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3G Riding into the Sunset

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Every now and then, a technology comes along that changes the strides humanity takes. The introduction of the first-generation iPhone in 2007 changed the way we look at the phone and how we use it. Smartphones and social networking have changed the way we communicate and work, which has had an unprecedented impact on healthcare, travel, education, national security, and political and social revolutions. If we look closer, however, 3G networks once played a very crucial role in the emergence of these smartphones and social networks, but now that time has passed, and the sunset of 3G networks is near. The ubiquitous nature of 3G networks, the high speed required to support this transcendental user experience, and low-priced data plans were the catalyst required for the huge impact that smartphones had on human history.

3G Sunset Dates: When Will 3G Be Shut Down?

In the United States, major operators have announced plans to shut down the 3G network. Verizon had plans to shut down the 3G network earlier in 2016, as it didn’t make economic sense to maintain the 3G CDMA network and a different 4G network, but those plans were delayed. 3G has lasted for years after, and until this today, 3G was still available, with no plan to shut it down or phased out. However, it appears the plan to stop 3G networks is back on track.

Tracking the 3G Sunset: Dates & Details

How much longer will 3G last? Here are some 3G sunset dates and how major U.S. carriers plan to end 3G.

Carrier When Why How The details
Verizon End of 2020 “Virtually all Verizon data traffic runs on our 4G LTE network. We have very few customers who are still accessing our 3G network.” Customers “are welcome to call into our customer service team and we will be happy to help them.” FAQs
AT&T “Early” 2022 “This will help free up spectrum to better accommodate next-generation technologies and services.” “We will work with our customers during this transition.” FAQs
T-Mobile “Over the next several years” but “we haven’t shared timing.” “We will be phasing out some older technologies… to free up even more capacity for LTE and 5G.” “We’ll make sure any affected customers are aware in advance to make adjustments if needed.” N/A

Source: Light Reading, “Goodbye 3G: Here’s when T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon will shut it off.”

Why Operators Should Move on from 3G

Here are some reasons for operators to make the move from 3G:

  • The primary driver is the re-use of spectrum for 5G. Spectrum is the lifeblood of the operators and there can never be enough spectrum for them.
  • Cost and operational efficiency of maintaining only 5G/4G networks.
  • A mad “gold rush” kind of frenzy to claim the first/early mover advantage of higher speeds and nationwide coverage on 5G networks, which in turn will help retain and add new subscribers to their network.
  • The promise of all the 5G features with Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC), and especially Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC) with limitless possibilities.
  • Decrease the complexity and increase reliability of the core networks, which aren’t required to support 3G technologies going forward.

Why Subscribers Should Move on from 3G

Here are some reasons for subscribers to make the move from 3G:

  • 5G-capable devices are already available now, which are more efficient and cost-effective in the long run.
  • The major US operators have confirmed there is no additional cost or surcharge
  • The majority of 3G/2G devices tend to be the IoT devices and there are a rich set of 5G Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC) features and more exciting features coming down the pipeline.

While the curtain coming down on 3G reminds me of Clint Eastwood riding off into the sunset at the end of the movie The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly,  there is a lot of excitement about the future of 5G and exciting applications such as augmented/virtual reality, Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X), the scale of billions of connected devices, and the insane speeds and low latencies never before experienced. And, finally, Peter Thiel will get his proverbial flying cars instead of 140 characters. Now, if only European operators would follow the lead from United States operators and also shutdown their 3G/2G networks. Come out of the dark ages and help me out on my roadmap. Is that too much to ask? Sigh!

SmartNICs Give EPC/5G Services a Turbo Boost of Speed

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5G has a need for speed, and just down the road is a host of new 5G services that will demand higher network performance, from augmented/virtual reality applications to connected cars. Where will that extra performance come from? There are two paths that mobile operators can take to boost network performance: they can upgrade and/or add more CPU horsepower to their servers—a costly option—or they can free up server CPU capacity using a SmartNIC.

 

What’s a SmartNIC?

As its name implies, SmartNIC (also called intelligent NICs) is a network interface card (NIC) that has built-in intelligence that allows it to process the data passing through it. SmartNICs are considered smarter than your average NIC.

SmartNICs something that everyone is talking about, however, at this point, there is not a complete understanding of its capabilities.

 

A standard NIC functions as an Ethernet network interface between a server and the network. NICs process basic TCP/IP information such as the source and destination IP address, port number, and the protocol being used (what we refer to in the industry as 5-tuple information). Because  SmartNICs, have built-in intelligence, they in effect performing those tasks reserved for the server CPU, such TCP checksum, load balancing, accelerating cryptography for IPsec and TLS, and other CPU-intensive tasks.

 

SmartNICs & EPC/5G Services

Okay, so maybe that definition of a SmartNIC doesn’t get your motor running. Let’s take a look under the hood for a particular load balancing use case and see how SmartNICs can really speed up EPC/5G services. The Evolved Packet Core (EPC) service—which is a software application—is used to implement special engines that create a virtual mesh of line cards inside of applications. For a given user session, traffic should be handled by a specific line card. If data was received by a different line card, it has to resend to that specified line card where the user session resides. This traffic approach is very expensive, as a large amount of east-west traffic can be generated.

This problem can be solved in multiple ways, depending on the deployed solution:

  • Specialized load balancers can be used, which will be specific to a particular application.
  • Standard Routers with ECMP could be used, but they have to be deployed very intelligently. Also, this approach doesn’t scale.
  • Operators can limit the number of servers acting as line cards by managing the server group using a Load Balancer as a Service (LBaaS) feature. This approach, however, wastes resources.
  • SmartNICs can be used for load balancing. This is the most effective and efficient option.

Typically, we would have assigned a specific number of cores to perform these functions to do a  GTP-U lookup (load balancer) on a standard NIC configuration. Because the SmartNIC is EPC aware, it can do the GTP-U header lookup automatically. But with a SmartNIC, the load balancer effectively goes away. We can shift CPU-intensive tasks such as GTP-U header lookups from the core to the SmartNIC, freeing up our server CPUs to perform other useful tasks. That means all cores can now focus on processing value-added services for EPC/5G applications: deep packet inspection, endpoint detection, and response, adaptive bitrate streaming, and so on.

 

It’s also important to note that SmartNICs aren’t just smarter than regular NICs; they’re faster too. Standard NICs support up to 40 Gbps, but SmartNICs typically support speeds of 100 Gbps and 200 Gbps.

 

SmartNICs Outlook for Mobile Operators

If you imagine that servers are the engines of your network, then using SmartNICs is like having an extra turbo-boost button on your network. And as EPC/5G services are right around the corner, the ability to accelerate network performance is exactly the kind of competitive advantage that mobile operators need.