Verizon’s Stone: We’re employing vRAN today with 5G

vRAN technology represents a significant change to the design of a wireless network. (Pixabay)

Speaking at the recent FierceWireless Next Gen Wireless Networks Summit, Verizon’s Bill Stone said the carrier is making significant progress toward implementing vRAN technology on the carrier’s new 5G network.

The comments are noteworthy considering vRAN represents a significant change to the inner workings of a wireless network.

As Verizon executives have previously explained, vRAN is the process by which proprietary baseband unit hardware, which sits below the antenna and the radio in a wireless network, is replaced with a general-purpose computer. In network lingo, that means that dedicated baseband hardware built by a company like Ericsson to specifically run its antenna and radio is replaced with commercial off-the-shelf hardware running standard, inexpensive computing architectures like x86.

This process of virtualizing the baseband in the radio access network (RAN) is part of a broader trend in the wireless and wider telecom industry in which operators are increasingly looking to move away from expensive, dedicated hardware from traditional suppliers and toward general-purpose computing equipment running software. The result is cheaper equipment that can be changed or upgraded more quickly through software.

And in his comments last month, Stone said that Verizon has already deployed a “first step” of vRAN. He said Verizon has virtualized some of the basic functions of the “upper layer” of its network, sometimes referred to as Layer 3, inside Verizon’s own cloud architecture. He said those layers are not as sensitive to latency as other layers of the company’s network, thus allowing them to more easily be virtualized.

“We're going to proceed down that path with 5G NR as we get in into the NR deployment phase now,” Stone said. “We're also going to … virtualize the upper layers for LTE as well.”

Stone said Verizon is also working with its vendors—including Ericsson, Samsung and Nokia—to virtualize the lower layers of its network in addition to the upper layers. “We're looking at it in two steps, where we virtualize the upper layers first, and then the lower layers second,” he said.

Stone said Verizon’s vRAN work leverages the company’s move toward network centralization that it started a few years ago. With a centralized network, or cRAN, the network’s baseband unit is put into a central location instead of at the base of a cell tower.

Verizon already has thousands of cRAN hubs throughout the United States.

Verizon hinted at its vRAN aspirations earlier this year when it announced it was developing a new virtualized Cloud RAN architecture with the help of Nokia and Intel.

Verizon switched on its new 5G network last month in select locations in four cities; the company is initially using the technology to offer in-home broadband services in a challenge to ISPs like Comcast and Charter. But Verizon has promised to launch mobile 5G services next year in a broader network rollout.