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NGN Magazine Magazine logo
Nov/Dec 2009 | Volume 1/Number 6
Analyst's Corner

Living in a Flat World

By Ronald Gruia (News - Alert)

DurDuring the Middle Ages, it was thought that the Earth is flat rather than spherical. It wasn't until 1497, when en route to India, that Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama managed to sail past the Cape of Good Hope and helped dispel that notion.

Interestingly enough, more than half a millennium later, Thomas Friedman's bestselling book analyzing the ongoing globalization trend swung the pendulum back the other way with its title "The World is Flat". Evidently, Friedman was using a metaphor to help him drive home the key idea of the book, namely that there is a level playing field in the world of global commerce.

In the telco domain, a similar trend is happening, and the "flat architecture" approach is making a comeback. A fundamental principle of IMS is the notion of reutilizing common functions such as billing and presence and then integrating them into a flat approach. This "horizontalization" of common functions leads to tangible benefits such as opex reduction, since the incremental cost of deploying additional services once the IMS core is deployed goes down exponentially, as more components can get reutilized. Vertical silos are being replaced by a flatter architecture, and this also applies in the edge, aggregation and core network segments.

That said, let's look at a few key trends.

We're seeing huge growth in mobile data traffic.

Earlier this year, Cisco (News - Alert) predicted a 131 percent CAGR in mobile data traffic over the next five years, mostly being driven by video. This is the direct consequence of the explosion of mobile broadband.

A single laptop can generate as much traffic as 450 basic-feature phones, and a high-end handset such as an iPhone or BlackBerry device creates as much traffic as 30 basic-feature phones. 4G LTE (News - Alert) will transport voice on an IP channel, which could put further strain on the underlying infrastructure requirement.

Data volume is soaring with the spread of advance services in mobile networks, including deco-anime (decorated animation), Chaku-uta full (music download) and movies running on networks of operators such as NTT (News - Alert) DoCoMo. The need for more bandwidth can be illustrated by a simple comparison of a movie payload of 5MB and that of an ordinary e-mail, 100 2-byte characters.

And the mobile broadband opportunity in terms of user numbers is substantial. Only about 5 percent of global wireless subs had broadband capabilities by the end of 2008. However, we expect the mobile broadband penetration to grow to 18 percent, and subscribers with mobile broadband capabilities to triple to more than 1 billion by 2013. This represents a substantial increase and shows the tremendous potential of the mobile broadband opportunity going forward.

All that said, what are the key takeaways here? A fundamental driver in generating a multi-year wireless packet core network upgrade cycle – that started in the second half of this year – is the recent development in the 3GPP standards group of the evolved packet system, which concerns the evolution of the flat mobile core architecture. The EPS, in its most basic configuration, is made up by the following elements:

• a simpler base station (eNodeB) and an evolved packet core network gateway (EPC-GW) in the data path; and

• a mobility management entity (MME) in the control path.






The above topology is premised upon Ethernet and IP and represents an access-neutral implementation intended to cost-effectively and simultaneously support 3G cellular, non-macro-cellular access (i.e. femtocells and Wi-Fi), and fixed access methods for all traffic types (e.g. text, voice/audio, video, images, etc). The flat EPS core also will provide an incremental upgrade path to LTE radio access.

Vendors such as NSN have carried out recent analyses that indicate double-digit savings might be achievable in core network opex via upgrades of the carriers' legacy SONET/ATM core networks to a flatter Ethernet/IP architecture. Savings arise from reduced services provisioning, software upgrades, a smaller degree of troubleshooting and fewer network administration tasks, which all combine to improve the opex side of the equation.

Recognizing the exponential growth patterns in mobile data and IP video services, many tier 1 service providers are engaged in migrating their legacy infrastructures to a flat Ethernet backhaul and core network topology. This "horizontalization" also entails the utilization of open Internet standards-based approaches, leveraging technologies such as SIP, TCP/IP, etc., instead of proprietary "stovepipe" Telecom 1.0 implementations.

The near-term goal is to lower significantly the network's running costs. The ultimate objective is to operate a feature-rich network that can be cost-effectively enhanced via software upgrades, following the IT service model. With this modular approach, IT features can be deployed incrementally without the need of a forklift upgrade.

This is yet another example of the "ITfication" of the telecom space, which strives to deliver services on modular, large-scale and lowest cost bases.

Ronald Gruia (News - Alert) is program leader and principal analyst at Frost & Sullivan (www.frost.com) covering emerging communications solutions.

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