Intel, CableLabs view network virtualization from different angles: Special Report

Virtualization is impacting telecom networks from greenfield, to brownfield, and even cable companies are getting in on the action. The topic will be discussed Tuesday, July 21, during FierceWireless’ Summer 5G Blitz Week.

Intel has been working on network virtualization from the very beginning when it began collaborating with service providers that were interested in software-defined networking and network functions virtualization. General purpose servers based on Intel’s x86 processors provided the hardware to run the SDN and NFV software.

“We started the journey in the wireless core,” said Cristina Rodriguez, VP of the data platforms group and GM of the wireless access network division at Intel. 

She cited a January 2020 Dell ‘Oro report, which forecasts that 50% of core network functions will be virtualized this year, growing to more than 80% by 2024. The majority of those are running on standards-based platforms powered by Intel architecture.

Alex Quach, VP of Intel’s data platforms group, told FierceWireless recently, “The way different service providers implement their 5G core is going to vary. Every service provider has unique circumstances.”

RELATED: SK Telecom trials Intel chips for 5G standalone core network

Rodriguez said that virtualization work on the core is well on its way, and now the most interesting innovation is taking those concepts to the radio access network (RAN).

“We’re living in super exciting times on the RAN side with 5G and the buildout of the edge,” said Rodriguez. “The operators have really multiple options for architecting their RAN. We see a space where one size doesn’t fit all. We have provided the Intel FlexRAN architecture that allows all the wireless stacks to run on our Xeon servers plus some acceleration on FPGA.”

The FlexRAN architecture is already used by Rakuten for its greenfield wireless network. “Now you have a common platform from core to edge to far edge based on Xeon server architecture,” she said.

Rakuten has only six hardware SKUs in its network, and they’re all based on Intel’s Xeon processors.

Aside from Intel’s FlexRAN, operators have a multitude of choices when it comes to virtualizing their networks. Virtualization technologies can be used in architectures that are distributed, centralized, or even focused at the radio site.

Cable and wireless, plus virtualization

Surprisingly, even cable operators are getting into network virtualization for wireless networks.

Mariam Sorond, chief research and development officer at CableLabs, has been with the cable trade group since September 2019. She’s heading up its wireless efforts. Prior to CableLabs, Sorond was chief wireless architect with Dish Network for seven years.

Several cable operators, including Altice, Comcast and Charter, are offering mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) services, running on the networks of the big wireless carriers in the U.S.

But aside from MVNO services, what in the world is CableLabs’ interest in wireless?

Apparently, quite a lot.

CableLabs already has members that are full MNOs, including Vodafone, GCI, Shaw, Rogers and Millicom. “We have been active in the mobile and wireless space for a significant amount of time,” said Sorond. “We’re participating in O-RAN, TIP and the 3GPP. We want to expand that.”

Cable operators already consider themselves in the wireless business because they offer Wi-Fi in homes and businesses as well as Wi-Fi hotspots.

And MSO’s have existing infrastructure to form the basis of new wireless networks, including their hybrid fiber coax (HFC) connections as well as their headends for data-center-like functions such as compute and storage. “They have the most foundation for a distributed architecture to provide a wireless and mobile network in a cost-effective way,” said Sorond. “The MSOs have a great foundation. Spectrum could be surgically attained.”

There’s been plenty of talk about cable operators buying CBRS spectrum to offload some of their MVNO traffic, saving money on wholesale costs.

RELATED: A variety of operators are likely to bid in the CBRS auction: Special Report on CBRS

“Offloading traffic – it doesn’t just stop there; they could serve a lot of different use cases as well,” said Sorond. “Spinning up private networks is something that is one opportunity to serve the enterprise market.”

She added that in the old paradigm, anyone who wanted to compete in wireless “had to go build 50,000 macro towers, have tons of spectrum and build what everyone else has” in order to compete. “But today you don’t need to do that anymore,” she said. “You surgically build.”

The big cable operators have already been virtualizing their core networks, and CableLabs wants to help them use the same common hardware platforms to expand to wireless offerings, including 5G. “If you’re an HFC and you want to become an MNO, it makes it easier,” said Sorond. “The wireless connection is between the base station and your handset. The rest of the network is all wired.”

She also said cable may have some advantages in 5G because it doesn’t have to deal with a legacy 4G network.

CableLabs’ members are already thinking of standalone (SA) 5G services. “If you don’t have an existing network, then you’re able to leverage 5G SA from day one,” said Sorond. “Dish or the MSOs could start with a 5G standalone. At CableLabs we are thinking it is the right time to do this – for MSOs to build a 5G network.”