to discuss the challenges that I’d highlighted in my presentation. While virtual/online events can extend the reach of an event to a new audience, you do lose that face-to-face interaction after presentations. My presentation highlighted some of the challenges involved in transporting sync over DWDM networks, such as the impact that OTN framing can have on timing error. Even though many operators are now investigating this within their networks, this still came as a surprise to many. If you want to dive into this a little more yourself, then have a look at our Synchronization Distribution in 5G Transport Networks e-book.

Sync as a Service

A lot of the focus within 5G discussions concerns the mobile operators themselves, but wholesalers who sell capacity services to mobile operators are also very relevant in this discussion. Two examples of this that are geographically local to me are Neos Networks (previously known as SSE Enterprise Telecoms) and Virgin Media in the U.K. Alan Corfield from Virgin Media gave a very interesting presentation at the event and discussed the company’s plans to evolve its network to enable sync as a service. Virgin Media has been a long-term player in the U.K. mobile backhaul market and has recently merged with the mobile operator O2. Virgin Media is therefore updating its network to add the phase synchronization capabilities that O2 requires and to enable possible extension of this capability into a sync-as-a-service capability for other mobile operators. Infinera is one of Virgin Media’s major optical networking vendors and is supporting this migration.

That’s a Wrap for Sync Events in 2021

At Infinera, we’ve put a lot of focus into synchronization performance of DWDM-based mobile transport networks over the last few years as we’ve been preparing for 5G rollouts. This has paid dividends with recent wins where synchronization performance of the DWDM transport network has been a key factor in the selection of Infinera products. It’s also been a busy year communicating these capabilities with both the earlier WSTS event, last week’s ITSF, numerous sync blogs, and producing the sync e-book. Mobile transport network sync is ramping in importance, so it will be very interesting to see what 2022 brings. We are looking forward to both WSTS in Denver in May and ITSF in November 2022 to see how the industry progresses in this area over the next 12 months.