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Realizing the Value of All-IP Networks for Wireless Providers


The wireless industry is wise to embrace end-to-end IP networks. 4G  is IP, exclaims an infrastructure vendor. As a long-time IP advocate, I  am pleased to see the movement in this direction. Carriers that  implement the newer wireless access technologies are positioned to  capitalize on operational simplicity, reduced cost, and flexible service  creation that IP/Ethernet networks offer.  Although we’re off to a good  start, we have much to accomplish before fully realizing the value of  extending IP to the edge.

Before examining the gaps, I’ll describe my desired end state. I want  to design, operate, and maintain a “wireless” network using the same  practices as Tier 1 ISPs, the best of which know how to cheaply and  efficiently transport bits. Note the use of quotation marks in my  previous sentence. Wireless describes the access mechanism only. Why  should we invent new ways to run IP networks? The solutions are already  out there.

To reduce my costs of offering an IP  service, I need infrastructure that supports wireless access to function  like IP routers. We’re building IP networks, so let’s push vendors to  implement the feature sets available on carrier routers. If the  provider’s engineers can interact with packet core gateways and base  stations as they do with today’s routers, I can adopt the best practices  honed over the last fifteen years at the Tier 1 ISPs. Think about the  advantages in terms of staffing, augmenting capacity, and ability to  quickly launch new services that would accompany this shift.

I’ll get specific about what I seek from network designers, vendors,  and standards bodies. Here’s an inexhaustive list.

Routing – To extend  IP to the edge in a meaningful way, the same dynamic routing  functionality should be available to the RAN, including the cell site.  Why to the cell site? Packets always head to the core, right? This is  true…for now. Deploy the same routing protocols used in Tier 1 ISPs.  Robust implementations of OSPF and ISIS avoid one-offs in routing  design. ISIS, in particular, is favored by some large carriers for  reasons such as ease of extensibility for IPv6.

Backhaul Avoidance –  Let’s avoid the backhaul bottleneck that some providers have  experienced in 2G/3G networks by localizing routing decisions. If I’m  using my 4G-enabled device at my neighborhood park to share content with  a passer-by, why should traffic traverse the core and backhaul network?  Designs could be jiggered to accommodate network-layer mobility at the  cell site. The longer term fix will likely be to modify the reference  architectures to meet the business realities of production networks.

Infrastructure Management – My goal is to manage the entirety of the infrastructure using similar  means. Operators modify router configurations with scripts,  command-line interfaces, and API. Routers are accessible with SSH, and  users are authorized with TACACS+ or RADIUS. Routers use syslog for  logging to a server. Router capacity is displayed with open source tools  such as MRTG and Cacti. I have yet to encounter a base station, for  example, that does all these things (No, having a vendor use hidden  Unix/Linux shell access to create a hack doesn’t count).

IPv6 – Ignore or  half-heartedly implement IPv6 at your peril. Over the last ten years,  routers have made significant strides in being able to implement a  mature IPv6 transport service. Mobility elements that I’ve worked with  do not match the IPv6 capabilities of carrier routers. Being able to  forward IPv6 packets isn’t enough. Operators need the full range of  capabilities for which they currently rely on IPv4. Too often vendors  issue a cavalcade of “buts” in discussing IPv6. “Our gear is  IPv6-ready…but it can’t forward packets at line rate…but we didn’t  implement an IPv6 version of that firewall rule set…but the  infrastructure protection mechanisms that you use today aren’t ready.”  Push for anything less than like-to-like functionality or prepare to be  tripped up by that one feature that you didn’t realize was critical in  offering a service…or billing for it.

Visibility – A  simply designed L1/L3 network maximizes visibility into the network  elements, thus reducing outage duration and the overall complexity of  the service assurance activities. The value of simple IP tools like ping  and traceroute can’t be understated. Imagine a scenario in which your  NOC receives an alarm that a cell site is unreachable. What next? An  engineer familiar with troubleshooting IP networks might first attempt  to ping an IP address closest to the customer. This could be a base  station or cell site router. An enormous amount of troubleshooting is  eliminated when IP connectivity to the cell site is confirmed.

I often discuss how the mobile operators will find themselves  behaving more and more like the Tier 1 ISPs. I see this as inevitable  based on the challenges the providers face. I believe the ones that  quickly adopt this mindset will thrive. What I’ve described above is one  step in getting to the all-IP nirvana. Hope to see you there.

Jeff Loughridge

4 Replies 4


Nice shopping list Jeff.

Michael Howard, principal analyst and Co-founder for Infonetics, just released and telling report on a survey for IP/Ethernet Mobile Backhaul Strategies.

Survey results reveal that majority of carriers are convinced of and in process of upgrading their RAN with IP/Ethernet based technology. And yet the transformation to IP seems to be slower than market demand for IP benefits. Michael's survey questions the operators on what barriers they face in moving to IP. I believe one of the more telling findings of the survey was one of the Top 3 carrier answers to that question ...

  • Organizational inertia (TDM staff not ready for all IP operations)

SO in addition to your excellent feature list, it appears we should add an element of All-IP career training as a necessary step for organizations to realize the value IP has to offer



Thanks for pointing out the finding from the Infonetics report. The dissemination of IP knowledge throughout the organization is critical in the move to all-IP networks. I see two aspects to this.

  1. Rigorous IP training for new employees - The training should include more than what one would get in studying for an entry-level certification. Describe aspects of your network such as design principles, troubleshooting techniques, capacity planning, and service set. A broad understanding of IP and Internet philosophy (e.g., the end-to-end principle) positions engineers to excel in their positions.
  2. Broadening the skill sets of TDM-focused engineers - Providers have very talented and intelligent engineers who made their names engineering, operating, and designing TDM networks. The transition has its challenges, as in any attempt at significant organizational change. These engineers will benefit from the training I describe above. Beforehand, I'd suggest a one-on-one talk about industry changes and the commitment the company has to the engineer's technical development.

Jeff Loughridge


Thank you very much Jeff for capturing the critical dimensions of this important dialog.

In the mobile space, with the architectures moving to all IP, this IP savvy of the operator holds the key to future revenue streams from Mobile Internet services. These are beyond voice, SMS, and data connectivity and get into unified communications, cloud services, and interactive video applications.

Operators need to orchestrate the technology layers you have identified in an end-to-end manner. This will help them deliver value to the subscriber while monetizing the service. Vendors, like Cisco, should deliver new business models to make this innovation easier and replicable. For example, we in Cisco have worked with customers in build-operate-transfer models, outsourcing management and NOC, etc., to share the risks and the rewards and manage CAPEX/OPEX combination.

I also would like to add application enablement (through ecosystem, API integration of network services, etc.) as another foundational element.

The promise of all-IP will unfold in an unprecedented manner in the coming years: new personalized applications and services, cost-effective scaling to Gigabyte life style, and the productivity gains and entertainment benefits of the Internet of Things with billions of devices.


Kittur Nagesh

Hi Jeff

One additional thing to consider in an all-IP world is the interaction of the network with the end-device (and also maybe The Cloud) in determining various of the things you list.

This is a fundamental difference to Tier-1 ISPs, for which (mostly) they connect devices which have very little opportunity to orchestrate *themselves*. PCs are generally only connected to one physical network and IP connection, and usually through an operator-controlled gateway/router anyway.

Mobile devices, on the other hand, can have multiple connection choices - and, increasingly the software smarts to discriminate between them. So a smartphone may have a choice of 3G or WiFi. In future, some devices will have the ability to choose between 2+ service providers' networks - picking one as appropriate, or even bonding them together for load-balancing and "carrier diversity".

Looking out a couple of years, the average device will be smarter and more flexible than the IP policy engines in the network - and will certainly be able to "game" them in many circumstances. In certain instances, this capability may be controllable by the operator (eg if they provide the device & lock down the IP elements). But in other cases, the user (or application provider) will be in control.

One of the greatest challenges for next-gen mobile IP network design is to deal with shared control between devices and network - there are many scenarios, and in many instances the IP core or transport network wll not be in the driving seat, especially if they have limited client-side presence.

Dean Bubley

Founder & Director

Disruptive Analysis

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