Verizon isn’t talking about when it will launch Voice over New Radio (VoNR) or network slicing, both of which rely on a 5G core. It’s also not saying when the 5G core will be fully deployed. Verizon started moving customer traffic onto its new 5G core last year.

And don’t even think about asking when Verizon will match T-Mobile when it comes to mid-band 5G coverage.

T-Mobile grabbed a big head start on mid-band 5G deployments with its 2.5 GHz winnings from the Sprint merger, covering 260 million people with Ultra Capacity 5G by the end of last year.

Verizon is farther behind. Executives have said they plan to cover 250 million people, or POPs, with Ultra Wideband, which includes its 3.7 GHz C-band spectrum, by the end of 2024. During the last earnings call, CEO Hans Vestberg said the company is well ahead of schedule to reach that target.

“We said we were going to hit 200 million POPs in the first quarter with our Ultra Wideband. We did that. We’re going to continue to expand our coverage,” said Lynn Cox, SVP and chief engineer at Verizon in an interview Tuesday. Cox and her team are responsible for the 5G and fiber deployments at the company.

“We know exactly where we’re deploying, why we’re deploying,” she said, and they’re not getting into a game of saying when it will match anyone else’s mid-band 5G coverage. 

Big strides in virtualization

What Verizon is happy to discuss is its leadership in the virtualized RAN (vEAN) space. Verizon executives believe they have the largest deployment of virtualized RAN anywhere in the world, with more than 10,000 vRAN sites. Samsung is the predominant vendor for its vRAN; late last year, Verizon announced that Ericsson had supplied its first vRAN cell site.

“We’re not just chasing POPs. We’re building the best network, the most reliable network, the highest performing, the securest,” she told Fierce, pointing to Root Metrics’ report cards for the first part of 2023.  “That is our mission. That has always been our mission.”

It’s worth noting that Verizon is not identifying the percentage of the network that’s virtualized, which is what AT&T famously did when it announced in 2014 that it would virtualize 75% of its network by 2020. While AT&T accomplished its goal of virtualizing the core, a spokesperson at Verizon said Verizon’s core has been 100% virtualized for years and it’s now virtualized more than 10,000 RAN sites as well.

Going virtual essentially means decoupling the hardware and software, and there are cost efficiencies in doing that. Other advantages are the ability to introduce new services faster and support more automation. Basically, they can make changes faster in a software environment.

It’s a stepping stone to open RAN, which promises far more choices when it comes to vendors and the ability to mix and match. Verizon’s vRAN sites are all ORAN capable, so when open RAN truly arrives, it will just be a matter of software changes, according to Cox.

Verizon’s 5G core is built on its own cloud platform designed specifically for the telco workload. Verizon works with Amazon Web Services (AWS) in many areas, but Verizon has operated telco networks for decades, she said. It’s not going to cede cloud control over to someone else, which is what Dish Network – a greenfield operator – is doing with AWS as its cloud partner.

“There’s a reason we do that,” she explained. “Telco workloads are very, very different,” and come with security, low latency and other requirements for a variety of customers, including enterprise and IoT.  “You can’t have just anybody come into this space and say ‘I’m going to deploy a virtualized telco network.’”

Roles for fiber, FWA

Verizon has been beefing up its fiber footprint the past several years, and it’s continuing on that path.

Owner economics is one benefit. Verizon can also upgrade sites much faster as the owner – and responding to outages is a lot easier when you’re the landlord.

T-Mobile doesn’t own its own fiber and needs to sign leases with fiber providers. However, it recently started offering a fiber broadband service in two additional cities and it could work with partners to build up a fiber business if it chooses to go that route.

But fiber isn’t the best solution for every geography. Both T-Mobile and Verizon are using fixed wireless access (FWA) to offer broadband internet service to homes and businesses.  

“It’s not going to make sense to bring fiber to every single home in America, to every single market in America,” Cox said.

Where it makes sense to offer fiber, it will do that, and elsewhere, its FWA service, which uses the mobile network, is a good solution. Verizon offers FWA services using LTE, millimeter wave (mmWave) and C-band spectrum, the latter of which will increase as more C-band spectrum gets cleared. In fact, C-band will represent the largest footprint for FWA due to its propagation characteristics.

“We’re going to put all our spectrum to use and depending on the geography, the terrain, the situation we’ll make sure we’ve got the right spectrum to match,” she said.

She declined to speculate on where any future licensed spectrum might come from.

As for open RAN, that’s still farther out on the horizon, but it’s on the road map. 

“We’re aggressive with virtualization, VRAN, so when ORAN is a reality, we’ll have a ton of experience with software defined networks and the virtual environment. But there’s still lots of work in the standards space that has to be done,” she said. “We’re not going to race there.”

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