400G as a carrier service is developing low-key momentum, evolving to a modest industry buzz. In November 2019, AT&T launched a 400-gigabit network connection. AT&T noted that this was beyond a proof of concept, it was a significant upgrade to its production network. Its 400G connection was on its longhaul route between Dallas and Atlanta. In April 2020, Windstream announced the successful completion of a 400G trial with long reach (LR) client-side optics. The LR optics, with up to 10km of reach, enable greater flexibility for interconnecting client routers to the transport system. While the Windstream announcement was a trial, they did offer to engage with customers on deployment discussions for end-to-end 400G Wave services.
Taking a step back, the market is currently delivering 100G as a carrier service in growing numbers. 100G is predominantly a high-bandwidth wholesale service for carrier and cloud providers. 100G as a service is also used in high-end retail applications for enterprise verticals such as the financial community. 100G service volumes are “boutique” compared to low-speed, mass-market branch office services. The key enabler for 100G services has been the worldwide upgrade of the optical core. As the optical cores have scaled to multi-terabit levels, 100G as a service became viable. The ecosystem and cost/bit were initially gating factors that had to be overcome. Core and edge routers began to ship with 100G clients at scale. 100G as a service did have to compete and beat pre-existing service offerings on price.
Who are the would-be buyers for 400G as a carrier service? Intuitively, the same organizations that have already substantially deployed 100G. The cloud providers are actively pursuing a complete operational transition from a 100G-centric infrastructure to a 400G-centric infrastructure. The cloud providers’ optical deployments are vast: optics inside the data center connecting vast server infrastructure with vast metro, longhaul, and global subsea optical networks interconnecting their world of data centers. The technology push is on, but will be paced by the whole ecosystem and economics. If major elements are not outcompeting earlier generations of technology on cost/bit, deployments will be more experimental than scale. The industry is progressing on the scale deployments of 400G/600G/800G metro, longhaul, and subsea networks. The optical WAN upgrade for 400G and beyond is in the early stages a multiyear deployment arc. As more and more of this latest generation network is put in place, the footprint opportunity for 400G service grows. The financial community will also be in the early adopter category due to in-house technical expertise and deep pockets to support technology advances.
In the end, 400G as a service will proceed as earlier generations of wave services that have preceded it. There will likely be a “technology prowess” phase with leading carriers being first to market and “first to market.” Carriers may follow a success-based approach, upgrade the network where an anchor buyer has committed to point-to-point routes, followed by a steady progression to network-wide with increasing network effects benefits. If the entire ecosystem steps up, low and behold, we will reach a 400G high-volume mass market…in time.
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