Lighting up the Network Edge for 5G Data Throughput

The ever growing demand for high speed mobile data is increasing the total bandwidth requirements at the cell tower, and also putting pressure on the high-speed fiber optic connections from the cell tower site to the central office, also known as the fronthaul portion of today’s wireless communications networks. With the roll out of 5G and the anticipated growth of data traffic, each of the connections in the fronthaul network will need to be able to support data rates of 100 Gigabits per second, a 10x increase over what is deployed today.

To meet this growing demand for data, communication service providers (CommSPs) are therefore making significant investments in cloud-based, data-centric infrastructures to deliver higher throughput, lower latency, and better reliability. Tomorrow’s networks will take many forms, but one constant is the increased demand on the fronthaul network will play a major role as networks adopt 5G and become more edge-focused.

Virtualizing the RAN and Removing Bottlenecks for 5G

The radio access network (RAN) has been one of the most difficult network elements to convert over to a cloud-ready platform since the network function virtualization (NFV) journey started many years ago. Some of the big challenges still include: real time latencies, interoperability between the remote unit (RU) and distributed unit (DU), availability of a performant software stack, and cloud hardware physical fit into the existing RAN space.

As CommSPs extend cloud and NFV to the edge, RAN virtualization requires industry-wide cooperation, including open source and industry initiatives to develop software frameworks and reference architectures that support the performance and throughput requirements for 5G. Intel is working hard to enable the ecosystem with a unifying software platform, address the real time technical challenges, and deliver the raw hardware components in order to build commercial products that fit into RAN real estate. FlexRAN* is a software and hardware enabling platform with a range of adoption usages by our direct customers to bring their RAN products to market.

Connecting cell towers, mobile base stations and other RAN locations through high speed fiber optical links is another key necessity of the 5G transformation. With Intel® Silicon Photonics, there is now a solution that provides high speed optical connectivity at scale to meet these challenging bandwidth needs.

Connecting Fronthaul Across the RAN with Silicon Photonics

Intel® Silicon Photonics optical transceivers, an innovative combination of lasers and silicon-integrated optical circuits, will be an important part of fronthaul networks, connecting remote radio heads back to the baseband unit or central office because they support high bandwidth rates, longer transmission distances, and extended temperature ranges compared to standard commercial-grade transceivers.

Unlike central offices that can be transitioned into climate-controlled edge data centers, cell tower sites and mobile base stations are deployed across various regions with wide temperature variations. Many new antennas are going to be deployed due to growing bandwidth demand and the nature of the 5G spectrum frequency. These units have to be reliable – rain or shine, hot or cold, and run untouched for years. CommSPs will require a reputable, high-volume provider to equip hundreds of thousands of cell towers and outdoor cabinets with compute, storage, and networking capabilities required for edge and 5G data processing.

Intel is here to help providers “future-proof” the network alongside fixed-feature original equipment manufacturers to ensure tomorrow’s services are deployed smartly and remain reliable. Currently, Intel ships more than one million Silicon Photonics transceivers per year, deploying the technology to cloud data centers, where top of rack switches are now requiring 100 Gigabits per second optical connectivity. An extended temperature range version of this product has been released and is being qualified by leading network operators today. We certainly look forward to what real-world trials and 5G deployments will look like, and how much faster mobile videos might be.

To learn where FlexRAN and Intel Silicon Photonics fit into network architecture transformation, read the Intel whitepaper “Exploring 5G Fronthaul Network Architecture Intelligence Splits and Connectivity” and visit Intel’s network transformation page.

FlexRAN and Intel Silicon Photonics will be behind the scenes powering Intel’s retail, manufacturing and immersive media 5G and networking solution demonstrations at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019 in Barcelona. Visit us at Intel booth #3E31.

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Co-Authored by:
Cristina Rodriguez, Vice President, Data Center Group, General Manager of Wireless Access Network Division at Intel Corporation

Hong Hou, Vice President, Data Center Group, General Manager of Silicon Photonics Division at Intel Corporation