As much as we all love talking about the technology behind 5G, it’s really a story about accelerating social trends. It’s also a story about worlds colliding. The worlds of software and hardware.

Yes, spectrum, fiber, towers and small cells, 4G LTE technology advancements and standards each play a crucial role in the birth of 5G. Back in March, Andre Fuetsch, president, AT&T Labs, explained how standards-based mobile 5G could happen as early as late 2018. But if you want to get the most out of all that hardware, you must embrace software.

This is the core of our industry-leading initiative around software defined networking and network function virtualization.

First, some grounding on how wireless users have driven a massive shift over the last decade. Data traffic on the AT&T mobile network has grown more than 250,000% since 2007. Just since the end of 2011, we’ve gone from about 30 petabytes of data traffic crossing our network on an average business day to over 150 petabytes of data on an average business day today. That number was 114 petabytes a day as recently as the end of 2015.

Perspective: 1 petabyte is enough to store the DNA of the entire population of the US – and then clone them, twice. Where is the majority of this traffic coming from? Video.

Streaming, downloading and sharing videos are more than just a network activity now. They’re a way of life. Video now makes up more than half of our mobile data traffic. In fact, our video traffic grew over 75% and smartphones drove almost 75% of our data traffic in the last year alone. “Viral videos” and “binge watching” are part of the cultural lexicon now. Art drives technology and technology drives art.

We see many more of those cultural and technological intersections ahead as 5G emerges and accelerates. Augmented and virtual reality, telemedicine, autonomous cars, air taxis, and more are poised to become part of our lives. For that to happen, 5G mobile networks will have to maximize performance, bandwidth, latency, and coverage.

Consider self-driving cars. For that vision to become a reality, each car will need to communicate with other nearby cars and connected objects at lightning speed, referred to as low latency. That’s the difference between making the right turn into the correct lane vs. ending up on the curb. Want some additional perspective? Back in 2014, MIT researchers discovered the human brain can interpret images the eye sees in 13 milliseconds. The industry expectation for 5G is latency less than 5 milliseconds.

So how does software fit into this story? 5G will be our first new major technology initiative that will be “born in the cloud.” The experience we’ve gained by being at the leading edge of the industry transformation to virtualization and software control will be invaluable to helping us get the most out of 5G.

How do you control, automate and upgrade those network assets? How do you increase efficiency? How do you get faster and better service delivery? How do you improve security? Doing all that in hardware is slow, cumbersome, and expensive. The answer is software.

We were the first major global carrier to launch a virtualized mobility packet core almost 2 years ago. With that, we can add resources at internet speed during traffic spikes, route around problems when they occur, and ramp up security before attacks affect our customers.

We invented ECOMP, the new network operating system, and launched it into the ONAP open source community through the Linux Foundation. ONAP is quickly becoming the global industry standard for deploying, running, and upgrading next-gen networks.

We expect that certain key components of 5G standards will be complete by December 2017. Aligning with those standards is vital so customers don’t get stuck with dead-end technology.

What’s more, just having chips, devices and equipment won’t be enough. SDN is critical to managing this capability and optimizing it for all those cloud-centric applications we can’t wait to see. We’re even thinking about the next generation of the cloud and how it gets smarter. How the cloud comes to you.

34% of AT&T network functions are already software defined, and we expect to cross the tipping point by year-end reaching 55%. We aim to have 75% of our traffic on our software-defined network by 2020, and we’re pushing hard to beat that goal.

When we unveiled our SDN effort in 2014, many competitors and observers thought we were being too aggressive. But, we made the right bet. Now others are playing catch up. And, if standards-based 5G gains mainstream adoption by 2020 as many predict, we’ll have a software-defined network at just the right time to get the most out of 5G.  

SDN and 5G will be deeply intertwined. Software and hardware.

Old-school sci-fi fans might remember When Worlds Collide for its depiction of the danger of proximity. But the script has flipped. Now, if you want to survive – and thrive – in this new connected world, a little collision is the only way to go. 

Marachel Knight - senior vice president, wireless network architecture and design

Marachel Knight
Marachel Knight senior vice president, wireless network architecture and design