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Vendors Scurry to Buy, Build Solutions to Address the 4G Opportunity

By: Paula Bernier

With demand for mobile data booming and carriers moving to build 4G networks, everybody and their brother is hustling to get a piece of the pie. As of late, there’s been a lot of activity relative to the packet core and mobile backhaul solutions.

The last few months have seen Cisco Systems Inc. snap up Starent Networks (News - Alert) in a deal worth nearly $3 billion, and Tellabs pick up WiChorus for about $165 million. Both acquisitions involve packet core technology.

Additionally, a host of other suppliers including Adtran Inc., Adva Optical Networking, Anda Networks, Transmode (News - Alert), Xelerated, and even service providers such as Level 3 Communications Inc., have unveiled new and improved mobile backhaul solutions targeting next-generation wireless networks.

The Core of the Matter

“The EPC plays a pivotal role in enabling operators who move to LTE (News - Alert) to meet the significant market expectations for better service at lower cost,” says Stéphane Téral, principal analyst of mobile and FMC infrastructure with Infonetics Research (News - Alert). “The industry is moving to IP, and ultimately to bridging the mobile and fixed networks...”

As Natasha Tamaskar, vice president of product marketing at Genband, notes in a white paper called “Changing Definitions of Mobility: Connecting Users and services in a Wireless World,” a significant implication of moving to LTE will be that the throughput bottleneck starts shifting toward the core.

“To reduce bottlenecks in the networks, operators need to start considering flattening their network architectures to reduce latency for data applications, effectively reducing capital expenses and operational expenses,” she writes. “This is fundamentally the rationale behind the architecture of evolved packet core for LTE access.”

According to Tamaskar, EPC is a few years away, and it is not clear at this point if this will replace the current core altogether or if it will coexist with it for a period of time.

However, in a SUPERCOMM panel on Oct. 21, Verizon (News - Alert) publicly committed to delivering all of its next-generation network multimedia content over its IP-based core network. And Verizon Wireless, which last February at Mobile World Congress (News - Alert) in Barcelona named its LTE vendors, has awarded EPC deals to Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Starent.

“Working with our next-generation network infrastructure suppliers, Verizon has designed a transcoding architecture for our packet-based core network that supports Verizon’s direction toward open networks by facilitating the introduction of media encoding technology while ensuring interoperability,” said Tim Dwight, senior technologist at Verizon, during a SUPERCOMM panel discussion.

“For example, in the case of VoIP, our design resolves the ‘tower of Babel’ problem by allowing the sender and the receiver to negotiate a common encoding format, which, if successful, eliminates the need for media format conversion, or transcoding, and provides a network-based media conversion capability for use in cases where the end devices support no common codec,” he said. ”It does this all in the packet domain, avoiding reliance on the circuit-switched core. And where transcoding is necessary, it is performed directly between the media encoding formats required by each device, eliminating the double transcoding problem that plagues networks that elect to interwork disparate access technologies across a circuit-switched core.”

Historically, wireline and wireless voice networks have used different and incompatible media encoding formats, Dwight said, with UMTS and LTE using one encoding format, CDMA-based networks using another, and multimedia services offered via wireline broadband networks typically using yet another. To avoid that, an efficient, extensible all-IP solution is required. And that’s precisely what Verizon is adopting, added Dwight, saying the company has begun integrating these capabilities into its next-generation network infrastructure, which it expects to go live in the second half of 2010.

It is this kind of migration from major carriers that is pushing companies like Cisco (News - Alert) and Tellabs to buy packet core vendors.

Noting that service providers have been investing actively in this market as global mobile data traffic is expected to more than double every year through 2013, Cisco in mid-October 2009 announced the Starent deal, which is expected to close during the first half of 2010.

As noted above, Starent is an important company given it has been selected to provide core network gear for Verizon’s LTE network. The vendor also addresses 2.5G and 3G mobile networks. According to Cisco, Starent has more than 100 customer deployments in 45 countries worldwide.

A week after Cisco’s Starent news broke, Tellabs at SUPERCOMM in Chicago announced plans to acquire smart 4G packet core provider WiChorus (News - Alert).

Tellabs has 120 mobile backhaul deployments. WiChorus will help the company evolve those – and expand to other customers – with IP-based solutions.

The company says the WiChorus SmartCore platform, which it will add to its existing 3G/4G mobile backhaul solutions portfolio, offers eight times more throughput, four times more simultaneous Internet connections and active users, compared with competitive platforms in gateway applications, according to Tellabs (News - Alert). It combines application analytics with a mobile core gateway for optimized traffic engineering and network optimization, such as enabling more efficient signaling to allow carriers to offload Internet traffic from the mobile core, says William Kautz, staff manager of global portfolio planning at Tellabs, who also talked about how the Tellabs’ 8600 could potentially be used to cache local content at the edge of 4G networks.

But the WiChorus SmartCore is more than simply an underlying infrastructure solution. It also makes mobile networks content- and context-aware, with personalized application-awareness.

Kautz explains that the WiChorus technology allows service providers to see what applications are flowing over their networks and, thus, tailor and monetize services and messages based on that knowledge. He adds that Tellabs recently announced a network management service through which the company helps mobile service providers better understand what’s happening on their networks and the customer experiences related to it. Kautz says marketing and customer care people at the carriers are “going gaga over this.” But the Tellabs solution is a 3G one, he continues; WiChorus will allow the company to apply that to 4G.

Also on the packet core front, Ericsson announced its evolved packet core portfolio back in February. That includes SGSN/MME and Mobile Packet Gateway (News - Alert) – software upgrades of the existing SGSN and GGSN products respectively – and the new Converged Packet Gateway. The CPG is built on the company’s SmartEdge platform and addresses both fixed and mobile traffic in the core network.

In April at the CTIA (News - Alert) show, Alcatel-Lucent introduced its EPC solution for LTE. The company’s EPC incorporates four elements: the Mobility Management Entity and Dynamic Services Controller, which manage dynamic mobility and policy; and the Serving Gateway and Packet Data Network Gateway, which are implemented as plug-in hardware and software modules for the Alcatel-Lucent (News - Alert) 7750 Service Router, for which more than 30,000 nodes have been shipped to more than 260 operators. This design means operators can deploy a single router that supports 2G, 3G and LTE as well as wireline networks, reducing cost, complexity and space requirements, Alcatel-Lucent notes.

Juniper Networks (News - Alert) Inc. also is reportedly developing packet core solutions and aims to leverage its Trio chips and universal edge vision in the effort.

What’s New in Mobile Backhaul

Meanwhile, in the area of next-generation mobile backhaul, a wide variety of companies are coming to market with new solutions.

For example, mobile backhaul leader ADTRAN (News - Alert) recently unveiled an Ethernet-based mobile backhaul solution that leverages its popular Total Access 5000 multiservice access product and lesser-known MX408e pseudowire box.

The new solution includes the addition of a fiber-based carrier Ethernet capability for the Total Access 5000, paired with timing capabilities from ADTRAN’s existing MX408e product.

“We’re porting our timing over packet, our clock synchronization, our pseudowire solution, onto our TA 5000,” explains Kurt Raaflaub, ADTRAN’s product manager for carrier Ethernet and optical products. “In other words, we’re taking it from our OPTI-6100 SONET-based platform – that’s where it’s been for the last several years – and we’ve now put it on to our carrier Ethernet platform, which is the TA 5000.”

Adtran introduced the Total Access 5000 in March of 2006. It initially was positioned and has seen a great deal of success as a broadband digital loop carrier system and IP DSLAM, focused primarily at the tier 2 and 3 marketplace, says Kevin Morgan (News - Alert), director of marketing for ADTRAN’s carrier networks division. A year later ADTRAN introduced Ethernet over copper and TDM capabilities for the TA 5000. The company then brought GPON to the product so it could support residential triple play services. Now it’s added carrier Ethernet capability for mobile backhaul and business services to the TA 5000, which Morgan adds is an all-Ethernet platform designed for packet-based networks but also can support legacy services.

The ability to support both the old and the new is key given the move to an all IP-based network in which fiber access is widespread has been, and will continue to be, a gradual one. Indeed, only 5 percent of business services today are Ethernet services, notes Raaflaub. Similarly, wireless network operators have been cautious in their move to IP-based backhaul.

“There’s been some hesitation on the part of the mobile operators to migrate to all packet because they’re not comfortable yet with the way the synchronization is delivered over an Ethernet network,” says Morgan.

However, as noted, ADTRAN is addressing that synchronization issue with the mobile backhaul solution.

“I’ve taken the same good, old-fashioned bit clock that’s in any central office, and I’m transporting that quality clock and keeping that same quality over packet,” says Raaflaub. “And I’m sending that up the base station. And the base station is just fat, dumb and happy. It thinks it’s getting the bits input directly from the CO. It doesn’t know the difference.”

In this mobile backhaul scenario, the TA 5000 interfaces with a NetVanta 8044 Ethernet access device at the cell site.

As for Adva, the company this fall debuted to the North American market a gigabit Ethernet mobile backhaul solution called the FSP 150CC-GE206.

The product, which targets mobile backhaul applications, supports both SynchE, for frequency synchronization, and the 1588v2 spec, which does phase and time-of-day synchronization as well as frequency synchronization.

Anda also recently launched an Ethernet-based mobile backhaul device. The EtherEdge 4300 was in trials with 4G/WiMAX (News - Alert) base station equipment partners late in 2009 and was slated for general availability this quarter.

It provides load balancing, performs WAN optimization and reallocates bandwidth directly at the base station without the need for additional devices or deep packet inspection. It also supports pseudowire-based circuit emulation for voice, and BITS, SynchE and 1588 v2 timing and synchronization.

“Real-time OAM monitoring capabilities in the EtherEdge 4300 increases mobile network visibility for new converged voice, data, and multimedia traffic flows,” notes Greg Gum (News - Alert), chief marketing officer of Anda. “Using the EtherEdge 4300, mobile operators gain pay-as-you-grow capex savings without a forklift upgrade as different generations of radio backhaul architectures can be accommodated with an easy card insert. Pay-as-you-know generated opex savings with the automated EtherProbe flow and EtherStream sub-flow monitoring, dynamically optimizes bandwidth while providing proactive, automated protection switching thus, saving operator intervention and truck rolls to remote base stations.”

Transmode also was promoting its mobile backhaul solution on the fall trade show circuit.

The company’s Multi-Service Mobile Backhaul Solution is a WDM over fiber solution supporting both TDM and Ethernet traffic and offering multiple synchronization streams per wavelength.

A differentiator for this solution, according to Transmode, is its support for multiple synchronization signals, enabling backhaul of multiple wireless technologies and multiple operators on the same fiber infrastructure.

“Transmode has already enjoyed much success in the U.S. including our recent big win at KDL,” says Paul Harrison, vice president of sales for North America. “Besides offering an ideal solution for mobile operators seeking to extend fiber to their cell sites, the new Multi-Service Backhaul Solution will also empower MSOs and other U.S. carriers that provide fiber access on a wholesale basis.”

Service providers are moving to get a piece of the 4G mobile backhaul action as well.

Level 3 Communications (News - Alert) Inc., for example, recently launched Level 3 Tower Access, which

offers the capabilities to place wireless towers on or near existing Level 3 network facilities. Primarily located in rural areas, Level 3 says the service offers wireless operators an alternative to incumbent providers.

The carrier has identified more than 300 tower-ready network sites with the geography and right-of-way access to support the addition of wireless towers and is working with multiple partners to erect wireless carrier-neutral towers directly on the Level 3 network in these locations.

“Mobile data traffic will grow by an order of magnitude between 2009 and 2012,” says Jennifer Pigg, vice president of enabling technologies for Yankee Group (News - Alert). “Mobile operators are scrambling to meet this capacity demand cost effectively in their wireless backhaul networks. Direct wireless tower access to the Level 3 network offers a unique service for wireless carriers to optimize network performance and capacity.” IT

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