The Wider View

The intersection of E5G and Digital Infrastructure

Two weeks ago, we held our first live event since March 2020: Enterprise 5G Live in Santa Clara, CA. During the two days we had:

  • More than 40 speakers and presenters in 20 workshops, bootcamps and keynotes.
  • Over 120 enterprise, systems integrators, solution vendors and distributors represented.
  • Five demo CBRS networks – we joked that our show was the only place in the country that had five CBRS networks under one roof. And as Iain can attest, coordinating the PLMNs was a chore.
  • More than 800 cookies, muffins and pieces of cake were consumed – in addition to the 390 sandwiches and salads.
  • 33 gallons of coffee were drunk, mostly by the hardy souls who traveled from Tel Aviv, Israel, to attend the show.

Some of the E5G Live’s content highlights include:

  • Vapor.io: Talked about how their 20 kW data centers can be turned up in less than 6 hours and, along with fiber, help address the “middle mile” connectivity gap.
  • Zayo: Discussed how their fiber network links premise-based apps on edge platforms with cloud services. So doing helps create the foundation for everything from retail order fulfillment to autonomous logistics, drone landing stations and intelligent IoT sensors.
  • Athonet: Discussed how its 4G/5G core network can be deployed on premises, in the cloud or on a hybrid basis and showed how those deployments can scale across a private network installed in multiple brick-and-mortar storefronts.
  • Intel: Highlighted their work with a variety of vendors, service providers, school districts and enterprises using 4G/5G private networks to transform their operations.
  • Microsoft: Discussed their Azure-based initiatives to provide developers with the tools to transform not only the 4G/5G core, but the RAN and the applications that run on them.
  • Amazon Web Services: Talked about how their platform makes it possible to deploy a 4G/5G core network and RAN in less than 40 minutes.
  • Celona: Talked about how private networks not only need to be easy to deploy, but how they enable the uptake of new machine-to-machine communications in addition to proving essential connectivity services.

Overall, the show focused on enterprise 5G technology and use cases. One example includes Blue White Robotics, which retrofits farming equipment into autonomous farming machines. Their solution requires devices in the vehicles, compute and storage, connectivity on site and to/from the farm. Another example is Transparent Path, which offers a tracking and monitoring solution for the cold storage logistics chain. Their solution requires IoT sensors and AI, along with cellular network roaming and private networks.

At one level those use cases are all about how a private network can enable innovative enterprise solutions. But, those solutions would not function without the underlying digital infrastructure – i.e., towers and cellular networks, fiber and data center.

Digital Infrastructure has more to gain from the Infrastructure Bill

Everyone interested in digital infrastructure knows that when Congress finally passed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last Friday, it included $65 billion to improve the country’s broadband infrastructure and increase Americans’ access to high-speed Internet. It might not be as clear that many of the other line items in the bill will also provide opportunity for significant digital infrastructure investment. This article breaks apart the spending in the bill as we understand it at present and highlights the opportunities for DI investment. Obviously, having the potential to get the funding and actually receiving the investment are two very different things!

The bill has set aside $110 billion for roads, bridges and other major transportation programs. While the roads and bridges are being constructed, fiber and conduit could be laid, environmental sensors could be installed in the bridges, radios and small cells could be deployed, and edge data centers could be built to process the increased volume of data. In short, this could be the basis of smart road and smart city infrastructure. The cost of deploying this as the bridge/road is being updated would be far lower than installing after the fact.

Public transit will be modernized with $39 billion. Part of that sum will be used to repair more than 24,000 buses and 5,000 rail cars, which could obviously be upgraded with Wi-Fi and cellular broadband. Thousands of miles of train tracks will also be modernized, which means more fiber, the possible installation of small cells along the tracks to provide coverage for neighboring communities, more sensors, and edge data centers.

$66 billion is earmarked for high-speed rail, improvements to safety, Amtrak grants, and the modernization of the route between Washington, D.C. and Boston. It is not a stretch to assume that improved Wi-Fi and cellular broadband will be part of the train improvements, while fiber and sensors could be installed with the new tracks, along with small cells and edge compute infrastructure. The exact opportunity here will depend on the degree of improvements to the physical track infrastructure compared to improvements in operations, staffing etc.

The nation’s electricity grid will be upgraded with $65 billion and will include thousands of miles of new transmission lines and funds for smart-grid technology. In addition, all of the nation’s lead pipes will be replaced and service lines will be upgraded to provide clean drinking water at a cost of $55 billion. Both the electric grid and the water infrastructure could be retrofitted with sensors, remote switching and AI, which would work in conjunction to provide power optimization/water efficiency, usage behavior analysis, fault diagnosis/leak detection, water quality analysis and preemptive maintenance. Again, the size of the opportunity depends on the amount of new electricity/water infrastructure, but it would appear this could be a sizeable opportunity for digital infrastructure.

The bill also includes $7.5 billion for a network of electric-vehicle chargers along highway corridors to support electric cars and buses. Each charging station will need to be connected by fiber and will need power and broadband, including a small cell to provide a good signal for the passengers patiently waiting for their car to charge, as well as to monitor and control the station. Edge compute could be used to provide the necessary processing for billing and other applications, including entertainment. In essence, an EV charging station looks a lot like a small cell installation but without the pole! In addition to funds for the charging stations, $5 billion is slated for zero-emission buses (including thousands of electric school buses) and $2.5 billion for ferries, which will both more than likely be upgraded with Wi-Fi and cellular broadband.

More than $25 billion is included in the infrastructure bill to modernize America’s airports, which have already implemented in-building wireless (IBW) systems and the applications they support. With the funds, the airports will have more – more 5G and CBRS to support improved customer mobile experiences, airline private networks, smart applications for the automation of food and beverage, smart parking, enhanced security, etc. AI and edge compute, powered by data from sensors and cameras, will also be part of the airports, which are basically just small smart cities. Assume that the $17 billion for ports, which are also mini smart cities, will include similar infrastructure and applications.

$11 billion has been set aside for road safety, including transportation safety programs to help states and local governments reduce crashes and fatalities in their communities, especially among cyclists and pedestrians. In other words, $11 billion for V2X infrastructure and applications. The “everything” in V2X includes the cellular network, traffic signal equipment, vehicles and pedestrians with their mobile devices. V2X and 5G can provide automatic braking, accident avoidance, road condition monitoring and warning, intersection collision avoidance, approaching emergency vehicle warning and pedestrian awareness, which are the intended goals of the bill. Note that according to iGR’s analysis, $11 billion is not sufficient to build the necessary V2X infrastructure across the U.S., but it could be a ‘down payment’ on significant infrastructure to kick start the industry.

In summary, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes many opportunities for digital infrastructure investment, in addition to the $65 billion slotted to improve broadband infrastructure. The funding included in this bill will have a positive impact on an array of digital infrastructure providers, from fiber installers to small cell vendors. Digital infrastructure will be used to improve all of America’s infrastructure.

Trends in Home Broadband Usage

Before the pandemic, iGR had forecast that wired home broadband usage would reach 365 gigabytes (GBs) per household (HH) per month on average in 2021. Now, we expect average home wired broadband usage in 2021 to reach 403 GBs per HH per month. Moreover, we expect it to remain 10-15 percent higher than we had originally forecast. By 2025, we forecast the average U.S. household will use approximately 558 GB per month of wired broadband.

Average home wired broadband usage jumped because everyone was forced to be home and since everything was closed, the Internet became the main source of continued schooling, work, seeing doctors and finding entertainment. So, data usage increased: video streaming (Netflix, Hulu, etc.), game downloads, audio streaming, video conferencing (Zoom, Teams, etc.) and chatting (FaceTime, etc.). With people having found more convenient ways to get everyday “stuff” done, we do not think those changes will be reversed.

Another trend is the probably permanent change to how corporate America functions. Consider the following data from this paper (Has the COVID-19 Pandemic Accelerated the Future of Work or Changed Its Course? Implications for Research and Practice (nih.gov) which I paraphrase and summarize here:

  • In 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that 29 percent of wage and salary workers could work at home and 25 percent had opted to do so at some point, but only 15 percent of employees reported working full days exclusively from home.
  • At the pandemic’s outset, many employees were forced to transition from primarily working onsite to working from home. The BLS estimated 35 percent of the U.S. workforce worked from home due to the pandemic at least once in May 2020. By year end 2020, those forced to work from home because of the pandemic had fallen to 24 percent. By July 2021, 13 percent reported that they had been forced to work from home at some point in the past four weeks due to the pandemic.
  • Between October 2020 and April 2021, a Gallup study found that of those white-collar workers working from home, 71 percent wanted to continue working from home. Similarly, a Harvard Business school study found that 81 percent of professionals who had been working remotely from March 2020 to March 2021 either did not wish to return to the office or wanted to telework via a hybrid schedule (e.g., working 2 to 3 days at home per week).

A permanent increase in the number of corporate workers who work from home one or more days per week will also decrease the total data usage on the wired (and cellular) networks in cities where they work. That change will ripple into other areas, as well: the cellular networks along the highways, congestion on those roads, ridership of public transportation, businesses (e.g., restaurants) in those cities.

More people staying at home for work means that data usage is more distributed – i.e., down to the subdivision level. This obviously changes the timelines for when wired broadband operators add throughput to their networks while increasing the breadth and depth of their coverage. And, of course this also means continued expansion of data centers, introduction of more edge compute nodes, pushing fiber networks (in the HFC networks) closer to end users.

Building the Hyper-Communicating Future

An adaption of Asimov’s Foundation series is currently airing on Apple TV. It was a good excuse for me to re-read the first book, the premise of which is basically this: by building a foundation that contains all human knowledge, a predicted thirty-thousand-year-long “dark age” can be shortened – potentially – to a mere thousand. Asimov then relates the implementation of this plan (the Seldon plan) across multiple chapters. It’s an intriguing concept that goes well beyond the merely literal spin I take here – that today’s effort and activity around building wired (and wireless/cellular) networks is foundational to our hyper-connected, hyper-communicating future.

The fiber builds happening across the U.S. are due to many factors – bridging the “digital divide,” increasing the overall availability of broadband and enabling 5G NR services, to name three. Fiber is key because it provides high throughput and scales well (particularly via C/D-WDM). Moreover, the high strand counts being deployed suggests that there will likely be a high ceiling of capacity for (hopefully) many years to come.

Some of the past week’s news include:

• Frontier entering a fiber partnership with AT&T
• In Indiana, AT&T partnering with Vanderburgh county to expand fiber broadband access
• Comcast Business expanding its network in several mid-Atlantic states
• TDS Telecom expanding its fiber network in a 7,300-strong town in Maine
• Consolidated launching gigabit broadband service to more than 6,500 homes and small businesses in Pennsylvania
• Also in Pennsylvania, Shentel began expanding the reach of its FTTH Glo Fiber network to another 6,000 homes and businesses
• Ziply Fiber securing $350 million in debt funding to continue its fiber expansion in the U.S. northwest
• Zayo entering the final phase of constructing its all-underground dark fiber routes.

Fiber is foundational to all networks, whatever the “last mile” connection is – FWA, cellular, Wi-Fi, satellite, cable, xDSL, mmWave or, ideally, fiber itself. Layered on top of these networks we’ll see all the apps we’re accustomed to (social, mapping, gaming, video calling and conferencing, messaging, etc.) along with those that are yet to come (connected vehicles, autonomous vehicles, AR/VR, smart city, etc.) and still more that no one has yet dreamed up.

Today, these are discrete networks operated by different companies and/or different units within the same companies. Over time, we expect that we (the industry and the people) will stop focusing on the individual networks and more on interconnecting the various foundations into a hyper-connected network across which everyone and everything communicates. It’s not Asimov’s Foundation. Not yet, anyway.

Investing in Digital America

September 24, 2021

In the coming months, the U.S. federal government will likely pass an infrastructure bill. The total amount is in flux — $1, $2, $3.5 or $4.5 trillion. The following is a short list of what seems to be some of the items common across the various iterations of the legislation:

  • More than $110 billion to rebuild, repair, and modernize roads and bridges: This could include money for fiber, cell sites (small and maybe macro), C-V2X roadside units, IoT sensors, cameras, etc.
  • $66 billion to improve Amtrak and modernizing public transit: Again, more fiber along the tracks, cellular/wireless capabilities, sensors, cameras, etc.
  • More than $7 billion for electric vehicles and charging stations. Each of those could provide cellular service across multiple bands and would be good spots for new fiber. Also, IoT sensors could also be installed.
  • More than $25 billion to upgrade airports; some of that money could go to fiber and DAS, small cells, edge compute, V2X, IoT, etc.
  • $100 billion to upgrade and build public schools: The pandemic is showing how school district are using CBRS-based FWA to provide broadband service to their communities. Schools are ideal “hubs” for fiber, cellular, etc. And while they are at, why not introduce courses that take students through the sites, so they understand how the Internet is getting to their devices? Maybe some will even want to learn how to install and/or fix those sites – or get involved in related STEM programs.
  • $55 billion to modernize drinking water and waste processing. Again, fiber, sensors, cameras, etc.
  • $48 billion to develop the American workforce – match older workers with students. They can learn from each other about how to build, fix and otherwise digitally transform America.

Don’t hold me to the numbers cited; they may change, just as the items themselves might.

My point is simply that forthcoming infrastructure investments could include – should include – digital components. As an example, most of the cost of deploying fiber is in the physical process and labor of associated with trenching and/or boring and then installing the conduit and then pulling the fiber through. The cost of making that trench a little deeper and/or the conduit a little bigger and pulling more fiber through, while not insignificant, is minor compared to the expense associated with going back in a few years’ time. Dig once, benefit for years.

V2X – A new driver of digital infrastructure investment

June 8, 2021

The idea of connecting vehicles to each other (V2V) and to other things (V2X) has been around for a while – in fact, this was one of the first IOT use cases way-back-when.  Since then, little appears to have happened – while many cars have modems for 4G LTE/WiFi access and apps on the screen, etc, vehicles still do not connect to each other or to roadside furniture, signs, control signals etc.

But there are now signs that things are starting to change and that V2X could be the big driver of digital infrastructure investment – after all, if vehicles are going to communicate with assets at the side of the road, those assets are going to have to be connected.  That means fiber, edge compute, radios and towers to connect signs, stop lights, bridges, roads, etc to data centers and applications.  In short, V2X means a whole range of infrastructure at the side of the road, as well as new communications capabilities in the vehicle itself.

The term “connected vehicle” is used to describe vehicles that can “speak” to each other, along with roadside infrastructure and other devices (smartphones). There are – or were – two competing connected vehicle technologies. Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) is the older of the two as it’s been around for more than 20 years. The relative newcomer is Cellular Vehicle to Everything (C-V2X) technology.

Both technologies enable basically the same use cases some of which include:

  • Basic safety, signal phase and timing, and information messages
  • Forward collision warning, pre-crash sensing, hard braking warning, emergency vehicle warnings
  • Traffic jam and route information.

The messages are sent or relayed between/among on-board units (OBUs) installed in vehicles and they can be augmented by interaction with roadside units (RSUs).

Note that smartphone technology and various applications already supply some of these use cases, while cameras, ultrasonics, LIDAR, etc., provide some of the vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) functionality without needing any type of wireless networking.

DSRC is also known as 802.11p. It is a standardized, wireless communications technology that allows vehicles to communicate with each other via OBUs RSUs. In the U.S., DSRC equipment operates in the 5.850 to 5.925 GHz band (5.9 GHz band). It is not a cellular technology.

C-V2X is a cellular technology that is defined by the 3GPP in Release 14 of its specifications. C-V2X also operates in the 5.9 GHz band. The 5G Automotive Association (5GAA) does a good job of summarizing what C-V2X is here (https://5gaa.org/5g-technology/c-v2x/).

Both C-V2X and DSRC require OBUs and RSUs and both can be made to interact with the cellular network. Note that those RSUs are basically small cell sites as they will have power, backhaul (fiber) and proximity to vehicles and therefore end users. They will also need edge compute.

DSRC has its own ecosystem of devices and while C-V2X does, as well, those devices and their components are part of the wider cellular ecosystem. And while C-V2X is LTE today, it will eventually migrate to 5G New Radio (NR) just like everything else.

In November 2020, the FCC released a report and order that did two major things:

  • Split the 5.9 GHz band into two pieces: the lower 45 MHz will be for unlicensed use (Wi-Fi) while the upper 30 MHz will be dedicated to C-V2X.
  • Current DSRC devices must migrate to the upper 30 MHz by year-end 2021 and that technology will itself be phased out.

Source:  https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-modernizes-59-ghz-band-improve-wi-fi-and-automotive-safety-0

The FCC’s “modernization” of the 5.9 GHz band in that November 2020 report and order remains contentious and could well be over-ruled by the current administration.

There appear to be two warring camps. One side says the entire band should be dedicated to CV technology while the other side says that the upper 30 MHz is sufficient.  Regardless of what happens to how the band is allocated, the C-V2X standard is not the issue – the stake the FCC pounded into DSRC’s heart may well remain untouched and the world will move forward with C-V2X, and all of the associated digital infrastructure needed to enable it.

If Prime: 5G Core by Thursday, RAN by Saturday

April 22, 2021

Remember the Rokr E1? It debuted about 16 years ago and resulted from a partnership between Motorola and Apple. Back then, Motorola was a big deal in phones – along with Palm, RIM (which is BlackBerry, btw) and Nokia. The Rokr E1 failed, largely due to the lack of letters.

I remember thinking it odd that Motorola and Apple partnered particularly since the Rokr E1 was so bad. Thanks to hindsight, I must also have thought “Maybe Apple’s learning what goes into making the cellular components of a phone.” Eighteen months later, Apple disrupted the cellular and computing industries.

Which brings me to this news. A month ago, Nokia and Amazon Web Services (AWS) announced a collaboration in which “engineering teams from both companies will research how the combination of Nokia’s RAN (Radio Access Network), Open RAN, Cloud RAN and edge solutions can operate seamlessly with AWS Outposts.”

Per the press release, the project will run Nokia’s 5G virtualized distributed unit (vDU) and 5G virtualized centralized unit (vCU) on AWS Outposts using Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (EKS) for far edge cloud or on-premises deployments. (Kubernetes is a container management platform.)

In 5G New Radio (NR), baseband processing is split between the DU and the CU. The goal there is to put those processing elements in physical locations where it makes the most sense (costs the least and/or provides the greatest functionality). This functionality is likely to be virtualized as well, but what the radios do is not changing that much.

The third part of the collaboration will build a “proof of concept for an end-to-end solution with Nokia’s 5G Cloud RAN and 5G standalone Core network running on AWS, where end enterprise users can leverage 5G for use cases such as an industrial application.”

Undeniably, Nokia has thirty plus years of cellular radio expertise which I would guess must transfer into its virtualization efforts. And it has a large existing market that is under threat thanks in no small part to the very mobile operators it sells to.

Ostensibly, a 5G RAN service (CU/DU) is another way for AWS to position itself as an enabler of 5G services. Already, they have outposts, wavelength zones, local zones, snow-family devices, a partnership with Athonet for 4G/5G core, and one with Federated Wireless for connectivity-as-a-service (which Federated does not directly have since they only run a SAS).

Will AWS launch 5G NR RAN-based service? Who knows. All I’m suggesting is that AWS with all the resources at its disposal, is more than capable of disrupting the cellular market. Yesterday’s news is a good example – Dish is using AWS to build its 5G network.