Cisco predicts major backhaul upgrades for 5G

LOS ANGELES — Cisco is at Mobile World Congress Americas this week, which raises the question: Why? Cisco isn’t typically thought of as a radio access network (RAN) vendor, and its name doesn’t immediately come to mind — such as Ericsson and Nokia — when thinking of the mobile vendor ecosystem.

But Jonathan Davidson, Cisco GM of service provider networking, said, with typical Cisco confidence, “Cisco is the most important 5G vendor in the world.”

He said when mobile carriers are building their 5G networks they have to select vendors in three key areas: They have to pick a radio vendor; they need a backhaul vendor to rebuild their network because the current network can’t handle the 5G speeds; and they need a 5G core vendor.

Cisco's Davidson
Jonathan Davidson

Cisco participates in two of the three: backhaul and core. And actually, it’s also beginning to help drive the Open vRAN ecosystem.

5G Backhaul

Davidson said 5G is going to need a lot of backhaul upgrades. “Globally, the average backhaul is less than 5 Mbps,” he said. And even though there’s a perception that backhaul in major metro areas is all built from high-capacity fiber, Davidson said, “You still see a lot of these big round domes with a lightening bolt on them. That’s microwave.”

He described much of the existing backhaul network in America as “a really low capacity network.” And when 5G starts to become pervasive, and it’s delivering speeds over 1 Gbps, he added that, “You need a new backhaul network. You absolutely need to have it.”

RELATED: 5G backhaul requires more symmetry than previous wireless generations

In addition to being poised to deliver upgraded backhaul, Cisco is also positioned to help carriers upgrade their core networks for 5G. 

Gogo today announced that it selected Cisco to provide core network solutions that will power Gogo's nationwide air-to-ground (ATG) 5G network. Gogo said it selected Cisco because of its expertise in providing 4G/5G solutions for some of the world's largest wireless telecommunications networks.

Core network

In fact, Cisco’s work with Rakuten, the Japanese company that’s building a greenfield 4G/5G network, is giving it some good cred as a leading vendor of next-gen mobile core networks.

RELATED: Cisco installs 4,000 edge nodes for Rakuten’s wireless network

Rakuten has been very open about the buildout of its new, fully virtualized, cloud-native network. It said in February that it had hired Cisco to build its network functions virtualization infrastructure (NFVi) with 4,000 edge nodes. And Cisco is also the primary systems integrator for Rakuten’s virtualized telco cloud.

Today, Michael Beesley, Cisco CTO for service provider networking, elaborated on the company’s work with Rakuten. He said the new network comprises three layers of compute. The 2,000 to 4,000 nodes (or cloud RAN locations) are fitted with x86 compute and distributed unit (DU) and centralized unit (CU) functions.

The next layer of compute includes more than 100 locations for distributed user plane functions for the packet core. Beesley said these sites host three or four racks of compute per location.

Finally, Rakuten’s network has two main data centers, which handle all the compute for the central control functions.

All of the compute in Rakuten’s network is based on x86 servers. “One of Rakuten’s philosophies was to really anchor all their technology onto a small number of commodity building blocks,” said Beesley. “It helps them a lot with economies of scale and with pricing.”

While this makes a lot of sense for Rakuten, it’s kind of amazing that Cisco is on board with it. A few years ago, it felt as if Cisco was resisting the trend toward generic hardware and was holding onto its proprietary-hardware roots. But Davidson said, “There’s no point in fighting the ocean.” And he said Cisco actually contributes a lot of networking code to open source groups such as the Linux Foundation.

Open vRAN and O-RAN

While Cisco is banking on 5G for new business from backhaul and core, it’s also dabbling in virtual RAN by leading the charge on Open vRAN. Its partners on this initiative currently include Altiostar, Mavenir, Parallel Wireless and JMA Wireless, among others.

Asked if Open vRAN conflicts with the work of the O-RAN Alliance, Davidson said he doesn’t see them as competitive at all. “It would be difficult to do Open vRAN if O-RAN didn’t exist. O-RAN is about defining interfaces and APIs. Open vRAN is about making sure all these elements actually work together,” he said, adding that it’s a “take-to-market” initiative with joint partners.