Software is eating the mobile network, too, as AT&T begins its journey into the cloud

AT&T(s t) has decided its time to remodel its network, tossing out old legacy telecom gear and replacing it with shiny new servers. At Mobile World Congress this week, AT&T SVP of Technology and Network Operations John Donovan outlined a broad plan for Ma Bell to transform its network into a data center.

John Donovan

John Donovan

Last I week I wrote about the emerging trend of the mobile-network cloud, how carriers may one day rip out all of the expensive base stations in their networks and virtualize their functions as software on off-the-shelf servers. AT&T isn’t going that far — and no carrier really can for several years — but it did announce some pretty bold plans to overhaul the fundamental makeup of its network.
First off, AT&T is working with a little-known software-defined networking startup called Affirmed Networks to replace its LTE mobile core — a byzantine collection of purpose-built packet and signaling gateways — with a virtualized evolved packet core. In addition AT&T has selected Ericsson, Tail-f Systems and Metaswitch Networks to help it design a future services framework, which Donovan described in AT&T’s blog:

“We’re calling it the ‘User-Defined Network Cloud.’ What does this mean for our customers? For one, this vision is focused on allowing us and our customers to create new products and services faster than before. With the flexibility of the cloud, our customers will be able to use network services on-demand, in near real-time and scaled to fit specific needs. This will lead to rapid innovation like we’ve never seen before.”

Donovan didn’t exactly go into specifics but you can imagine an architecture where telecom services and functions start looking like apps in an app store. AT&T could add services like video content, conference calling and functions like media compression and voice-over-LTE by simply loading software into its new virtual core. Customers could add them to their devices and their service plans as easily as they would download apps from Google Play, discarding them or reconfiguring them at will.
Don’t expect a miraculous transformation overnight though. AT&T seems to be more in the conceptual phase right now. Donovan said it would announce more partners and a more specific roadmap later this year.