Executive Interview: David Lu, Vice President of ECOMP Platform and Systems, AT&T
Can you tell us how AT&T is progressing with Network Virtualization?
We are tracking to meet our virtualization goal of virtualizing 75% of the network by 2020. We’ve been working on virtualizing our network over the past three years, so we’re continuing to build off that work across all parts of the network and we are able to apply our knowledge and expertise to our 5G network build.
How has this affected the hardware and network architecture?
While our goal is to transition to a software-centric network, we still use hardware in our network. We are currently transitioning from the traditional routers to new hardware called white box routers that’s built around open standards and can quickly be upgraded via software. This ties in to our 5G plan as our network will be able to host low-latency 5G applications at the cell towers or small cells in close physical proximity to users – known as edge computing.
What progress have you made in moving computing to the edge?
Edge computing is a high priority for us as next-gen applications such as autonomous cars and augmented reality/virtual reality will require large amounts of near-real time computation. Edge computing addresses these obstacles by moving the computation into the cloud. We’re already deploying EC-capable services to our enterprise customers today through AT&T FlexWareSM and SD-WAN, and are planning for more applications in areas such as public safety which will be enabled by the FirstNet network. Our Labs and Foundry innovation centers are leading the charge designing and testing edge computing. Our Palo Alto Foundry launched a test zone for edge applications with a focus on creating enhanced AR/VR experiences on mobile devices. Additionally, we’re contributing code to a project hosted by The Linux Foundation, Akraino Edge Stack, which is an open source software stack supporting high-availability cloud services for edge computing systems and applications. This project will help accelerate progress towards development of network-based edge services.
How will consumers benefit from Network Virtualization?
Consumers will benefit from network virtualization by experiencing quick and virtually seamless connections. As consumers continue to consume more data through streaming and storing content, as well as using IoT devices and applications, network virtualization allows the network to handle these needs more effectively and provide a superior experience.
How does this fit into your overall 5G strategy?
We believe our network virtualization strategy goes hand in hand with our overall 5G strategy. We’ve talked before about how we think 5G and software defined networking will be deeply intertwined technologies. Investing in SDN is an essential to support the massive data use 5G will bring. 5G will be the first network to be born in the cloud, which means that once the 5G radios are installed, SDN makes it possible to add new features and upgrades quickly and efficiently.
Can you tell us what the AT&T 5G rollout might look like in the next few years?
Currently, we are laying the 5G network foundation with 5G evolution and LTE-LAA. We are doing this by upgrading cell towers with LTE Advanced features (256 QAM, 4x4 MIMO, and 3-way carrier aggregation). By boosting the network now, this will prepare us to easily upgrade to 5G when it’s ready. We intend to be the first U.S. company to introduce mobile 5G service in parts of a dozen markets in 2018. We also plan to continue to enhance our network with 5G Evolution technology in hundreds of additional metros. AT&T 5G services will be based on industry standards for 5G set by 3GPP, the international wireless standards body.
Additionally, in early September, we made the world’s first wireless 5G data transfer over millimeter wave using standards-based, production equipment with a mobile form factor device. This helps us to ensure that when smartphones and other mobile devices are available to consumers, our mobile 5G network will be ready to go.
How will mmWave technology (including AirGig) be used in the AT&T 5G network?
We gathered data from our enterprise 5G trials in in Waco, Texas, Kalamazoo, Michigan and South Bend, Indiana to learn more about mmWave and test 5G equipment. We learned a lot from these trials including mmWave signals can penetrate materials such as glass and walls better than initially anticipated, as well as finding no observable impact on 5G mmWave signal performance due to rain, snow or other weather events.
Project AirGig is a transformative technology developed by AT&T Labs that could one day deliver multi-gigabit wireless internet speeds using powerlines via mmWave. Currently there are 2 trials, one in Georgia and one outside the US. The potential for Project AirGig is huge as 5G mmWave internet signals would be carried along power lines, which would greatly extend the reach of 5G networks – including in urban, suburban and rural areas.
Will 5G be a key part of autonomous vehicles and transportation?
5G will absolutely be a key part of autonomous vehicles and transportation. Autonomous vehicles will include features such as advanced sensing, communication and computing technologies which will require lower latencies. Autonomous vehicles won’t fully become a reality until 5G data networks are widespread to give cars instant reflexes on the road.
How do you see 5G changing industrial automation and medical applications?
5G will eventually unlock changes in many industries, such as automotive, agriculture, energy, manufacturing and healthcare. 5G’s focus on IoT will help enable a number of new use cases and applications in these industries. The speed and computing power will be particularly beneficial in health care, where it could enable new applications for mobile technologies allowing patients to receive care in near real time. Our Houston Foundry for connected health is working on technologies such as cellular enabled medical devices and connected pill packs, and 5G will help generate even more new innovations.
How and when do you think consumers will be able to use 5G technologies?
Connected cars, AR/VR, smart cities, smart homes, 5G phones/devices are just a few of the technologies consumers will be able to experience over a 5G network. However, timing on when these technologies will become available will differ depending on the level of network build out. For example, 5G mobile calls will be possible if both users are in areas with 5G, but technology like autonomous cars will require 5G to be widespread, therefore likely won’t be commercially available until a later date.