Being a small telco comes with certain agility advantages, but it does mean the stakes can be higher than for larger rivals as there is less opportunity to scale.
This is why, as Manx Telecom CiTO Kevin Paige tells Mobile Europe, the operator’s move to virtualisation has been so transformational.
Manx Telecom, the incumbent operator on the small Isle of Man off the coast of the UK, with a population of under 90,000, realised the potential of NFV when replacing its IP multimedia subsystem solution (IMS) over two years ago.
Paige says it faced the choice of whether to continue with the same single platform or look for something new.
For several reasons, NFV seemed the way to go. The telco wanted to be able to launch services much more quickly as customer expectations increased. It also wanted to reduce the time spent maintaining the network and avoid hardware lock-in.
The company prides itself on innovation, having launched Europe’s first fully digital telephone network in 1989 and first 3G mobile services in 2001. Last year it launched a hybrid mobile and satellite network.
“We felt we should inject some new software suppliers that could offer NFV-type services,” explains Paige.
“It used to be difficult when solutions we were looking at were scaled for larger telcos,” he explains. “Being a small telco, the functionality and capability we need here is almost as much as bigger operators need in the UK but on a different scale. The biggest challenge as a small operator is finding effective value for money.”
This led Manx Telecom to consider whether it should invest in building a platform architecture that it could use for other services in the future.
In the end, it worked with VMware to build an overall NFV platform based on reusable hardware that would allow it to launch not only the IMS but roll out new virtualised solutions in the future. This took just under 12 months to build, going live from early 2016.
The success of the project has been assessed through the telco’s usual KPIs around performance, which Paige says have remained stable.
But the progress of the project has been seen more broadly in how the telco approaches its investment decisions.
Paige says solutions are generally designed for upwards of a million subscribers, an unnecessary scale given Manx Telecom’s scale but one it usually has to pay for. “With NFV and SDN you can basically set up the consumable work resource you need in that environment.”
The telco can therefore deal with huge spikes in traffic on a network normally only used by tens of thousands of people. The Isle of Man TT Races, in which the population can increase 30 percent, are an instructive example of where it needs to add capacity during peaks in usage.
Some of the use-cases are end-of-life replacements, as in the case of the IMS platform. It has also launched new services such as 4G roaming through NFV.
Due to the reusable architecture, rather than buying a platform per service, the telco works with partners to license software and only pay for the resources it uses.
Despite the broad success of the project, Paige admits there are some things the telco would do differently; in particular, not adapting quickly enough to the possibilities of the new platform. The operator tried to test it as it would in a traditional environment on individual network switches, rather than moving the workload across the architecture.
Paige argues the NFV platform will speed up innovation in the future. He says: “For innovative products, it’s given us a much more agile development cycle.
“It’s not the normal process of finding a business case to go buy a new hardware architecture. Now we can fire up test environments very quickly to demonstrate where we need them.”
This will ultimately span to next generation networks. “We’re well-positioned now for what we think a core 5G network architecture might be,” says Paige. He explains that 5G is likely to be based on network slicing technology, which he says is similar to the mini-set of services that the operator can now launch anywhere using the NFV platform. The next step for Manx Telecom is moving its IT infrastructure onto the platform to support closer integration with its telecom services.
As virtualisation projects go, of course, Manx Telecom’s is on the smaller end. Vodafone, for example, has been grappling with Project Ocean, which aims to virtualise service delivery across all of the markets it operates in worldwide.
But the improvements in agility and value it has offered the telco should appeal to operators of any size.