Network convergence: 2022’s big talking point

Ian Scales
By Ian Scales

Apr 6, 2022

  • Convergence is back in vogue
  • Major service providers are bundling 5G and FTTH services in ‘convergence’ offers
  • But network convergence is also the order of the day
  • Major industry names are working in particular to bring 5G and Wi-Fi together 

‘Network Convergence’ has fast become one of the big talking points for 2022. Most recently, a slew of corporate network vendors have stepped up to the plate to give the concept a concerted boost: Cisco, Celona and HPE/Aruba, to name just three, have all signalled that it’s now OK (indeed, preferable) to champion a convergence strategy for corporate networking and that they expect that many corporates will support the trend in the way they evolve their networks. In particular, the vendors are advocating support for both 4G/5G and Wi-Fi in the private wireless network.

This marks a considerable change. 

Until now, most of the telecoms industry has been toeing the “5G is the future” line, but a new view seems to be emerging strongly: That a clever blend of network technologies will prove to be the best way forward, for both corporate networkers and the telecom service providers that support them. 

Convergence is the term usually being used to describe this. For network service providers, it’s about moving away from the idea of competing network types (for instance Wi-Fi vs 4G/5G) and instead working to integrate network technologies and run them – where appropriate – on a unified infrastructure so that services may be transparently delivered to customers across different access networks – wireless and fibre, fixed and mobile – in a flexible way, eventually making full use of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to untangle any complexity that might arise.

Converged networks that make best use of a range of network types will take a lot of effort and testing to engineer, but should be well worth the trouble in terms of providing service agility, lowered costs, energy savings and customer buy-in. That’s the general plan.

Network operators are preparing for this by also introducing service convergence strategies, with a focus on offering a combined package of the most important services that customers want. “What we need are two legs – the mobile one and the fixed one, using 5G and the fibre leg,” says Mari-Noëlle Jégo-Laveissière, Orange deputy CEO, speaking with TelecomTV’s editorial director, Ray Le Maistre, at the recent MWC in Barcelona.  

The Orange strategy is to support both fibre and 5G in an accelerated access network roll-out and it’s ultimately seeking to initiate integration within its network to deliver converged services across Europe. “Convergence is key,” she says.

Indeed it is, and it’s occupying minds right across the industry: From standards organisations trying to wrestle their blueprints to the ground; to hyperscale cloud players keen, as ever, to plant their flags in critical places; to content providers seeking to serve up their offerings at scale across multiple access networks.

The evolution of ‘convergence’

Back in the day, ‘convergence’ initially referred to the provision of telephone, video and data communication services by a single service provider that retained the opportunity to ‘bundle’ them together with a price break. The business model did the converging, not necessarily the underlying network technology. For instance, UK cable in the 1990s usually ran twisted pair into the home to support standard telephony (separate, un-converged networks), although a cable modem for Internet access did converge with the TV offering by initially occupying one or more of its channels. 

Today, convergence includes the idea of different networks coexisting, with both Wi-Fi and 4G/5G (because it’s usually about them in the corporate and business network context) seen as having value in different roles and cost-points. Even so, it’s still common to hear the view in telecom circles that Wi-Fi will likely be displaced by 4G and then 5G and its various flavours. This view seems to be rapidly losing ground.

That’s probably because Wi-Fi has recently gained in capability and spectrum assignments in important markets, while maintaining its cost advantages and ability to scale; partly because many of the claims made for 5G adoption now look to have been exaggerated (5G is now expected by the GSMA to account for only around a quarter of total mobile connections by the end of 2025 - this is somewhat less than earlier expectations); and partly because the likes of Cisco, HPE/Aruba and Qualcomm with a history of investment in both technology sets, are able to point to the added advantages of a ‘Wi-Fi plus 5G’ approach to network building spurred on by the rise of the multi-cloud and the huge growth of cloud-native applications. 

Plus, of course, many corporations have already made huge Wi-Fi investments and want to build on that well-understood technology to extract more value.

The clincher, though, may be that the history of Wi-Fi vs cellular appears to show that the health of one has usually benefited the growth of the other because their network roles are highly complementary.

Private 5G

Interest in private wireless networks using 5G and private spectrum to provide very high performance network solutions has gained ground, but the most prominent initial builds have often been complex and expensive, and designed to serve large and highly critical installations (ports, factory complexes and so on). That’s left many vendors convinced that a large and as yet untapped market for less critical, less expensive and far less complex wireless private networks must exist and could be tapped with the right story and the right combination of technologies. Now this is about to be tested and the tussle is on to be a vendor/provider of choice in what might be called the subcritical private wireless network space.

AWS

An early mover last year was Amazon Web Services (AWS), which announced AWS Private 5G, a so-called “starter kit” for a fully managed private cellular service and is widely believed to be the bones on which such a service could be expanded using service providers or direct to AWS services. AWS is offering a ‘pay as you grow’ model (very cloudy) and the first steps are simplicity itself. AWS provides small cell radios, a server that hosts the 5G core, RAN software and SIM cards. The whole lot is pre-integrated, and the network automatically configures and connects to all the devices. There are no up-front fees. Customers pay for the capacity and throughput.

Prominent vendor companies too are targeting this private wireless network space.

Cisco

Cisco, of course, is also aiming to get a slice (so to speak). The vendor has attached itself to the concept of ‘hybrid work’ – a post-Covid vision to provide network technology and systems for home and office working supporting both IT and OT (operational technology). In that context, wireless networks are an essential component and it has announced Cisco Private 5G, a managed service combining 5G and Wi-Fi that involves a global service provider and various technology partners. 

Cisco doesn’t beat about the bush. In a blog to introduce its move, Masum Mir, VP and general manager for the company’s mobile, cable and IoT business, says all Cisco’s competitors are getting it wrong by pushing a carrier-centric 5G solution that loads the enterprise up with complex requirements. Cisco, by contrast, starts with an IT-oriented infrastructure that its customers already know and understand, and builds from there.

Like AWS, which is also focused on delivering private wireless without what it sees as telco tech over-engineering, Cisco has also gone for a “pay-as-you-use” subscription model in recognition of the fact private network building is proving to be cloud-centric, rather than asset-heavy. To deploy an overused cliche, private wireless tends to be a’ journey’ rather than an asset purchase, and Cisco says its solution involves a private 5G managed service provider and other technology partners. 

The key to Cisco’s approach is to play up its large installed base in the enterprise market and to characterise its move as using the network technology in which enterprises have already invested and understand.

Celona

California-based Celona appears to have been formed in 2019 specifically to bring a simplified private 5G solution aimed at smaller and medium-sized enterprises. (See Private wireless designed to offer the ‘best of both worlds). It’s a mantra we’ve now seen repeated many times: Private 4G/5G as it stands is too complex and therefore too expensive. What is needed is a 5G augmentation to Wi-Fi with a next-gen private cellular network arrangement that exploits the properties of LTE/5G – particularly its deterministic quality-of-service abilities – with the bottom-up ease of deployment that makes Wi-Fi attractive in the enterprise. This is cellular without requiring the expertise needed to set up and manage a full-blown cell network, and it is, to quote the Celona blurb, “a very different approach than that taken by the Ericssons/Nokias of the world.” 

So far, so familiar, but last month, Celona got what might turn out to be a telling deal and endorsement from Verizon in the US to get its solution off to the races. Verizon Business has announced a turnkey private 5G LAN offering under which Verizon will sell Celona's product and then shift to 5G later this year or in early 2023. That was swiftly followed by a funding round for Celona. (See Private networks specialist Celona raises $60 million.)

HPE

With the addition of Wi-Fi specialist Aruba, which it purchased in 2015, HPE has come out of the traps with a private 5G solution for enterprise users that incorporates Wi-Fi connectivity as the key to its approach. This is hardly surprising given that Aruba is a giant in the Wi-Fi field already and is clearly keen to elevate the technology’s role in both the ‘industrial’ corporate settings and the so-called ‘carpeted’ corporate environment of the standard office.

HPE’s offering comprises: A slimmed down version of the HPE 5G stack; the HPE Service Director management and portal software; along with its on-premises compute and storage platform, HPE GreenLake. It’s a technology combination which enables HPE to take a leaf out of the hyperscalers’ playbook to adopt a consumption-based model, a route that some of its rivals have already taken. Plus, the Aruba Wi-Fi technology and software enables roaming between Wi-Fi and 5G: Previously that interworking (or rather lack-of) has been a bugbear for efforts to achieve Wi-Fi/5G integration.

Meanwhile, HPE has been getting busy with the private 5G leg of its hybrid offering and, after just a few years’ development, says it has 20 private 5G customers.

Twenty customers, however confidently expressed, doesn’t sound to me like an overwhelming response.

There’s just a possibility that HPE and the other hybrid players have come to the conclusion that private 5G – at least at this stage of the technology’s development – will only play a minor role in the mix for most private wireless network-using corporates, but promises enough of a backstop to be used selectively should the need arise to support demanding applications.

In any case, a hybrid approach keeps options open in both directions and seems to offer an attractive choice for many corporate networks.

Convergence as part of the telco playbook

Convergence comes in many forms and is not just about network integration. Some strands promise to add options to the telco playbook by providing faster, more capable chips, which can work in concert to do clever things like convert streams running across one network to another without a noticeable jag. Operations such as voice handovers from one network type to another have been greatly smoothed by faster silicon, making handover from cellular to Wi-Fi, for instance, much less problematic.

But technology improvements can do far more than that.

“We think the nice thing about DWDM (Dense Wave Division Multiplexing) is that it can act as a kind of universal convergence technology,” says Ron Johnson, General Manager of Infinera's Optical Systems & Network Solutions Group.

Infinera is one of the leading optical platform vendors and has announced the next iteration of its coherent optical engine, capable of eye-watering speeds. It claims the “ICE6 Turbo” provides up to 30 per cent performance boost in high-speed applications and supports 4 x 400 GbE (400 Gbit Ethernet) over ultra-long haul distances. According to Johnson, one interesting facet of this endless race towards multiple terabits is how the DWDM technology it uses changes the network economics, not just by providing ever-cheaper bit transport but by enabling other valuable economic advances to swing into action.

“There are many reasons why convergence for our service provider customers at the edge of the network is critical,” he says. “It allows operators to put fibre in place, and, as we move closer and closer to the cell tower, for instance, we can use DWDM to scale between technology generations as well as different technologies in general.” 

Essentially, he says, it provides a way to converge a lot of different things, then enables the telco to deliver multiple services without having to build multiple networks.

Sometimes things that attach to networks prove to have remarkably long and useful lives, cheerfully working way past their allotted time with us. There are many ancient smartphones, for instance, that refuse to die and continue to do the things their owner expects of them right into their digital senility phase, which should probably be counted a great industry achievement from a sustainability point of view.

“For instance, many of our service provider customers have SLAs (service-level agreements) on older technologies that are extremely profitable. On some cell towers, for instance, they still support 3G and have not decommissioned the radios because they don't want to force those customers to Ethernet. If they did, they would basically get less money for delivering more bandwidth while depriving themselves of an asset that's already been depreciated.”

Features such as longer software and security updates, smartphone trade-ins and consequent refurbishment all extend useful smartphone life and appear to improve mobile industry sustainability. But these instances could be seen as a double-edged sword for the industry as a whole. On the downside, users holding onto devices for longer means the all-important uptake of the new standard (in this case 5G) might be slower, affecting the calculations of handset vendors, 5G service providers and application developers. On the other hand, the industry’s enthusiasm for accruing environmental brownie points means another group of corporate message mongers are keen to see signs of sustainability in the mobile value chain.

There are many of these convergence-enabled use cases that can play a big part in squeezing more value from the network. On the whole, improved sustainability via network convergence has to be counted as a good thing.

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