The Role of Telecom Hardware in the Digital Evolution

The Role of Telecom Hardware in the Digital Evolution

The last four decades witnessed an incredibly fast development pace in the telecom sector. The GSM standard which was established in the late 80s marked the beginning of a new era, that of digital mobile communications. The introduction of the second generation of mobile communications was followed with an aggressive evolution path that saw the introduction of a new standard, approximately each ten years, culminating with the current hype of the moment, 5G.

This telco journey towards the fifth generation has been marked with peculiar changes to the architecture with increased simplification, additional reliance on the software component with less complex hardware. The design philosophy is also changing from vendor specific hardware into a more open approach that implements differentiated functions on commercial off the shelf (COTS) hardware. With this new methodology, the wireless network acquires additional flexibility and improved scalability. Integration of different network components becomes easier as well. These changes would therefore ensure a sustainable evolution of communications systems beyond the current 5G one. 

Birth of Digital Networks: Vendors Dominating the Telecom Hardware Landscape

The emergence of digital communications services was accompanied with the appearance of vendors as major players monopolizing the market. A telecom operator was not only recognized by its identity but rather by the vendor it is associated with. Telecom operators in the same country normally had agreements with different vendors. The hardware used for the base stations, switching center, and core network components was in general proprietary and incompatible with the infrastructure of other operators. Interoperability and potential avenues for sharing network elements was in general very hard. The situation was in general similar to other wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi networks which encompasses a large number of manufacturers such as Cisco, Arista, Aruba or Avaya. 

Vendor lock-in has also had consequences in terms of costs. The tight connection with a vendor leaves the operators with much fewer options into selecting the hardware it needs and therefore managing the resulting costs. The operator would have to strictly adhere to hardware components offered by its vendors, in addition to maintenance, troubleshooting, and software license costs. 

Establishing a Common Telecom Hardware Architecture: The Start of Liberalization?

Telco players soon started understanding the limitations of vendor lock-ins. Telecom hardware providers were making significant profits as they were offering a complete holistic service that involves maintenance, upgrades, trainings, troubleshooting, and supporting proprietary software.

This approach was however inadequate to the fast changes on the technology end. 2002 witnessed a large drive to establish a common specification for communication equipment. The advanced telecommunications computing architecture (ATCA) was the product of the joint efforts during that time. The ATCA provides specifications for different components of the telecom infrastructure such as the shelf manager (or chassis), the system manager, the controllers, the bus system and the Ethernet communication fabric.

With this approach, the reliance on vendor specifications decreases leaving the floor for more generalized hardware components. However, even with the introduction of the ATCA, the network operation remains largely dominated by vendor-specific hardware. The integration of components from different manufacturers was just complex, mainly due to differences in the proprietary hardware and software in some of the components.

However, ATCA has been a successful endeavor as it is still adopted as we speak among some operators. The importance of it goes however beyond its characteristics. The advent of ATCA marked the start of changes in the telecom hardware world that jeopardize the hegemony of major vendors, and open the door for new entrants to the telecom market. 

Towards More Commercial Telecom Hardware and Faster Evolution

The telecom industry has come at the crossroads of two trends. On one side, the internet usage has considerably increased, leading to the proliferation of web and mobile applications and the digitalization of most services into internet-based ones. On another side, wireless communication standards have evolved massively into all-IP based networks with 4G and increased network virtualization with 5G. This has a resulted into additional efforts to break the tight proprietary relation between hardware and software in an attempt to improve flexibility and scalability, reducing cost while maintaining strong reliability.

With softwarization, the priority has shifted to the implementation of virtualized network functions on general purpose hardware. With artificial intelligence, agile development and DevOps, the performance and efficiency of the network is greatly improved. Concurrently, the capital and operational costs are greatly reduced. The reduced cost of COTS hardware adds up considerably to the cost savings. 

Radio access networks (RAN) have received their share of treatment with the OpenRAN initiative. This initiative continues the disaggregation of hardware and software to the last part of the network, seen by the mobile subscribers. The O-RAN alliance has been promoting an open software reference design to streamline the operation of 5G RAN. When coupled with edge computing and artificial intelligence, this will allow the development of applications such as autonomous vehicles and large scale internet of things paradigms. 


Wireless networks have been witnessing waves of change since the inception of 2G GSM networks in the early 90s. The network design philosophy has evolved from a robust, reliable and costly proprietary network into a completely disaggregated one with network functions now implemented on edge computing platforms. The road towards the simplification of network architecture has been incremental with proprietary hardware/software bundles being replaced with a more generalized architecture specification, before reaching the current approach on running network as software elements on general purpose hardware. The reliance on software will not end in the near future. Gartner has presented its forecast that spending in the information technology sector will grow 5.1 percent in 2022. The rate of increase will certainly be larger in years to follow. Although chip shortage is currently a big problem, the advances in that area of technology will help in developing more potent, yet less costly general purpose hardware. 

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