AT&T Deploying White Box Hardware in Cell Towers to Power 5G Era

AT&T Logo

AT&T plans to be the first to drive mobile 5G in the United States. To power its new network this year and beyond, the company is building its towers and small cells in a radically new way.

The White Box Way

What does that mean? It means that AT&T is transitioning from the traditional, proprietary routers that sit inside these structures to new hardware that’s built around open standards and can be quickly upgraded via software. The organisation is expecting to roll out over 60,000 of these white box routers over the next several years across the U.S.

“White box represents a radical realignment of the traditional service provider model,” said Andre Fuetsch, chief technology officer and president, AT&T Labs. “We’re no longer constrained by the capabilities of proprietary silicon and feature roadmaps of traditional vendors. We’re writing open hardware specifications for these machines, and developing the open source software that powers these boxes. This means faster hardware upgrades, since anyone can build to these specs. And software upgrades that move at internet speed. We’re doing this all while keeping costs low so we can focus on expanding our nationwide mobile 5G footprint for our customers as quickly as possible.”

These machines will use open hardware designs so anyone can build to our specifications.

dNOS on white box

These white box routers run what it calls “Disaggregated Network Operating System,” or dNOS. AT&T built this platform in part using technology and expertise it acquired with the Vyatta unit.

Orchestrating these dNOS-powered white box machines is ONAP, or Open Network Automation Platform. ONAP is an operating system for the network cloud. AT&T is committed to virtualizing 75% of our core network functions by 2020.

Tools like ONAP are vital to deploying and managing the next generation of ultra-fast broadband speeds for our customers.

And ONAP will be vital to managing our future nationwide mobile 5G network.

Mobile 5G will be about more than just speed. It will also bring much lower latency. Latency is the time between when you press play on your favorite video streaming app and the moment your show appears on the screen. For some applications, latency is critical. For example, with augmented reality or self-driving cars, it needs to be near real-time for any applications running in the cloud.

Mobile 5G can make that super-low latency possible. But to run those applications in the cloud, you need a network and a platform that can host those applications at the cell towers and small cells in close physical proximity to users. This is known as “edge computing”. Running those apps in data centers thousands of miles away from users doesn’t work. Distance adds latency.