NTT Docomo, Japan’s largest mobile operator, said it had completed proof of concept (PoC) trials with Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and NEC to verify the feasibility of NFV (network function virtualisation) technology. It now plans to virtualise the evolved packet core (EPC), the LTE core network, and have commercial services running over it by the end of its 2015/16 fiscal year (31 March 2016).

NFV holds out the promise of greater investment returns by implementing network functions in cloud-based software running on non-proprietary hardware.

By running software on virtual machines, operators should be able to reduce operational costs – helped by making more efficient use of network capacity – and to have greater agility when it comes to service provisioning.

NTT Docomo said each of the three vendors had verified “cutting-edge” network control mechanisms. These include scalable user-data processing capability to handle user traffic more efficiently, as well as “automatic network-recovery techniques” – in the event of hardware failure – to improve service stability.

The PoC trials, which NTT DoCoMo conducted separately with each of the three vendors, started in November 2013.

“NFV is highly expected to change the ecosystem of network industries,” said Seizo Onoe, NTT Docomo’s CTO. “But without a high degree of collaboration among the players, such hopes could end up like pie in the sky.”

NTT Docomo said it would collaborate with other vendors, as well as continue working with Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco and NEC, to accelerate virtualisation of advanced mobile networks.

Operators’ push on NFV promises to reshape supplier relationships.

When Telefonica announced its group-wide NFV initiative at this year’s Mobile World Congress, Enrique Blanco, Telefonica’s global CTO, told Mobile World Live that shifting from proprietary infrastructure to platforms based on open standards – and avoiding vendor lock-ins – was a key driver.

“We want this to be a multi-vendor environment from day one,” he said. “We want to source different functions from different suppliers.”

By being able to swap suppliers relatively easy – proprietary software inextricably linked to hardware does not happen in an NFV environment – Blanco said Telefonica could put vendors under greater pressure and secure better deals.