Software-defined access is key theme at US conference

01 September 2017 | Natalie Bannerman

One term kept resurfacing repeatedly at the Adtran Connect conference in Alabama in August: software-defined access (SD-access). It was on the lips of executives from some of the biggest names in the North American telecoms industry, including Comcast, Verizon and CenturyLink, to name a few.

In short, it refers to type of technology that makes networks programmable and less expensive to build and operate. CenturyLink’s CTO Aamir Hussain said that software-defined access is important because "when I look at the cost structure, 30-35% of the cost is actually the network. So as our customers’ bandwidth demand grows and as they want a more agile and dynamic network, we have to pay attention to software access".

Adtran’s CEO Tom Stanton echoed this sentiment saying: "The equipment cost is only a fraction, somewhere around 15% of the total cost of the access equipment. It’s all about labour and labour not only affects your cost, it also affects the customer experience." 

But software-defined access is designed to alleviate many of these roadblocks.

Adtran, traditionally a hardware equipment provider, is taking stock of this change in direction and is moving into software and network virtualisation. "Our long-term roadmap is about a migration from a hardware centric world to a software centric world," said Stanton.

Its SD-access offering is Mosaic, which uses web-scale technology with open-source platforms, creating what Adtran describes as a completely "open, programmable and scalable" network.

At the Adtran event, Verizon’s director of network planning, Vincent O’Byrne, spoke on the company’s strategy on next-generation passive optical networks (NG-PON) as a way to future-proof the telecoms network.  

With 5-6 million customers Verizon has been deploying broadband passive optical networks (BPONs) since 2004 and moved to gigabit PONs (GPONs) in 2007. 

"The move from BPON to GPON was a fairly large investment and the move to go from GPON to another new technology requires a large upfront investment in optical line terminals (OLTs)," said O’Byrne, but it its’ NG-PON2 that he’s championing for the future, as it can support both business and residential customers on a single fibre. In addition it has the ability to "create virtual splits rather than physical splits".

Fibre is Verizon’s confirmed strategy for broadband: it has been rolling out fibre-to-the-home under the Fios brand for some time. Verizon is not using copper alternative, G.fast. When questioned on this decision, O’Byrne said: "Our strategy for G.fast is not to deploy it."

Comcast’s vice president of network architecture, Robert Howald, spoke on how the company views the architecture revolution in the cable industry. 

On the subject of business agility, Howald said: "Technology moves so quickly now. There used to be a time when you actually used to be able to think about what will be happening 10 years from now. Nothing waits 10 years any more."

Cable broadband standard DOCSIS 3.1 remains central to Comcast’s business plans, mostly due to the fact that it is "highly penetrated across our footprint", added Howald. 

He said that the company has been working on projects in the internet of things (IoT) and smart cities for roughly 24 months and has started to launch trials in this area using LoRa 5G technology, though he gave no specific details of the project or its partners. 

Comcast’s cable architecture strategy includes a range of technologies that Howald and his team are considering, including the possibility of wireless as a last-mile option.  

Howald told the conference he has considered all of these various areas, knowing with some degree of confidence, "that the internet is probably not going to slow down, and we all have to keep up with that traffic growth", he said. 

As the Adtran event closed it was clear customers want open and transparent networks that can keep up with demands of consumer usage in an innovative and cost-effective way. These telcos are not only responding to the demand, they’re planning beyond it. 

Topics: SD-access. Software-defined access, Capacity media, wholesale telecoms