Verizon, working with Intel and Nokia, said it achieved full virtualization of baseband functions, which is the heaviest portion of computing on the radio access network (RAN), using general purpose hardware.
In earlier wireless networks, custom-built hardware and software were coupled together for a single application, restricting the location of where operations could happen. This trial, which took place in California, decoupled hardware and software. This provides more flexibility in where computing operations can take place within the network and enables multi-access edge compute (MEC) and network slicing.
“It enables MEC, and the ability to offer or host applications closer to the edge,” said Bill Stone, VP of technology planning and development for Verizon. This is important because putting compute at the network edge, in closer proximity to end-user devices, reduces latency and will enable applications like autonomous vehicles, telemedicine, and others that require ultra-low latency.
“Now that we can separate the software from the underlying hardware, it gives us more flexibility, and it’s important because it reduces latency,” Stone said. “We also believe over time this is going to become a more efficient and cost-effective configuration.”
The trial used Nokia’s AirScale All-in-Cloud Base Station architecture, Intel Xeon Scalable processor-based platforms, and Intel FlexRAN reference architecture.
“FlexRAN provides a reference architecture that allows running the RAN stack on server technology that enables the flexibility needed for future services and requirements for 5G — lower-latency and network slicing, for example,” said Cristina Rodriguez, VP Data Center Group, and general manager of the Wireless Access Network Division at Intel.
It follows a January trial using MEC equipment and software at Verizon’s 5G test bed in Houston that the carrier said cut latency in half.
The Houston trial focused on hosting third-party applications at the network edge, while the California trial focused on virtualizing baseband functions, Stone said. “The two things combined, California and Houston, are where we plan to go in the future” as Verizon continues to develop MEC in combination with 5G technology over mmWave spectrum, he added. “As we move forward with 5G deployment, it’s a critical part of our strategy to deploy these general-purpose platforms toward the edge and take advantage of virtualizing more of the baseband functions while also preparing to host additional applications.”
Verizon is working with other vendors in addition to Nokia on its virtualized RAN (vRAN) efforts and will conduct additional trials this year to test all of the baseband functions, Stone added.
The carrier’s network is already partially virtualized — primarily in the core. “As we continue to proceed with 5G and modernizing the network, all of the new network functions that are being put in place for the Verizon 5G network will be cloud native and fully virtualized,” Stone said. “This is table stakes.”