Designing Future-Ready Transport Networks

The surge of data through our networks is a reality of the digital age. A PwC study estimates that data consumption over telecom networks amounted to 3.4 million petabytes in 2022, flowing through a mixture of cellular, Wi-Fi and fixed-line connections. This represented a 30% year-on-year increase from 2021.

And there’s no indication of this trend slowing down. New applications, including big data analytics, cloud computing, connected vehicles, generative artificial intelligence, higher video resolutions, the proliferation of the Internet of things, remote work and smart cities are collectively driving demand for bandwidth. PwC’s study forecasts that global data consumption will nearly triple over the next five years, reaching 9.7 million petabytes.

Network operators, entrusted with delivering and managing this inflating data traffic growth, face a critical challenge: the need for infrastructure that can accommodate this escalating demand. To rise to the occasion, operators must have flexible and modern networks that support existing technologies and foster innovation to cater to new applications.

Although this opportunity is promising, operators are navigating this growth cautiously given the substantial investment required for new infrastructure. Operators grapple with profitability challenges, data democratization, rising costs and sustainability objectives.

The transport network is a pivotal component of network infrastructure and plays a foundational role in the delivery of telecom services. It moves data from one point to another, prioritizing reliability, scalability and performance. All elements and components in the transport network must accommodate the soaring demand for traffic.

Several innovative solutions in the transport network from a range of suppliers are helping operators address these challenges. For instance, ZTE’s all-scenario optical transport networking solution, recently showcased at the Broadband User Congress in Mexico City, brings improvements across the metro edge, core and backbone.

For the metro edge, ZTE introduces a four-in-one hybrid platform aimed at increasing the number of connections and enhancing switching capability for scenarios of 4G and 5G, cloud and edge computing, passive optical networks, private line and synchronous digital hierarchy replacement.

In the core, it presents an 800G pluggable solution, which curtails board consumption and allows client-side and line-side bandwidth flexibility to meet varying port and traffic demands. This multi-network integration facilitates the transportation of diverse traffic types over an optical transport networking framing structure, with a simplified architecture catering to the connectivity needs of client devices.

In the backbone, ZTE’s solution claims to offer the industry’s longest transmission distance, maintaining a 400G quadrature phase-shift keying system. This combination enhances transmission speed and preserves long-distance connectivity across cities, countries and oceans.

However, upgrading infrastructure and enacting a complete overhaul of the transport network is no small feat. Many operators worldwide are grappling with financial challenges, particularly in Europe. Operators have invested billions in 5G networks and spectrum, with returns lagging previous generations, leaving many reluctant to invest further in infrastructure in the short term. Service designs like alien wavelengths, which ZTE’s solution supports, can be used to help distribute the cost of network infrastructure, although these efforts may not be sufficient.

Interoperability with older systems is an additional hurdle when upgrading transport networks. As an established standard for transmitting digital signals over optical fibre, synchronous digital hierarchy is becoming increasingly outdated. Technologies such as optical transport networking, dense wavelength division multiplexing and software-defined networking have gained traction, offering modern solutions that outshine synchronous digital hierarchy.

Devices and networking equipment using these newer standards are more flexible, efficient and cost-effective. By opting for an optical transport networking solution with highly integrated subracks, operators can trim costs, shrink their carbon footprint and boost revenue growth by accommodating more services.

An optical transport network may be more environmentally efficient in the long term, but this is counteracted by the fact that replacing existing systems and devices will provide a great deal of electronic waste. In addition, careful planning and consultation with customers will be vital to ensure that there will be no service disruption or continuity issues.

In the rapidly changing landscape of transport networks, collaboration and forward-thinking strategies are crucial. To address the challenges presented by increasing data demands, network operators, equipment providers and regulators must work together. The success of transport networks depends on adaptability, innovation and smart investments. Addressing the intricate balance of technological advancements, financial considerations and environmental responsibilities will ensure that transport networks continue to effectively serve the evolving digital landscape.