Virgin Media to take a mmWave approach to ‘full-fibre’

Virgin Media has unveiled the results of a new trial using wireless to deliver fibre broadband to customers in remote locations.

In a small village in the English countryside, Virgin Media has been exploring possibilities of delivering backhaul traffic over the airways. Although this is something which Virgin Media has been doing for years, the difference here seems to be the team is toying around with mmWave as opposed to microwave.

“As we invest to expand our ultrafast network we’re always looking at new, innovative ways to make build more efficient and connect premises that might currently be out of reach,” said Jeanie York, Chief Technology and Information Officer at Virgin Media. “While presently this is a trial, it’s clear that this technology could help to provide more people and businesses with the better broadband they deserve.”

The challenge which seems to be addressed here is combining the complications of deploying infrastructure and the increasing data appetite of the consumer. As you can see below, the trial makes use of mmWave to connect two ‘trunk’ points over 3 kilometres with a 10 Gbps signal. The signal is converted at the cabinet, before being sent through the last-mile on a fibre connection.

Virgin Media

Although this trial only connected 12 homes in the village of Newbury, Virgin Media believes this process could sustainably support delivery of residential services to 500 homes. This assumption also factors in a 40% average annual growth in data consumption. With further upgrades, the radio link could theoretically support a 20Gbps connection, taking the number of homes serviced to 2,000.

The advantage of this approach to delivering broadband is the ability to skip over tricky physical limitations. There are numerous villages which are experiencing poor connections because the vast spend which would have to be made to circumnavigate a valley, rivers or train lines. This approach not only speeds up the deployment, it simplifies it and makes it cheaper.

Looking at the distance between the two ‘trunks’, Virgin Media has said 3km is just about as far as it can go with mmWave. This range takes into account different weather conditions, the trial included some adverse conditions such as 80mph winds and 30mm rainfall, but radios chained together and used back-to-back could increased this coverage and scope of applications.

With alt-nets becoming increasingly common throughout the UK, new ideas to make use of mmWave and alternative technologies will need to be sought. Traditional players will find revenues being gradually eroded if a new vision of connectivity is not acquired. Just look at the challenge CityFibre has been mounting to the status quo as evidence of the threat.

Ericsson and DT manage 100 Gbps over microwave

A trial of wireless backhaul over microwave jointly conducted by Deutsche Telekom and Ericsson has managed to top the 100 Gbps mark.

Current commercial microwave backhaul rigs only manage a mere 10 Gbps, we’re told, so this is a fairly substantial increase, albeit in a trial environment. This mega-fast data rate was transmitted over a distance of 1.5 kilometres, which isn’t a bad effort. It involved an 8×8 line-of-sight MIMO with cross polarization interference cancellation (of course), using a 2.5 GHz channel bandwidth in the E-band (70/80 GHz).

“This trial signifies the successful establishment of true fiber capacities over the air using microwave,” said Per Narvinger, Head of Product Area Networks at Ericsson. “This means that microwave will be even more relevant for communications service providers in creating redundant networks as a back-up for fiber, or as a way of closing a fiber ring when fiber is not a viable solution. By carrying such high capacities, microwave further establishes itself as a key transport technology, capable of delivering the performance requirements of 5G.”

“Advanced backhaul solutions will be needed to support high data throughput and enhanced customer experience in the 5G era,” said Alex Jinsung Choi, SVP Strategy & Technology Innovation at DT This milestone confirms the feasibility of microwave over millimeter wave spectrum as an important extension of our portfolio of high-capacity, high-performance transport options for the 5G era. In addition, it represents a game changing solution for future fronthauling capabilities.”

The reason microwave backhaul is suddenly a big deal again is that 5G is going to require a lot more base stations than previous generations, partly because it uses higher frequencies with poorer propagation characteristics. Backhauling all of those new sites with fibre will often be expensive and impractical, so if networks can fall back to a decent microwave link when that happens then everyone’s a winner.

Ciena bags 20.5% growth perhaps thanks to Huawei dilemma

Optical networking company Ciena posted positive results for the first quarter of 2019, with total revenues of $778.5 million beating analyst expectations.

There have been whispers in corners of various conferences that a Huawei ban could benefit some, and it may well be having a positive impact for Ciena. While there are numerous other companies which would compete with Huawei in the optical equipment segment, with Ciena one of the few ‘pure-play’ companies it might have a more notable impact on the financials.

That said, irrelevant of where the favourable fortune has come from investors will be happy. $778.5 million represents a 20.5% year-on-year increase for the first quarter, while nearly all geographical markets have shown healthy growth.

“We began fiscal 2019 with a very strong first quarter performance, including outstanding top and bottom line growth as well as continued market share gains,” said Gary Smith, CEO of Ciena. “We believe that the combination of our leading innovation and positive industry dynamics will enable us to further extend our leadership position.”

Net income for the quarter stood at $33.6 million, though this is incomparable to the same period of 2018 which registered a loss of $473.4 million thanks to President Donald Trump’s US tax reform.

Looking at the regions, in the US, a market which now accounts for 62% of the company’s total revenues, the earnings grew just over 20% to $485.5 million, while 20% growth was also registered in the APAC region. The big success story however was in Europe, where the team grew the business by 32% to $129.2 million. This is still only 16.6% of the total haul for Ciena, but more geographical diversification will certainly be welcomed.

For Ciena, Europe could be a very interesting market over the next couple of months. With Huawei coming under increasing scrutiny globally, telcos will look to further diversify supply chains to add more resilience and protect themselves from potential government bans. While the anti-China rhetoric being spouted out by the White House is losing momentum, the European Union is reportedly looking some sort of ban, even if this puts the Brussels bureaucrats at odds with some member states.

For such vast investments, telcos will be looking for certainty and consistency from government policies. When looking at Huawei as a potential vendor, telcos will naturally be nervous, even if they don’t want to admit it.

With Huawei’s ban set to have little impact on the US market, it is not a major supplier to the market historically, the Europe could be a hidden goldmine for Ciena.

Interestingly enough, this scenario also seems to be paying off dividend in the APAC markets as well. Smith notes the success in the APAC region has come from Australia, Japan and Korea, three markets where Huawei has either been explicitly banned or is receiving a rather frosty welcome.

Ericsson reckons it has finally got the hang of this partnership business

Ericsson’s partnership with Juniper is actually producing results, which makes it a distinct improvement on previous efforts.

The fact that it doesn’t have a fixed line offering has always been a strategic disadvantage for Ericsson. As a result it continually flirts with companies that specialise in that stuff in the hope of being able to offer that elusive end-to-end solution without going to all the hassle of buying one of them, as Nokia did with Alcatel-Lucent.

The most high-profile example of this came when Ericsson announced its engagement to Cisco back in 2015. This strategic partnership was sold as the best of both worlds; bringing all the synergy of a merger without all the hassle. There’s a reason why M&A is still generally the preferred option however, with the Cisco partnership yielding little fruit and being left to wither on the vine.

After a couple of years Ericsson gathered the courage to get back game again, this time taking it slow via the announcement of a backhaul partnership with Juniper. Five months of chilling in front of Netflix together seems to have strengthened the relationship such that the shy couple are now “unveiling further enhancements” to their relationship.

“The positive market response to our expanded partnership with Juniper is a testimony to the strength of our joint end-to-end transport solutions,” said Per Narvinger, Head of Product Area Networks at Ericsson. “We hope to sustain this momentum by further enhancing our leading, high-performance transport portfolio to ensure that next-generation networks continue to benefit our customers.”

“By integrating complementary portfolios and technologies, Juniper Networks and Ericsson continue to partner and further develop end-to-end transport solutions for the 5G era – solutions that give service providers greater flexibility, performance, security and automation,” said Manoj Leelanivas, Chief Product Officer said Juniper Networks.

The rest of the industry seems to be really happy for them and secretly have their fingers crossed that we’ll be hearing the pitter-patter of 5G networks before long. Juniper Networks and Ericsson have implemented renewed DNA core network that supports 5G transport capacity, boosting our 5G readiness,” cooed Mikko Kannisto, Director of Transmission Networks at DNA.

Elsewhere Orange and NTT have been spending a lot more time with each other recently and things have got serious enough for them to sign a strategic R&D framework agreement, no less. What’s more they expect to “mutualise research findings in several key domains,” which sounds downright saucy, the lucky things.

“As Europe embarks on its own 5G journey, our collaboration with NTT will be very precious,” said Stéphane Richard, CEO of Orange Group. “Both parties share a commitment to continuous learning and cultural exchange, which I fundamentally believe is essential in today’s global environment. The mutualisation of our respective research learnings will enable us to identify and develop better services for customers in our respective regions, and support the development of our multinational business customers internationally.”

“Orange is one of the most innovative and important players to cooperate closely in various ways to progress AI, IoT and 5G,” said Jun Sawada, CEO of NTT Group. “With this agreement, we will be able to enhance our capabilities and accelerate digital transformation in various industries, cities, sports and international events in worldwide.”

The weather is expected to be a lot better than it was last year in Barcelona and, with Spring in the air, there’s every chance MWC 2019 will see a lot more telecoms ‘partnerships’ get started, especially after many ‘networking evenings’ on offer. We wish them all the best.

Helios Towers expands footprint into South Africa

Helios Towers has entered into a partnership with Vulatel to form a joint venture to build out wireless and fixed line open-access infrastructure in South Africa.

Helios will take a 66% slice of the venture as the firm readies itself for the 5G revolution. While it might seem strange to talk about 5G on a continent which has constantly struggled to bridge the enormous digital divide, South Africa is certainly a different landscape than what would be expected as the norm.

“I am thrilled to announce our entry into South Africa, which delivers against our stated strategy of providing MNOs with open-access infrastructure to meet the growing demands of their customers in Africa for fast, stable and available networks,” said Kash Pandya, CEO of Helios Towers. “We are delighted to be partnering with Vulatel, a business with impeccable telco sector expertise and deep local credentials in South Africa.”

For Helios, expansion into the South African market makes perfect sense and partnering with a local business will provide suitable foundation. Helios’ footprint currently covers four markets across the African continent, while Vulatel came to existence in 2017 on the back of acquiring Dimension Data’s fibre and wireless division. Helios brings the international experience and capital, while Vulatel holds its own with contacts and relationships in the South African market.

“There is a significant infrastructure gap in South Africa today, which means the demand in data services is not being met,” said Tlhabeli Ralebitso, CEO of Vulatel.

“We are convinced this provides an unrivalled opportunity to build a leading open-access infrastructure platform to address that gap. Our vision has always been to establish a nationwide service network before entering into the open-access telecoms infrastructure market on the back of our trusted relationships with the telecoms operators in South Africa.”

Looking at the South African market, this is a country which is expected to lead the 5G euphoria on the African continent proving this is a good time for Helios to make its move. With 6,500 towers in four markets (Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo Brazzaville), contracted revenues of $3.1 billion and average contract life of 8.4 years remaining across the group, it is certainly in a stable position to make such a bet.

DT and Ericsson hit 40 Gbps over millimeter wave

Operator group Deutsche Telekom and kit vendor Ericsson got together in Athens to claim a new record for wireless backhaul.

Right now you’re apparently looking at a maximum throughput of 10 Gbps (gigabits per second) from your wireless backhaul. At a DT service centre in Athens the two companies teamed up to quadruple that threshold using millimeter wave over a distance of 1.4 kilometers. The aim of the demo was to prove the commercial viability of future wireless backhaul technology.

“A high-performance transport connection will be key to support high data throughput and enhanced customer experience in next-generation networks,” said Alex Jinsung Choi, SVP Strategy & Technology Innovation at DT. “While fiber is an important part of our portfolio, it is not the only option for backhaul. Together with our partners, we have demonstrated fiber-like performance is also possible with wireless backhauling/X-Haul solutions. This offers an important extension of our portfolio of high-capacity, high-performance transport options for the 5G era.”

“Microwave continues to be a key technology for mobile transport by supporting the capacity and latency requirements of 4G and future 5G networks. Our joint innovation project shows that higher capacity microwave backhaul will be an important enabler of high-quality mobile broadband services when 5G becomes a commercial reality.”

In the light of AT&T’s absurd rebranding of LTE-A as 5Ge it’s good to see some concrete, substantial 5G progress being demonstrated. 5G will require a lot more base stations and small cells to work, which means a lot more backhaul. So we’re likely to see a lot more of this sort of thing in the coming months and years.

Ofcom’s competitiveness quest continues with another ducts and poles assault

Ofcom has unveiled its latest edition of its business connectivity market review with an all too familiar feel; how can it force Openreach and BT to play nicer with competitors.

As with any former state-owned monopoly, BT/Openreach is in the enviable position of having the groundwork already laid for future-proof infrastructure. Of course it has not done enough across the years to meet the demands of tomorrow’s fibre-based diet, though one factor behind this is a lack of external pressure on the business. Without competition, the enforced need to invest and innovate is not there. This is ultimately Ofcom’s objective; create an environment which encourages other ISPs to lay their own connectivity foundations, decrease the reliance on Openreach and improve connectivity options for the consumer.

“We want to give companies greater flexibility to lay fibre networks that serve residential or business customers,” Ofcom said in a statement. “So today, we are consulting on proposals to allow access to Openreach’s ducts and poles to companies offering any type of telecoms services including high-speed lines for large businesses, networks carrying data for mobile operators and high capacity lines supporting broadband services. We intend to implement this unrestricted duct access from spring 2019.”

This review focuses on the areas where there is minimised or no competition for BT. Ofcom believes BT currently has almost 5,600 local exchanges, though at roughly 5,000 of these sites there is competition from fewer than two competitors. BT’s position has been deemed unacceptable in these areas.

Starting with the areas where there is evidence of potential competition, but BT still maintains ‘significant market position’, Ofcom will no longer impose a cost-based charge control or quality of service standards on BT’s wholesale services, which combined with access to BT’s ducts and poles, the theory is competitors will have a stronger incentive to build their networks.

In areas where network competition is unlikely to be a reality, Ofcom has proposed a price cap for services at 1 Gbps and below to protect customers and provide certainty and stability over the course of the review. What is worth noting is that this is a relatively short-review, as while the proposals could come into play next spring, 2021 would see a new review and therefore new proposals.

The final proposal comes at the 4,300 exchanges where BT faces no competition from rival operators for inter-exchange connectivity, and Ofcom has deemed opening up the ducts and poles will have little impact. Rival networks are too far from these exchanges to make it economically viable to serve these exchanges, therefore BT is the only choice as a supplier for backhaul. Ofcom is proposing a requirement for dark fibre at cost for inter-exchange circuits that connect to these locations.

This is of course not the first time the dark fibre suggestion has emerged from Ofcom. In April, Openreach officially launched a compromise between full dark fibre access and full managed service after months of bickering and reviews with BT attempting to resist the Ofcom intervention. Ofcom seemingly lost that battle, with fingers being pointed at suspect market definitions, though now it appears ready to restart the assault.

This is of course only the consultation stage of the process, though the plans are to get the new rules in place by next spring. Whether this timetable is realistic with the almost guaranteed legal challenge from BT remains to be seen, but this is just another step in the never ending Ofcom quest to improve connectivity and competition across the UK.

TIP 2018: what’s in it for Facebook?

At the Telecom Infra Project Summit 2018 we spoke to the Facebook execs behind the initiative to find out why they decided to get involved.

When Facebook first started talking about getting involved in in the telecoms industry via TIP and even developing novel wireless technologies such as Terragraph, it felt like a frustrated OTT going through the motions to light a fire under the sector. Facebook’s vested interest was clear: the better and more ubiquitous the connectivity, the more people will use Facebook.

As we explained earlier, a big part of this involves efforts to make telecoms infrastructure cheaper to buy, roll-out and maintain. In that respect TIP is a direct threat to the traditional big kit vendors, not only because tower networking costs probably equate to lower profits for them, but a major aim of TIP is to expand the whole telecoms ecosystem, thus creating additional competition for them.

In a couple of small media gatherings at the event we spoke to Jay Parikh, Head of Engineering and Infrastructure at Facebook, and VP of connectivity Yael Maguire. Parikh explained that TIP is not just a product of Facebook’s own connectivity needs but also of conversations he was having with operators two or three years ago in which they implored Facebook to get involved.

The biggest mutual problem faced by Facebook and the operator community is the exponential growth in traffic over networks combined with the increasing difficulty and cost of providing it. “We were worried that innovation was slowing down,” said Parikh, in reference to the collective concern felt at the time, one which the big kit vendors were failing to sufficiently address.

In response to persistent questioning about the return Facebook expects to get on its significant (but unspecified) investment, Parikh insisted that this isn’t a short term thing for his company. The strategic objective is to catalyse the telecoms industry and ROI will be gauged by the presence of novel connectivity innovation, as opposed to direct financial considerations.

It’s easy to be sceptical any time a company claims to be doing something for the greater good, but equally this would be a strange area for Facebook to diversify into if it was only looking for a new profit centre. Having said that the world’s dominant etailer now makes much of its profit from its cloud business so you never know.

Parikh kept his cards pretty close to his chest regarding any TIP financial metrics but it’s relatively easy to believe that a cash-rich Silicon Valley company might be prepared to spend money a bit more speculatively than a traditional outfit. Facebook considered its own fortunes to be intrinsically allied to those of the global telecoms industry, so helping it innovate is viewed as sufficiently self-interested by itself, for now at least.

When asked what the top priorities are for Facebook from TIP, Parikh cited the connectivity insights programme, which aims to give operators additional data to help operators make informed decisions derived, in part, from anonymised Facebook user data. Rural access work is also important as Facebook seeks its next billion users, and Telefónica’s work in Peru was cited as an example of this.

The third priority is Terragraph, which is positioned as an alternative to fixed wireless access delivered over unlicensed 60 GHz spectrum, of which there is plenty, with an emphasis on backhauling wifi. This is a key concern of Maguire’s, who noted that average video speeds are declining across the board thanks to the aforementioned imbalance between demand and supply.

Maguire explained that Terragraph started as a project designed to look into the viability of using the 60 GHz spectrum for backhaul. At such a high frequency there are a bunch of propagation challenges, with even oxygen itself contributing to signal degradation. But it turns out that if you get the precise line of sight alignment right and don’t try to transmit any further than 200m, then it can be used in much the same way we’re talking about FWA over mm wave for 5G.

In keeping with Facebook’s general tone on this stuff Maguire played down any direct antagonism between Terragraph and mm wave FWA, insisting they just wanted to offer up alternatives. I was also keen to stress that this technology is specifically intended for high bandwidth wireless backhaul. “It’s not a solves all problems technology,” he said.

So, in summary, Facebook says it’s not looking for any immediate return from its involvement and investment in TIP. Instead it expects to benefit from the telecoms industry innovating as a faster pace than it would have if Facebook hadn’t decided to get involved. Aside from justifiable scepticism about any company being so sanguine about immediate, demonstrable ROI there’s little reason not to take Facebook at face value on this, while also keeping a watchful eye out for mission creep as things progress.

Orange goes submarine with Google cable partnership

Orange has been announced as the latest partner to join Google on its monstrous mission to bulk out its connectivity infrastructure maze.

The telco will act as the French ‘landing partner’ for Google’s Dunant transatlantic submarine cable, which is set to come into operation in 2020. As part of the partnership, Orange will provide backhaul services to Paris, while also benefiting from fibre-pairs with a capacity of more than 30 Tbps per pair.

“I am extremely proud to announce this collaboration with Google to build a new, cutting-edge cable between the USA and France,” said Stéphane Richard, CEO of Orange. “The role of submarine cables is often overlooked, despite their central role at the heart of our digital world. I am proud that Orange continues to be a global leader in investing, deploying, maintaining and managing such key infrastructure. Google is a major partner for Orange and this project reflects the spirit of our relationship.”

Announced back in July, Dunant (named after Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri Dunant) is Google’s first private investment across the Atlantic and supplements one of the busiest routes on the internet. The cable will be 6,600km long, connecting the west coast of France to North Virginia in the US. The cable is set to be the first to connect the two countries in 15 years.

While many organizations are investing in infrastructure through consortiums, Orange has invested in more than 40 submarine cables, few have taken Google’s approach in being the sole investor. It might be a more expensive approach, though Google will have more control over capacity and the route of the cable, perhaps giving it a bit of an edge over competitors. The weight of such investments have been putting some dents in the spreadsheets, the CAPEX column doubled during the latest quarterly earnings call, though it does put Google in a solid position.

From Orange’s perspective, the partnership will strengthen the telcos position to support the development of new uses for its consumer and enterprise customers in Europe and America. It will also be in a stronger position to provide services to wholesale market such as content-providers and third-party operators.

Nokia plugs openness ahead of Broadband World Forum

Open is one of 2018’s buzzwords and Nokia is cashing in on the bonanza ahead of Broadband World Forum in a couple of weeks.

This is only the first of several announcements from the Finns, but it builds on the fibre connectivity and virtualisation foundations set last year. The first installment is focused on fixed access network slicing and multi-vendor optical network units (ONU).

Starting with the network slicing piece, the team plan to launch a fully open and programmable network slicing solution for fixed access networks. While the buzz for network slicing has been primarily focused on the mobile side of telecommunications, Nokia’s Head of Fixed Networks Marketing Stefaan Vanhastel told Telecoms.com the solution can be just as effective in fixed access.

“Yes network slicing is a hot topic for 5G, but we are now starting to see the benefit for slicing in a fixed network,” said Vanhastel. “Operators can use residential network for 5G transport – why not, you already have a network and can save up to 50% of deployment costs. Why not use the same infrastructure for residential broadband, enterprise customers and 5G transport.”

In the same way network slicing can be used to create several virtual networks in the wireless business, why not do it in fixed access? Not only does it allow telcos to more efficiently plan for the world of 5G transport, while simultaneously serving a variety of customers, it opens up a host of new deployment models.

Vanhastel highlighted there are several non-traditional players building their own networks, individual cities or national governments for example, though these are not the people you would want running telco services. Local authorities have plenty of experience from a civil engineering perspective, digging the trenches and deploying the networks, but with network slicing capabilities several virtual networks can be created to bring-in the right expertise to deliver the services.

This is one idea which will aid the deployment of future proof networks, though network slicing could also help co-operative efforts and co-investment from competitors. The physical deployment of the network can be shared between any number of telcos, with each then claiming their own ‘slice’ which can be managed and configured independently. Openness and collaboration seems like a nice idea, though few competitors can play nice unfailingly, but with network slicing they only have to for a set period of time (in theory) before turning their attention to their own business.

Secondly, Nokia has launched Multivendor ONU connect, which it claims is the first fully open, virtualised solution that allows telcos to connect any optical network unit (ONU). The solution takes a ‘driver’ approach to how telcos deploy and manage ONUs, allowing for ‘plug and play’ functionality. As part of Nokia’s Altiplano open programmable framework, software is decoupled to allow the ONU management to be virtualised. An open-API framework allows third-party stacks to be on-boarded in a more time-efficient manner.

The approach will offer telcos the opportunity to realise the benefits of interoperability, connecting any modem to an access platform and potentially removing the painstaking task of integration. Vanhastel said that once the whole management infrastructure is virtualized, it would be possible to connect any fibre modem to access networks without the hassle, while updates or new ONUs can be quickly introduced through software upgrades.

Broadband World Forum might still be a couple of weeks away, but the Nokia marketing message is clear; simplicity and openness.