Alcatel-Lucent exec says NFV will drive spending from 2016 onward

LAS VEGAS--All of the world's Tier 1 mobile operators are putting network functions virtualization (NFV) initiatives into place and will start focusing their capital expenditures on NFV Mobile in 2015, said Keith Allan, director of IP mobile core product strategy at Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU).

"Our whole customer base globally and somewhat ubiquitously has started plans for transitioning to use NFV and SDN as their going-forward infrastructure. Pretty well all their new spends starting next year, and definitely in 2016 forward, will mainly be on NFV-enabled applications," Allan told FierceWirelessTech on the sidelines of the recent CTIA Super Mobility Week event here.

He stressed that operators have no intention of ripping out their legacy infrastructure anytime soon, but they do intend to power all new initiatives with NFV and software-defined networking architectures as they migrate to fully virtualized networks over time.

Operators understand there will be a learning curve when it comes to virtualizing their network functions, but it may not be as steep as some imagine. Allan noted that in virtualization scenarios, Alcatel-Lucent is actually delivering the same software that it has been providing, but now that software is running on generic servers rather than dedicated hardware.

Most operators will engage in virtualization by initiating projects that are self-contained, Allan said. For example, he noted that the Mobility Management Entity (MME), the key control and signaling node in the EPC, already works in pools. Therefore, it should be fairly easy to, for example, complement three existing MMEs with a fourth one that is running as a virtual application.

In one possible use case, an operator might start out by deploying a virtualized evolved packet core (vEPC) specifically for machine-to-machine (M2M) services. That way, if any stumbling blocks are encountered, they will not affect the operator's vast consumer user. According to Allan, operators can learn from such early deployments before transitioning the main packet core at some future point.

Alcatel-Lucent has been involved in some 10 to 15 NFV proofs-of-concept (POC), most of which have not been publicly announced, Allan said. One of those that has been publicized is with NTT DoCoMo, which said in May that it intends to introduce commercial services running over a vEPC by the end of March 2016. Cisco and NEC are also working with the Japanese carrier on the NFV POC.

In addition, during the February 2014 Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona, Spain, China Mobile and Alcatel-Lucent demonstrated the vendor's virtualized POC LTE radio access network (RAN) baseband unit (BBU) and its vEPC in a multi-vendor environment.

"There is truly a global demand" for NFV, Allan said. "For Tier 1 operators, it doesn't really matter where they are, they're putting some project in place and starting trials, with some early limited commercial trials next year and moving to larger scale in 2016."

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