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Foundations for the future

While preparing for the 5G arrival, carriers invest in network infrastructure counting on SDN, NFV, and edge computing.

Wanise Ferreira, special for LogicalisNow

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“For businesses, 5G should be more revolutionary as it’ll enable creating services thus far nonexistent”

Oi’s Ituassu

Investment decision making is not always an easy task within carriers. After all, they must keep in mind several significant variables such as future demand, new technologies, frequencies availability and the turnover challenges they represent, among other things, while continually offering innovative services that appeal to their clients and help amortize what was employed.

With the arrival of the 5G technology, the landscape shall not be much different; however, the experience with past generations and the current need to operate a smarter infrastructure aid in anticipating movements. There will be many challenges, doubtlessly, but many of the carries already have a large part of their path paved.

In this combined investment package, initiated a few years ago with the upgrade of access networks and backhaul reinforcement, bring fiber to antenna, we find other efforts still underway, such as network function virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networks (SDN). Wrapping the compilation, we see computing power steadily progressing to the edges, arriving where it is needed, and turning edge computing into a prominent trend within the telecom world.

Claro has been designing its network evolution for quite some time while defining how to approach 5G. “We have invested a lot thinking of the future,” commented André Sarcinelli, engineering director at Claro Brazil. In 2016, the carrier began streamlining their access network, replacing old radio-based stations with modern and modular equipment. “We had equipment from different generations and suppliers that couldn’t communicate among themselves,” he noted. According to the executive, the carrier conducted a survey and concluded it was best to replace the equipment with more advanced ones that would, moreover, put the company in a privileged position on the 5G arrival. There are more than 19000 radio-based stations receiving 4,5G, NB-IoT, and LTE Cat-M technologies for the Internet of Things.

“The highest the data volume and the demand for lower latency, the more important it is to bring processing closer to the customer. That is why edge computing is part of our evolution pattern”

Luis Machuca, network engineering manager at Movistar Chile.

Another decision made in the past, precisely seven years ago, already shows positive effects, and should also be of great value with the arrival of the fifth generation. The company decided to invest in the backhaul to ensure higher capacity, expanding optical fiber to connect it to sites. “We have been installing fiber straight at the site, beginning with metropolitan regions but already reaching locations with less than 30000 inhabitants”, said Sarcinelli.

The carrier also needed a high-capacity, low-latency backbone to connect the backhaul to core elements. It was when the so-called Photonic project emerged to integrate IP legacy networks and optical ones in a single technology. With it, network capacity should be multiplied by, at least, five times. “We should have a long-range transmission with higher resilience and capacity and lower latency,” affirmed the executive. The project, to be concluded this year, should boost the launch of more advanced services.

Facing this scenario, Sarcinelli was preparing to decentralize the network’ core for more efficient operation. “Most carriers began to operate with a centralized core, mainly in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia. Decentralizing in a typical way would be expensive, consuming a lot of energy, and not resulting in healthy operation growth”, he weighs.

Choosing the edge computing path soon became much more attractive. And so it was done. To take computing power to the edges, virtualizing network elements, Claro is planning on having 22 new datacenters, amid regional and traditional ones, this year. Next year should see other edge datacenters implemented.

Another ongoing investment related to the photonic network involves the SDN concept implementation. With the adoption of an orchestrator for integrated planning management, Sarcinelli believes it’s possible to advance into a network slicing structure, one of the 5G technology’s strongest points. With the intelligence aggregated to the network and the decentralization of computing power, it’s possible to combine different traffic interests and bring higher bandwidth capacity to services that demand lower latency while routing large amounts of data, such as connected and autonomous cars or a 4.0 industrial production, all while providing services with different characteristics that do not consume additional bandwidth, such as smart public lights and other lighter applications.

“With Photonic, which will integrate IP legacy and optical networks, Claro’s network capacity should be multiplied by, at least, five times”

André Sarcinelli

At Vivo, times are also sparkling. “We already offer some 5G plug-ins in our network,” commented Átila Branco, network director. He’s referring to elements embedded in the 4,5G network as carrier aggregation, which combines frequency blocks, high hierarchy modulations, and the use of multiple antennas.

It is one of the carrier’s steps towards the movement it’s calling the “network’s digital transformation.” Among the initiatives is the adoption of the global network elements virtualization program known as Única. Born in Spain in 2017, the program arrived in Brazil last year introducing the NFV platform.

Within the edge computing concept, the Única infrastructure should initially have eleven datacenters: bigger ones in metropolitan regions and other regional ones. The format should expand year after year, without a predicted final size. “In the future, we will have cases of tailor-made datacenters,” stressed Branco. He recalls that datacenter on the edge are more sustainable, consuming less resources and energy, and are quickly scalable. “The highest the data volume and the demand for lower latency, the more important it is to bring processing closer to the customer. That is why edge computing is part of our evolution pattern,” adds Luis Machuca, network engineering manager at Movistar Chile, a company from the Telefonica Group.

To achieve all 5G attributes, explains Branco, such as ultra-high-speed, extremely low latency, and network slicing, the effort must be continuous. “To allow network slicing, for instance, we need new features in the current network. We are leaving behind the conventional telecom design, which is monolithic, onto a cloud architecture with several shared network features within the datacenter, and smartly managed,” he affirms.

Since late last year, Vivo has been introducing a software-defined network (SDN) platform to the Única network. “It is a huge step,” noted the Brazilian executive. Chilean Machuca explains that one crucial advantage is leveraging investments made by the overall hardware industry. “The level of research and development for generic servers is much more specific than those of single-function machine,” evaluated the executive.

Branco further estimates that 5G will require reinforced and perennial transmission, which, in turn, entails substantial investments for both backhaul and backbone. According to the manager, the company is carrying out massive fiber implementation throughout the entire infrastructure, bringing it also to the sites. Telefonia is doing the same movement in Chile, where Movistar guarantees it’s the service provider with more fiber installed – more than 40 thousand kilometers. “Without fiber, 4G and 5G cannot be real. Today, 3 in each 4 Movistar mobile sites have fiber, which is a competitive advantage”.

Marco Di Constanzo, Tim’s engineering director, speaks of the company’s four steps towards 5G: LTE A-Pro activation (4,9G); ensuring a high-capacity transmission infrastructure for optical fiber, both urban and long-distance; network core upgrade; and data center distribution.

The 5G network cores upgrade entails functions virtualization (NFV) and CUPS (control and use plane separation) implementation, a tool seen as essential for the fifth generation that allows, for example, to provide increased flexibility to users’ data package switching. Tim’s plans also include 37 data centers in 29 cities, being 16 of them DCC (Data Center Core) in 8 locations, and 21 DCE (Data Center Edge) in 21 locations.

For Oi’s engineering director, André Ituassu, the carrier has one advantage in the setting required by the 5G tech, which is a robust optical fiber structure across the entire country. “One differentiator of the technology is a transport network able to support all its requirements,” he said.

Last year, the company announced investment plans to make its 100 GB optical transport network (OTN) even more robust in every state. “On top of this structure, we have an IP access network connecting the state capitals and taking the core IP – which is under upgrade – closer to the customer,” stressed the executive. Last year, the company expanded their OTN/DWDM network in seven capitals, which represented more than 18000 km of optical cable – and, by 2021, the idea is to reach 26 capitals, with the expansion of 65000 km of cable.

The FTTH (Fiber To The Home) architecture holds a special place in the carrier’s plans, and it’s basically due to a reaction to the strong competitiveness among regional bandwidth providers. According to Ituassu, they plan on regaining customers with an infrastructure that offers a better end user experience. Thirty-eight cities already receive the technology, and by year’s end, another 50 municipalities should join the project.

In addition to the access and transport networks, the carrier also cares to take the network’s elements closer to the customer, both at the backbone and the core levels. “This movement transforms the user experience,” emphasized Ituassu. In the process, the executive is trusting, once more, on another company competitive edge: having their central offices scattered across the country. “It facilitates when we discuss expanding datacenters’ capacities within the edge computing concept because we already have the physical structure and the connectivity that make everything faster,” he noted.

Ituassu sees the 5G technology as initially more revolutionary for B2B than for retail. For him, the 4,5G should still provide a satisfying experience to the end user, while the corporate world could benefit from the new generation in creating services thus far nonexistent. To illustrate, he mentions a factory that will then have higher-speed connectivity, low latency, and all elements connected without cables.

This context could influence the 5G coverage’s initial proposal, in his opinion. “It’s good to be aware that, at a first instance, the business plan may be focused on special coverage for the corporate sector, without a massive offering for retail,” pondered Oi’s executive.

For TIM’s engineering directo, 5G will create new business opportunities in areas as smart cities, agribusiness, industry 4.0, entertainment, heathcare, autonomous cars and virtual reality. The company will rely on previous experience and ecosystems generated by Italian headquarter, in pilot-projects in Turin, Bari and Matera.

Algar Telecom is preparing to introduce relevant changes in the core of its mobile systems’ network in the next three years. Just as the others, the changes include SDN, network elements’ virtualization, and edge computing, an inevitable process in the eyes of the technology and operations’ director, Luiz Antonio Lima.

The executive warns, however, to the need of executing caution during this movement. “We are talking of significant changes to the core of the network, and we must prevent risks. It’s a difficult project,” he stressed.

Now, the carrier is busy building a telco cloud, which is a crucial point for implementing the VNS (Virtualization Network Service) solution. With a more robust cloud, the company will migrate there a part of the network’s operations blocks.

With cloud and VNS, Algar’s mobile network no longer operates as a sort of EDC (Enterprise Data Center) within the carrier’s data center structure and earns its own space in the cloud, allowing some operation blocks to run virtually. It reinforces capacity, flexibility, and provides service delivery with less latency.

Lima believes that the 5G foundation should also be an efficient data transport network, with optical fiber solutions. “In this point, we are well prepared. We have invested a lot on fiber, especially to deliver solutions to the corporate market,” he emphasized. In August, Algar is planning to execute a 5G trial in two locations: Granja Edileuza, a fully-connected neighborhood in Uberlandia that serves as a testing area for Algar’s new technologies, and another location still undefined.

The experience with the introduction of past generations of mobile technologies has triggered other warning signs for the executives who participated in the processes. “There must be demand and, in that case, terminals must be available before we think of infrastructure. We’ve been through it with 4,5G, we were the first to implement the platform, but the terminals began to arrive a year later,” recalled Sarcinelli.

Chilean Movistar’s Machuca agrees. “The 5G is an evolution of the mobile access technology that allows carriers to expand their services’ portfolio. However, said services are still inexistent outside proof of concept environments, as not even the ecosystems that would allow them to be born have been created yet,” he points out.

For Claro Brazil’s engineering director, considering the available network, new services, ongoing projects, and demand, there’s no need for 5G for about two years. Lima shares his view and adds that the fifth generation business model for mobile telephony remains a mystery.

Perhaps the time for implementing the 5G is faster than expected. According to market analysts, the 3G took ten years to reach 500 million connections. In the 4G era, it happened within four years, and now there are expectations that it could take only three years for 5G.

Faster or not, the only certainty thus far is that infrastructure sharing should remain center stage. “Nobody does any more long-range development by themselves; we share everything. The same is true for the antennas, and Brazil is one of the best global cases on the matter,” assessed Vivo’s Branco.

“It is a beneficial instrument for everyone, carriers and society, and should increase with 5G,” added Ituassu. He points out that if confirmed the use of the 3,5 GHz frequency, network densification will require the installation of more antennas and increased investment efforts. “There is no way of thinking about providing such coverage without sharing,” he affirmed. During the 4G times, Oi and Tim were the first to announce a large-scale infrastructure sharing agreement, soon followed by Vivo and Claro.