Open Networking

Vodafone takes its open zeal to the broadband access network

By Ray Le Maistre

Sep 29, 2021

  • Vodafone is already pushing hard to accelerate Open RAN developments
  • Now it’s leading the charge on disaggregation of a critical broadband network element
  • The open BNG (broadband network gateway) is based on Broadband Forum specs
  • Vodafone has tested the architecture with vendors including Cisco and Nokia

Not content with shaking things up in the radio access network sector with its Open RAN efforts, Vodafone is now also taking the anti-vendor lock-in fight to the fixed access network by testing an open, disaggregated, multivendor BNG (broadband network gateway) architecture with Benu Networks, Casa Systems, Cisco and Nokia.

The BNG is, essentially, the brain that controls the access network, comprising the control plane (user authentication, identifying associated policies, managing CPE interaction) and the user/data plane (forwarding traffic functions and policy enforcement). 

All of this is traditionally provided in a single, integrated system but, as in the radio access network domain, Vodafone wants to be able to source its technology from multiple, best-of-breed vendors. The test, already successfully completed, is “an important step in opening up the current single-supplier, monolithic broadband gateways to greater technological innovation from a more diverse supply chain,” according to the operator.

The operator based its test architecture on specifications developed by the Broadband Forum – namely the Disaggregated BNG specs, or TR-459, for those who like a technical report number (and for those who like the nitty gritty, here’s a link to the 102-page technical report in question). 

The test “allowed the core control functions of the gateway, such as authenticating a user and increasing bandwidth to support streaming services, to be separated and managed efficiently in the cloud whilst ensuring multi-vendor interoperability,” noted the operator. “Vodafone can then separately upgrade, scale and deploy new features and add more capacity, enabling greater agility and faster time to market when making enhancements across its pan-European broadband network,” which is significant – its own fixed access broadband network passes 56 million homes across Europe, while another 24 million are passed by partner networks. 

Importantly, the test also made use of Control and User Plane Separation (CUPS) specifications (which enable multivendor interoperability) defined by the 3GPP, “which means there will be more opportunity for converged fixed and mobile service delivery,” an important part of Vodafone’s overall network strategy, as is the potential flexibility and agility that comes from disaggregation. (See Why Vodafone’s strategy makes sense.)

With major operators such as Vodafone pushing hard with their open, disaggregated network strategies, incumbent as well as alternative vendors are playing ball and joining in. The traditional business models (based on integrated systems) that have served Cisco and Nokia over the years are being disrupted but actively participating in disaggregation developments gives them a better chance of being involved in next gen network plans: Casa Systems, which developed a virtual BNG for converged fixed/wireless deployments as part of its growing portfolio, and Benu Networks, whose cloud-native Broadband Network Gateway (cnBNG) provides a disaggregated routing platform with full provider edge and broadband subscriber service capabilities, are amongst the growing list of challengers that spy a business opportunity as new network models are explored.

So what did each vendor bring to the party? The open BNG platform was tested across multiple labs in Belgium (Nokia), Ireland (Casa Systems), India (Cisco) and the US (Benu Networks): The operator conducted a “matrix of interoperability tests - all [participating] vendors took the role of both control plane and user plane with multiple other vendors,” according to a Vodafone spokesperson.

Each of the vendors made the appropriate noises about the test: You can read what they had to say in this announcement.

Of course this is just a test and the operational efficiencies, economics and innovation gains of such deployments have yet to be proven: But as with Open RAN, Vodafone is not just issuing a statement of intent here – it is sending out very clear signals about what it wants and expects from its vendor partners, and at the heart of those demands is a shift away from closed, integrated, proprietary systems that won’t meet its needs in a distributed telco cloud platform architecture.

- Ray Le Maistre, Editorial Director, TelecomTV

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