2.8 Access Networks

In addition to the Ethernet and Wi-Fi connections we typically use to connect to the Internet at home, at work, at school, and in many public spaces, most of us connect to the Internet over an access or broadband service that we buy from an ISP. This section describes two such technologies: Passive Optical Networks (PON), commonly referred to as fiber-to-the-home or fiber-to-the-premises, and Cellular Networks that connect our mobile devices. In both cases, the networks are multi-access (like Ethernet and Wi-Fi), but as we will see, their approach to mediating access is quite different.

To set a little more context, ISPs (often a Telco or Cable company) typically operate a national backbone, and connected to the periphery of that backbone are hundreds or thousands of edge sites, each of which serves a city or neighborhood. These edge sites are commonly called Central Offices in the Telco world and Head Ends in the cable world, but despite their names implying "centralized" and "root of the hierarchy" these sites are at the very edge of the ISP's network; the ISP-side of the last-mile that directly connects to customers. PON and Cellular access networks are anchored in these facilities.

DSL is the legacy, copper-based counterpart to PON. DSL links are also terminated in Telco Central Offices, but we do not describe this technology since it is being phased out.

Passive Optical Network

PON is the technology most commonly used to deliver fiber-based broadband to homes and businesses. PON adopts a point-to-multipoint design, which means the network is structured as a tree, with a single point starting in the ISP's network and then fanning out to reach up to 1024 homes. PON gets its name from the fact that the splitters are passive: they forward optical signls downstream and upstream without actively storing-and-forwarding frames. In this way, they are the optical variant of repeaters used in the classic Ethernet. Framing then happens at the source in the ISP's premises, in a device called an Optical Line Terminal (OLT), and at the end-points in individual homes, in a device called an Optical Network Unit (ONU).

For this reason, PON has to implement some form of multi-access protocol. The approach it adopts can be summarized as follows. First, upstream and downstream traffic are transmitted on two diffrent optical wavelengths, so they are completely independent of each other. Downstream traffic starts at the OLT and the signal is propogated down every link in the PON. As a consequence, every frame reaches every ONU. This device then looks at a unique identifier in the individual frames sent over the wavelength, and either keeps the frame (if the identifier is for it) or drops it (if not). Encryption is used to keep ONUs from eavesdropping on their neighbors' traffic.

Upstream traffic is then time-division multiplexed on the upstream wavelength, with each ONU periodically getting a turn to transmit. Because the OLTs are distributed over a fairly wide area (measured in kilometers) and at different distances from the OLT, it is not practical for the them to transmit based on synchronized clocks, as in SONET. Instead, the ONT transmits grants to the individual ONUs, giving them a time interval during which they can transmit. In other words, the single OLT is responsible for centrally implementing the round-robin sharing of the shared PON. This includes the possibility that the OLT can grant each ONU a different share of time, effectively implementing different levels of service.

PON is similar to Ethernet in the sense that it defines a sharing algorithm that has evolved over time to accommodate higher and higher bandwidths. G-PON (Gigabit-PON) is the most widely deployed today, supporting a bandwidth of 2.25-Gbps. XGS-PON (10 Gigabit-PON) is just now starting to be deployed.

Cellular Network

While cellular telephone technology had its roots in analog voice communication, data services based on cellular standards are now the norm, thanks in no small part to the increasing capabilities of smartphones. Like Wi-Fi, cellular networks transmit data at certain bandwidths in the radio spectrum. Unlike Wi-Fi, which permits anyone to use a channel at either 2.4 or 5 GHz (all you have to do is set up a base station, as many of us do in our homes), exclusive use of various frequency bands have been auctioned off and licensed to service providers, who in turn sell mobile access service to their consumers.

The frequency bands that are used for cellular networks vary around the world, and are complicated by the fact that ISPs often simultaneously support both old/legacy technologies and new/next-generation technologies, each of which occupies a different frequency band. The high-level summary is that traditional cellular technolgies range from 700-MHz to 2400-MHz, with new mid-spectrum allocations now happening at 6-GHz and millimeter-wave (mmWave) allocations openning in the 30 to 300-GHz band. One interesting footnote is that there is also an unlicensed band at 3.5-GHz set aside in North America, called Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), that anyone with a cellular radio can use. This opens the door for setting up private cellular networks.

Like 802.11, cellular technology relies on the use of base stations that are connected to a wired network. In the case of the cellular network, the base stations are often called Broadband Base Units (BBU), the mobile devices that connect to them are usually referred to as User Equipment (UE), and the set of BBUs anchored at a given Central Office and serving a particular region is collectively called a Radio Access Network (RAN).

The geographic area served by a BBU's antenna is called a cell. A BBU could serve a single cell or use multiple directional antennas to serve multiple cells. Cells don't have crisp boundaries, and they overlap. Where they overlap, an UE could potentially communicate with multiple BBUs. At any time, however, the UE is in communication with, and under the control of, just one BBU. As the device begins to leave a cell, it moves into an area of overlap with one or more other cells. The current BBU senses the weakening signal from the phone and gives control of the device to whichever base station is receiving the strongest signal from it. If the device is involved in a call or other network session at the time, the session must be transferred to the new base station in what is called a handoff. Details about how handoffs are managed is beyond the scope of this book.

There have been multiple generations of protocols implementing the cellular network, colloquially known as 1G, 2G, 3G, and so on. The first two generations supported only voice, with 3G defining the transition to broadband access, supporting data rates measured in hundreds of kilobits-per-second. Today, the industry is at 4G (supporting data rates typically measured in the few megabits-per-second) and is in the process of transitioning to 5G (with the promise of a tenfold increase in data rates).

As of 3G, the generational designation actually corresponds to a standard defined by the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project). Even though its name has "3G" in it, the 3GPP continues to define the standard for 4G and 5G, each of which corresponds to a release of the standard. Release 15, which is now published, is considered the demarcation point between 4G and 5G. By another name, this sequence of releases and generations is called LTE, which stands for Long-Term Evolution. The main takeaway is that while standards are published as a sequence of discrete releases, the industry as a whole is now on a fairly well-defined evolutionary path known as LTE.

There are three highlights of LTE's air interface for 4G. First, it uses a different multiplexing scheme for downlink and uplink traffic. Second, for downlink traffic (from BBU to UE), LTE uses a hybrid multiplexing scheme called OFDMA (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiple Access), which intuitively combines frequence-division multiplexing (carving the downlink frequency band into multiple overlapping sub-channels) and time-division multiplexing (allocating one or more sub-channels to a given UE for a certain slot of time). Giving the BBU two degrees of freedom improves its ability to squeeze the most capacity out of limited bandwidth allocated to it. Third, for uplink traffic (from UE to BBU), LTE uses SC-FDMA (Single Carrier, Frequence-Division Multiple Access). The main advantage of SC-FDMA over OFDMA is that it takes less power to transmit, which in the uplink direction, reduces the workload on the limited battery capacity in our cellphones.

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