Published Mar 05, 2019 by Conor McGeehin

5G Fronthaul Network Suppliers Showcasing Products at OFC, Market Forecasts Published by CIR

The fronthaul portion of 5G infrastructure carries data from the baseband units to remote radio head. According to CIR’s report Optical Networking Opportunities in the 5G Infrastructure Market 2019-2028, the 5G fronthaul will result in new revenues for both cable and equipment makers.

Previous generations of mobile telephony could rely on copper wire or fixed wireless links for fronthaul because of moderate user requirements for bandwidth and latency. However, given the impending capacity demand of 1-10 Gbps connections for 5G mobile streaming video, AR and VR, gaming and autonomous vehicles, along with maximum latency of one millisecond or less, the fronthaul network market is now a business unto itself.

While some 4G LTE facilities may be re-used for 5G, fronthaul for 5G requires a major restructuring of network architecture. At present, we are currently seeing it undergo an early-stage architecture change with aggregation and multiplexing driving deeper into the network, potentially reducing the number of wavelengths needed. Meanwhile, the functionality of the BBU is changing, so this will lead to some redefinition of what actually constitutes fronthaul.

As these changes begin to occur, much money will be made by well-positioned players. At the OFC Conference & Exhibition, March 5-7 in San Diego, several of these players are displaying their 5G fronthaul wares

The 5G fronthaul opportunity portends significant upsides for Ciena, Nokia, Juniper and Infinera, all of which are exhibiting at OFC 2019. All of these firms are profiled in the CIR report as significant suppliers of 5G fronthaul network equipment. Meanwhile Ericsson has an online marketing and advertising campaign featuring 5G RAN fronthaul equipment.

Meanwhile, at OFC, Corning Cable is leveraging its position as the primary optical cable supplier for Verizon’s 5G installation. We think that Corning sees 5G as a way to expand beyond FTTx and large data centers. Other cable manufacturers are also present at OFC and no doubt have similar goals.

We expect that much of the 5G fronthaul conversation at OFC will focus on the role of PONs and the fate of CPRI. A primary fronthaul opportunity is found in NG-PON (or WDM-PON) technology, a relatively low-cost solution that meets fronthaul needs for 5G infrastructure. It’s a big market with comparatively low barriers to market entry. And PONs can support the strict latency and synchronization requirements of 5G. Yet, while NG-PON is a clear winner, there remains an important continuing role for WDM in fronthaul.

Accelerating deployment of C-RAN architecture, meanwhile, introduces a new set of network design questions and uncertainties. A key success factor will be use of an efficient fronthaul interface and there is some skepticism in the industry as to whether CPRI will cut it in this regard.

CPRI will probably have to be replaced in the medium-to-long term. CPRI needs dedicated lambda/fiber for each antenna and won’t scale up to much higher antenna counts and network density. Regardless, well worn, familiar technical standards are tough to displace. The IEEE Next Generation Fronthaul Interface Group is currently working to address this issue of new standards for 5G optical interfaces. IEEE’s Communications Society and Photonics Society are both major sponsors and exhibitors at OFC in San Diego.

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