Athonet releases 5G core as-a-service on AWS to spur private 5G market
Italy-based core network vendor and private network pioneer Athonet has released its open 5G core network on Amazon Web Services (AWS) to enable mobile carriers, radio vendors, and enterprises to deploy and experiment with working private 5G networks just by connecting radio equipment to the internet. It does away with the need to manually setup and validate the core network on AWS.
The platform is available as a free-to-use software-as-a-service (SaaS) environment on AWS. Athonet – which claims to have issued “close to half a million SIMs” on private networks already (“more than the rest of the private cellular industry put together”), and also secured “major (unnamed) wins” during lockdown – said the move will simplify the process to spin-up new proofs and testing of 5G installations and accelerate rollout of 5G in private scenarios, by operators, vendors, and enterprises.
AWS called the move by Athonet “inspiring”. Writing in a blog post on social media, Robin Harwani, head of global telecom partner technology at AWS, commented: “One of the big challenges for many operators, industrial customers, radio vendors and device partners is to have a cloud native 5G SA core ready to use when required. The purpose they have is to test for radios releases, devices being launched and even many times several applications.”
He added: “Being used to AWS, our customers and partners don’t want to be in a situation where they need to manually setup and validate the core network on AWS. To solve this problem, Athonet has created an SaaS platform for application providers, radio, chipset or device partners to use as a 5G core function validation environment on demand… This is really inspiring work to help operators, partners and industrial customers.”
The platform is free to access and free to use, said Athonet, with no charge for traffic across the core network either. Testing of N2, N3 and N6 interfaces is available, already. The idea is to accelerate 5G deployments, both in conventional public-network setups, and in the new private and shared networking landscape that has emerged with the development of 5G and the liberalisation of spectrum policy.
The new offer is geared to manufacturers and developers, as well, seeking to test their wares in a live private 5G environment. There is no word yet on parallel deals with Azure and Google.
Speaking with Enterprise IoT Insights, Nanda Menon, director of corporate development at Athonet, explained: “Before you had to work with a proprietary RAN and core, or pay extra to access an independent core network. You needed in-house expertise in setting up and operating the core network.
“If you are a new RAN developer then whose core did you test with? Do you invest in purchasing one or put scarce resources to develop a shoestring one, with shorthand interfaces that can’t do very much? Core networks from non tier-one RAN vendors are really test-tube cores only meant to stand up a RAN. They are no good for trialling real world simulation.”
He added: “Getting a quality core network to deploy inside a private 5G network is a challenge. That’s where we come in. Because of our track record as the most experienced player in private LTE. Our 5G core brings the same stability, reliability, and performance [operators] recognise from LTE. It’s very difficult to build a production-grade 5G core if you don’t have the experience in LTE, as a lot of the underlying engineering is based on the same foundation. The foundation for this is 10 years in the field, not 10 weeks in a test tube.”
Menon made clear his firm’s 5G core SaaS offer on AWS is pitched squarely at the operator community, which is perceived to be in a new turf war with new and old network vendor, as well as with enterprises themselves, to own, design, deploy, and manage new industrial-grade LTE and 5G networks, as springboards for broader digital change and economic growth. “Operators have a massive role to play,” he said.
“Look at Wi-Fi; it’s free spectrum and yet operators are the biggest providers in that space. New spectrum allows operators to address markets they couldn’t before, as they can deploy coverage in a way that doesn’t interfere with their macro networks. Like Wi-Fi, some customers may choose to deploy their own networks but operators still have an important role to play. There will be more partnerships, because private cellular is part of a more complex environment. But operators will remain at the heart of the market.”
The point is, he said, mobile operators prefer not to use their production cores for key proof-of-concept (PoC) work to test new use cases. “They want to experiment in an agile way. By having the core available on AWS, they cut out the cost and complexity of having to invest in parallel core networks for POCs and test and development activities. Running multiple core networks is not a trivial task,” he said.
“It also gives them an independent core network when evaluating gNBs (Node B base stations) from different vendors rather than relying on proprietary end to end solutions. This is important to ensure that the interfaces are based on fully implemented 3GPP standard interfaces rather than proprietary shorthand in end to end single vendor solutions.”
Athonet’s as-a-service cloud-based core offers major advances to reduce cost and complexity for testing private 5G setups, the argument goes. A production core can cost several times the cost of a single radio node; it also runs the controlling intelligence in the network, and requires expertise to operate and configure.
Menon commented: “IT can be a significant barrier to access one, let alone to test with more than one. By making a core available on AWS, we remove the barriers to testing as parties do not need to invest money or resources in obtaining a core network for functional testing.”
The same logic, for simplifying operator POCs, applies for system integrators, device makers, application developers, universities, and research labs, he noted – to be able to test prototypes and products more simply and cheaply, and to trust in performance and reliability. “The idea here is to help the ecosystem for 5G to accelerate their projects,” said Menon.
More generally, the trajectory for private cellular has been bumpy of late, most notably in the US, which sparked the global regulatory rethink around spectrum in the first place. In the refarmed CBRS band, the licence auctions and spectrum access system (SAS) to manage interference between users have only just crawled across the finish gate. A year ago, Menon memorably predicted a boom-time for private cellular. How has it gone?
“It has slowed as spectrum deregulation, such as with CBRS, got delayed, but right now things are accelerating fast. Use cases like schools in the US are showing how new verticals that would never have been considered a market for private cellular are becoming a big market. As products become available, we will see new verticals and use cases emerge that take us to the aspiration of a million private cellular networks.”