Virtualization could be key to T-Mobile, Sprint network architecture mashup

While there are no specifics just yet, look for virtualization to play a key role going forward as Sprint and T-Mobile combine their nationwide networks over the next three years.

After years of failed courtships, T-Mobile and Sprint announced on Sunday that they had finally made it to the alter with a proposed $26.5 billion merger that would create a 5G behemoth in the U.S.

If the deal passes regulatory muster, it would pair Sprint's 2.5GHz band with T-Mobile's 600 MHz spectrum to "create the mother of all networks," according to a Twitter post by T-Mobile US CTO Ray Neville. The combined company, which will be called the "new" T-Mobile, would be firmly ensconced as the third-largest wireless operator in the U.S. behind AT&T and Verizon.

Combining Sprint and T-Mobile's networks is a tall task that could be greased by virtualization, although those exact details are scant at this point.

"I can’t speak to the specific virtualization plans—I just don’t know," said Scott Raynovich, principal analyst at Futuriom. "But mergers of this scale are nearly always about cost savings. Opex and capex reduction are the name of the game in telco land. By merging, Sprint and T-Mobile hope to reduce the cost of maintaining and upgrading their networks and they would be more efficient as one entity. Virtualization, especially in the case of a 5G deployment, will be a key to reducing capex and opex expenses."

To date, T-Mobile hasn't been nearly active as the other three wireless operators when it comes to virtualization using SDN and NFV.

T-Mobile does have 18,000 containers in operation across a virtualized cloud infrastructure, according to a story earlier this month by SDxCentral. T-Mobile's containers are largely supporting customer-facing applications and can process up to 10,000 transactions, including payments and leased devices, per second, according to SDxCentral.

Last fall, FierceWireless reported that T-Mobile was giving the Linux Foundation's ONAP (Open Network Automation Platform) open source software community a hard look. ONAP's service provider roster includes Sprint, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, China Mobile, Telefónica, BT, Telenor, and Bell Mobility, among others.

T-Mobile's Ray said that his company's more modern core architecture meant it didn't need to move as aggressively toward a virtualized network like its U.S. competitors were doing, according to a story by SDxCentral. Ray did say that software-defined networking (SDN) would play a key role in regards to 5G and network slicing.

By contrast, Sprint has been vocal about aggressively embracing virtualization. Prior to his departure in November, Gunther Ottendorfer, former chief operating officer of technology for Sprint, provided a general overview of how Sprint was using an NFV OpenStack cloud deployment to build out the development of its LTE Plus Network, Gigabit LTE and, eventually, 5G services and networks in a company blog.

Sprint has been constructing a new virtual core that included replacing standalone, bare metal platforms with a single Network Function Virtualization infrastructure (NFVi) on which all of the Evolved Packet Core and IP Multimedia Sub-System platforms reside as Virtualized Network Functions. 

Sprint has also spent the past few years building and deploying common infrastructure data centers across its network with the plan of expanding them as needed to enable its "cap and grow" approach to commercializing NFV. According to Ottendorfer's blog, Sprint has capped its expansion on legacy core network hardware while creating new functionality and capacity on its virtualized platform.

Sprint also announced its SD-WAN offering last year as well as its C3PO initiative, which is Sprint's open source NFV and SDN-based mobile core reference platform.

Sprint has too much invested in SDN and NFV to not continue down the virtualization pathway. With the complexities involved of combining two different network architectures, it stands to reason that virtualization would play a key role for the new T-Mobile going forward. But, as we have seen in other NFV deployments, that doesn't mean there won't be some growing pains along the way.

For now, the proverbial low-hanging fruit would be to get T-Mobile on board with SD-WAN for its enterprise customers. On the enterprise side, due to deployments by the likes of Google and Amazon Web Services, customers have come to expect dynamic, on-demand services. Virtualization enables some of the same avenues for telcos.