And that, those in the industry agree, is one of the main reasons why there is so much recent interest in the packet core.
Indeed, Saksena said that today Tellabs is taking WiChorus' packet core technology mainly to 3G carriers that need to upgrade their data infrastructure to handle growing smartphone traffic. He said the company plans to focus on the 4G market when more operators begin building out those networks.
The core of 4G
Although recent packet core investments are partially due to the increases in users' data traffic, perhaps an even more important reason in players' newfound interest in the core is the industry's quickening pace toward 4G. With operators like Clearwire and Verizon Wireless stepping on the accelerator, and 4G network contracts dangling in front of vendors, the time is now for suppliers to stake out their positions in the 4G marketplace. And the packet core represents a particularly important position to stake.
"Your LTE network isn't going to do anything unless you get the packet core to support it," explained Jarich.
Whereas the packet core handled data demands in the 3G world, it will handle virtually all traffic in a 4G scenario simply because everything--voice, video, data and the rest--will be transmitted via IP. 4G means everything is data, and all data must interact with the packet core.
Further, the packet core in 4G represents an opportunity for operators to become more involved in the transmission of content over their network. A packet core outfitted with the latest bells and whistles could play a key roll in operators' refreshed approach to the mobile data market. Specifically, advanced packet cores can help operators implement advanced billing and management services, such as metered usage.
"Plans that are unlimited are really not feasible," explained Monica Paolini of Senza Fili Consulting. "At some point the industry will have to acknowledge that. ... That's where the core comes in."
Paolini's declaration dovetails with recent comments from Verizon's Chief Technology Officer Dick Lynch, who told Dow Jones Newswires that current unlimited data plans encourage overuse of wireless networks constrained by finite spectrum. "We will end up billing differently in the future," Lynch predicted, arguing operators should bill based on subscribers' usage, much like water and power companies. Although the carrier has not discussed how it will price its LTE services, many expect Verizon to implement usage-based pricing for the network.
Crux of the future
An advanced packet core ("Evolved Packet Core" is the agreed-upon term for LTE networks) allows operators to "manage their traffic in a fair way," Senza Fili Consulting's Paolini continued. "I think this is the solution to avoiding becoming a dumb pipe."
Packet cores, working alongside other advanced network elements like IP Multimedia Subsystems, can allow operators to monitor and manage their networks in new and important ways. For example, carriers could give voice bits and bytes preference on an LTE network, thereby ensuring clear calls. Or, in another example, operators could offer bundles of services--such as reliable access to Pandora and YouTube for high schoolers or video conferencing for on-the-go businesspeople--rather than just flat prices based on use. And Cisco's Nagesh noted that a packet core that handles both voice and data traffic can provide mixed services that transmit both voice and video through the same application--and, perhaps more importantly, operators will be able to provide simple plugs to developers so their applications can make use of those functions.
"There's a huge opportunity for differentiation and cost savings," Paolini said, noting that the market for packet core technology is a bit like the Wild West--there is a wide range of possible, still-undefined services, and there's room for startups to take advantage of the situation.
Agreed Jarich: "In some respects, the packet core is a zoo."