Technology Blog

5G won’t happen in a vacuum.

As much as some people might think it’s just a question of bolting some new radios to towers and calling it a day, the truth is that 5G requires an entirely new approach to designing and building networks.

Why?

Well, as of 4Q 2018 data traffic on our wireless network averages more than 253 petabytes on an average business day, an increase of more than 470,000% since 2007. Introduce 5G into that mix, and you have the recipe for a data explosion.

Autonomous cars, robotic factories, seamless AR/VR and other new applications will be connected to 5G, on top of the video streaming, gaming and other apps we already use. In a few years, we’ll look back on 253 petabytes the way we look at 1.44-megabyte floppy disks today.

That’s a reality the entire communications industry must deal with, while at the same time keeping costs low for our customers. No one wants to see their bill go up 470,000%!

So if we’re going to turn up 5G – and guess what, we already have – then we need to make the network not just faster, but a heck of a lot more efficient.

We’re tackling that problem in multiple ways, including by bringing together key industry consortiums like O-RAN and the Linux Foundation to solve some of the toughest challenges our industry is facing.

This week at the Open Networking Summit in San Jose, I’m outlining several steps on our road to a future-ready network. For example:

  • 5G RAN Intelligent Controller (RIC): The Radio Access Network, or RAN, is what your smartphone connects to when it sends and receives wireless signals. These are the radios on towers, small cells, and other structures, connected to routers and other equipment. Traditionally, these were specialized, expensive devices sold by a small number of vendors. These companies dictated costs, technical capabilities, and upgrade schedules. They controlled the hardware and the software. That doesn’t make sense anymore. So, we’re working with a group called the O-RAN Alliance to create open hardware specs that any manufacturer can build. What’s more, the software running in these devices will be open source software. We announced earlier this year that we were working with Nokia on the first version of this open software. Today, we and Nokia are announcing that we’re handing over the initial seed code to The Linux Foundation to officially release it into open source. In fact, you can see a simple demo of using the RIC in our AT&T booth. There’s still a lot of work to do, so we’re asking companies and developers to join us and help continue driving the RIC code forward. But it’s hugely exciting to see O-RAN and the Linux Foundation coming together to drive this critical advancement in RAN technology.
  • AT&T Dedicated Internet white box: At the Open Networking Foundation last fall, I said that we had begun the process of installing and deploying white box routers to support internet service for our business customers across our global footprint. Today, I can say that our first installations in Toronto and London are now live, and we’ll cover customers in 76 countries by the end of this year. Why is this a big deal? These open, white box systems allow us to run 10 times as much traffic as the proprietary routers we previously bought at the same price. This means we can support the ongoing data surge while keeping costs down.
  • Network Cloud white box: 5G is not only about app speed but also about app responsiveness, or as engineers measure it – latency. To provide low latency, we are deploying our data centers closer to the customer than ever before. We call this Network Cloud. And here too we are using a white box switch to interconnect servers and it’s now live in our network and carrying our 5G traffic. These servers, powered by our open source network operating system called ONAP, are part of our push to virtualize 75% of our core network functions by 2020. We exceeded 65% last year. Enterprises customers and gamers both know the value of low latency applications. With 5G, all our customers will quickly understand that this is a game changer.
  • At the heart of our network is our optical infrastructure, the fiber optic cables that carry massive amounts of data between cities and regions. The standard amount of data carried on a fiber optic cable today on a single wavelength of light is 100 gigabits per second. That’s not going to cut it in the 5G era. So, we’re leading the charge to 400 gigabits. Earlier this month, we demoed how our open spec 400G optical gear can seamlessly hand off its traffic to another system in the case of a natural disaster.

What all these updates have in common is that they’re proving that our network transformation is real. It works.

We know there are entrenched interests that want to see the old models prevail.

But that’s not happening. We’re determined to find a better path forward for ourselves, our industry, and, most importantly, for our customers.

5G is about to hit the gas. We want everyone to be ready.