Corning, Intel team up for in-building 5G, leveraging vRAN

Corning and Intel are partnering on a new virtual platform to help accelerate and streamline in-building 5G deployments for mobile carriers and enterprises, leveraging Intel’s FlexRAN Reference Software Architecture.

Michelle Engarto, VP of wireless product line management for Corning Optical Communications, said it’s surprising how prevalent wireless is indoors, with more businesses allowing employees bringing their own devices to work and increasing demands on connectivity.

While very large venues, such as stadiums, have been at the forefront of carrier 5G deployments – Verizon for example announced earlier this year it would bring 5G connectivity to 13 NFL stadiums and on Friday added three arenas to its 5G list, with plans for Madison Square Garden and others down the line  – the need for wireless connectivity in enterprises of all sizes is growing and Corning is aiming to make the indoor 5G transition easy, affordable and scalable.

“It’s becoming untenable for enterprises, even in the mid-sized and smaller square foot spaces to consider not having wireless anymore and upgrading their networks,” Engarto said.

The companies said the Intel-based platform serves as a foundation to virtualized radio access networks (vRAN) to enable enterprises to “reap the full benefits” of 5G based plaftorms, like ultra-reliablie, low latency, enhanced mobile bandwidth.

RELATED: Telefonica invests in vRAN vendor Altiostar

Engarto said the product will help enterprises “innovate faster themselves, provide better service to their own customers, make a better work environment for their employees and also take advantage of the many new powerful applications that are going to be coming,” she said.

The virtual platform, still under development, will be commercially available in 2020, though Corning has already successfully demoed the product for select customers. Corning is currently working with all the major carriers, as well as promoting their indoor enterprise solutions with integrators, distributors and enterprises directly, according to Engarto.

Corning has well over a decade of experience with cellular enterprise, including a small cell portfolio that runs on existing ethernet, SD-WAN solutions, and massive distributed antenna systems (DAS), among others, but is working to make its portfolio 5G-compatible and leaning on Intel’s expertise in the processing space.

Intel has been working for years on its virtual RAN platform, and Engarto said Corning has strong confidence in Intel’s solution, layer 1 software and chipset.

In its wireless efforts, Corning is looking for partners that have complementary capabilities, a criterion she said Intel “fits squarely in.” Intel is also working with Corning so it can develop its own proprietary software to make the platform work for enterprises.

“It’s really a marriage of capabilities and experience in the enterprise space that makes us a good partner.”

Specifically, the collaboration combines Corning’s wireless connectivity portfolio and Intel technologies, including its second-generation Intel Xeon Scalable processors; Intel FlexRAN 5G and 4G Reference Software; FPGA Programmable Acceleration Card N3000; 10/25/40Gb Intel Ethernet 700 Series Network Adapters. Engarto said Corning also brings its expertise in understanding what building owners need to be successful and what will resonate with them in terms of the value proposition for upgrading.

Challenges to in-building 5G adoption

One of the most difficult challenges to installing and scaling indoor 5G connectivity, according to Engarto, is the existing WAN infrastructure.

“For brownfields it’s particularly tough because it can be really expensive,” with the need to pull additional cables and hook up more devices. “The enterprises aren’t really keen on doing that unless there’s a really good value proposition, which we believe 5G will help…because there will be capabilities provided by 5G technology that aren’t available today with 3G, 4G and certainly not with copper networks.”

She also pointed to increased real estate values for properties that provide indoor cellular coverage versus those that don’t as an additional factor that’s generating more impetus for building owners “to actually go ahead and do something different.”

A second challenge has been getting approval for signal sources in buildings, an issue Corning has an advantage in, according to Engarto.

“Corning has the only signal source that’s already been approved by the major carriers, so we’re able to get much quicker approvals, install in-building cellular systems, and light them up much more quickly than our competitors.”

RELATED: Nokia takes 5G cloud RAN live, works to convert vRAN skeptics

Engarto expects an uptick in adoption directly from enterprises.

For many years, enterprises assumed carriers would provide free upgrades or equipment to get cellular installed, something that is no longer the case aside from large installations where carriers want to collaborate and share the cost of installing capacity, according to Engarto.

So now two factors have come into play: the understanding among enterprises that carriers can’t be relied on to spend all of the capital to deliver cellular service; and traffic demands mean the need for enterprises to solve connectivity issues for their customers and residents has “grown exponentially.”

Engarto explained, “Those two things coming together is making this a much more urgent situation and I think we’re going to start to see more rapid adoption by the enterprises directly than we have in the past.”

Spectrum support and vRAN interest

Corning and Intel’s new in-building wireless platform will support a range of spectrum bands, including CBRS and FirstNet Band 14 for AT&T specifically. 

Engarto said it will be fully sub-6 GHz and millimeter wave-capable, and continue to provide support for frequencies under 1 GHz.  The platform will also be interoperable with 4G, so customers that already have Corning’s 4G products will be able to upgrade to 5G through software implementation rather than having to rip out hardware. It will also be compatible with third-party capacity sources, so can accept signals from Corning basebands or enterprise or carrier-provided basebands.

In terms of getting enterprises on board, vRAN benefits play a part. Cisco, another vendor making moves in the 5G space is no stranger to vRAN, as in 2009 it spent $2.9 billion for startup Starent Networks that decoupled the mobile packet core from the radio access network, and in 2011 Cisco was an early investor that helped create Altiostar, by funding some members from the Starent team.

Altiostar just this month announced Telefonica Ventures as its latest investor, joining Cisco, Quaclomm, Rakuten, Tech Mahindra, and Fidelity. Telefonica will likely use the U.S. vendor's vRAN technology in its European and Latin American 4G and 5G networks

RELATED: Cisco’s early bet on RAN virtualization propels Altiostar

Engarto said Corning is “absolutely” seeing a lot of interest in vRAN from enterprises because it addresses one of the factors causing hesitation among businesses as they consider upgrading wireless networks, which is simply all of the gear required. The need to purchase, connect, and maintain a lot of hardware and have staff to understand it can be “a little bit scary” for enterprises if they’re not familiar with the equipment.

With vRAN, enterprises can install or wire once, and upgrade via software rather than changing out hardware again and having to disrupt networks, which “makes it a really elegant solution that’s going to save [enterprises] time, cost, money and hassle in the long term.” It also saves physical space by removing the need for closets full of hardware, Engarto added.

“We’re talking about providing software upgrades, not going into buildings and having to touch every piece of hardware that’s in the ceiling or in the closet, so it clearly is going to have a real impact on speed [of implementation]."