Covid-19 not slowing down 5G work for Spirent

But the test company is seeing a shift of focus in some areas.

Aside from making sure people are safe and well, the industry is trying to evaluate what impact the current crisis is likely to have on their businesses.

TMN spoke to Stephen Douglas, Head of 5G, Spirent to understand what demands the company is seeing from operators and vendors at the moment.

China currently full steam ahead on 5G

Douglas said that if anything China is speeding up the current rate of its 5G deployment. “That may be,” he said, “because authorities see the potential for future [Covid-19] waves to strike, so they are making use of the current window”. Douglas said that there has been a “definite uptick” across the country, and also that Wuhan and Hubei are currently “coming online”. A further interesting shift that Douglas identified is that there is less of a focus on rolling out in CBD areas first, with more effort going into proving out suburban and residential areas.

The demand for test solutions from Spirent is mainly to validate backhaul capacity and also for core network performance as operator make the move to 5G SA core. Another area of increased interest has been in Spirent’s automation frameworks, as operators make greater use of automated test processes, for obvious reasons.

Outside of China, Douglas said demand from North American operators is still strong, and he hasn’t seen any noticeable downscaling of activity, with a lot of T1 carrier demand for validation testing. Additionally there’s been a focus on getting more rural sites deployed, often using a health facility or hospital as a hub.

Another aspect is that there is renewed interest in FWA using cellular technology, due to increased working from home. Douglas said that many enterprises are not happy with staff using home WiFi log in to corporate assets, and are mandating use of mobile networks or hotspots. Obviously if home working stays something of the norm, then there may be more of a demand for wireless access to hit more residential areas with home broadband solutions.

Open RAN going crazy

The past three months have seen operators asking for validation of Open RAN interfaces and architectures: Douglas said demand had “gone crazy” over that time period.

Douglas said that in particular they want to prove out that things work as they should, in particular across the fronthaul interface. That’s mainly to assess interoperability and how truly flexible and multi vendor deployments could be.

Douglas thinks that operators are assessing Open RAN as a potential boost to supply chain diversity, rather than as a result of recent US-China trade battles. That said, he thinks that campus and enterprise deployments are the most likely starting points for Open RAN.

Cloud and the edge is another area that Spirent is increasingly being called on for validation. Douglas says that he thinks operators may increasingly be forced to look at public cloud environments for edge sites. that would include an operator deploying either a hyperscaler’s technology stack within a telco’s physical site, or of a complete public cloud deployment. Douglas said, “If there is any financial impact on carriers because of Covid it may push more of them to embrace the webscale players for those larger edge buildouts. Most carriers have been building out heir own edge and virutal infrastructures – but for a major country with thousands of those potential locations and sites, the cost of building out, managing and operating that at scale could be a big impact.”

5G business case

Douglas said that he’s already starting to sense a move away from some traditional eMBB use cases. One example would be in sports stadiums and larger entertainment venues, where large scale content delivery was the order of the day. But there is increased interest in assessing requirements for low-latency use cases such as robotics in healthcare and other enterprise settings. “That might say something about what carriers are thinking,” Douglas said.

Some delays

Douglas said that although the three month delay to R16 has gained a lot of attention, the actual ASN1.0 timescale is the same as before – something he says is critical to ensuring interoperability and integration. However, he does think R17 may be more in question.

There may be some delays in the supply chain for the device guys. But Douglas doesn’t see that as necessarily a bad thing as it may mean that devices with dual mode NSA/SA chips can come to market in a more mature condition than some of the very early NSA-only devices.

We saw in the first ranges of NSA devices there were huge issues in the field with overheating causing radio failures and poor performance. I would argue that with the speed manufacturers are trying to get second phase devices out, this window of delay will be good for them, allow them to run more testing and validation. This is a pretty radical change in chipsets coming out.”

Spirent’s own workflow

The company moved into a work from home mode very quickly, making sure that those that need it can get remote access into lab facilies. It has also created a couple of opportunities for customers to access Spirent’s own lab backend so that they can do remote testing on Spirent’s built-up infrastructures.

“So if a customer has not already purchased from us we can give them access to that. We are also helping in other areas, helping them test things like the security of their own firewalls for homeworkers and making sure their systems are safe and robust. The model for us is working quite well and I am intrigued to know if, as we come out of this period, management will consider a percentage of our people working from home in the  long term is not a bad thing.”