US telcos are about to tear out tens of thousands of units of communications equipment from Huawei and ZTE – Chinese operators banned by the US government due to national security concerns. At a cost of several billion dollars, the so-called “rip and replace” program will be an enormous undertaking.
According to the Federal Communications Commission, 162 companies are eligible for $1.9 billion of federal funding to assist the program. It’s an eyewatering figure, that unfortunately still falls far short of the $5.6 billion requested by the industry.
This is a disaster – right?
Of course, rip and replace is an expensive, inconvenient and some would say entirely avoidable venture. But it also gives US telcos a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build the foundations of a better, more sustainable broadband system. Here’s how.
First and foremost, US telcos must ensure that history never repeats itself. One way to do this is through the installation of disaggregated networks.
In short, disaggregation is the practice of separating hardware and software, rather than using proprietary hardware and software sourced from a single vendor. Disaggregation enables telcos to buy white-box hardware from suppliers and use it to run independent software from a trusted vendor. If a security concern emerges with the software, it can be replaced relatively simply – without tearing out any physical infrastructure. Security issues aren’t a problem with white-box hardware, as the hardware itself is a blank canvas. The control of disaggregated systems is all done through software, which transforms bare-metal-switches into the highly featured IP/MPLS switches used in telco networks.
As telcos replace Chinese equipment in their networks, there’s another concern on their minds – scalability. There’s no doubt that the last two years have been tough for telcos, as changes to how we work and socialize (streaming, video calls etc.) caused unexpected surges in demand for bandwidth. If telcos have learned one thing, it’s to expect the unexpected. Who knows what the future holds? What new challenges might they soon have to face?
The solution to these unanswered questions is installing equipment that makes scaling fuss-free. Again, network disaggregation is a no-brainer, as it enables operators to easily add more white boxes when networks need to grow – rather than installing a whole new chassis-based system. Plus, it’s much cheaper to scale disaggregated networks, as disaggregation undermines supplier monoliths by giving telcos an open choice over which hardware and software they use.
When focusing on the cost, logistics and security implications of “rip and replace”, it’s easy to forget one important consequence – the environmental impact. All Huawei and ZTE equipment that’s removed from US telco networks will have to be destroyed, leading to thousands of tons of electronic waste.
With this in mind, it’s crucial that telcos prioritize sustainability when rebuilding their networks. There are many ways operators can reduce their environmental footprint – disaggregation being one potential route. Disaggregated networking allows open bare-metal switches to be repurposed by changing their software. So, today’s Broadband Network Gateway might be used for tomorrow’s cell-site router. That’s significantly less carbon intensive to produce (and dispose of).
Looking forward, it’s clear that US telcos should avoid simply replicating infrastructure as they rip out Huawei and ZTE equipment. Just because something feels familiar, doesn’t mean it’s the best choice. This is certainly true of traditional, monolithic networking systems! Instead, rip and replace presents the industry with a unique opportunity to build a telco system that’s more secure, more adaptable and more sustainable – to everyone’s long-term advantage. Network disaggregation is poised to play a key role – just watch this space.