5G is arguably one of the most exciting developments in the telecoms industry to date. Its capabilities will enable growth in connectivity, coverage, and a range of services and use cases that were only dreamt about ten years ago. Deloitte claims 5G will be a “critical enabler to new technology adoption.” It brings huge changes in the way core networks will be structured.
The first phase agreed under 3GPP will be classed as Non-Standalone (NSA) option #3, which means that 5G New Radio (NR) will be underpinned by the existing 4G core infrastructure. As a result, 5G enabled smartphones will connect using the 5G spectrum for higher data-throughput and low latency but continue to use 4G coverage for service continuity. This will deliver the faster speeds we expect from 5G, as well as enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB). The next stage in the process will be an evolving migration to NSA options #4 or #7 which will allow dual connectivity of both 4G and 5G access to the new 5G core.
The Standalone (SA) NR radio specifications, also known as option #2 in 3GPP 5G deployment enables single connectivity to the 5G core. This represents a significant milestone in the road to 5G. The SA network will bring true 5G performance enabling increased throughput to the edge and assisting in the development of such use cases as Ultra Low Reliable Low Latency Communications (ULRLLC) and massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC).
Operators will be using these 5G networks to support the next generation of technologies which include, among others, driverless cars, network slicing and augmented reality. The existing mobile architecture, which was perfectly adequate for 4G and its focus on mobile broadband services is no longer sufficient for the low latency required for the diverse needs of 5G, and its multitude of use cases poses a number of challenges to operators.
Mobilizing the network
One such challenge is the network itself. What changes need to be made in order to manage this jump to the next generation of technologies? The transition from 4G and LTE network to 5G is something that operators will need to decide how to approach in order to ensure the migration is invisible to the user. This will depend on the operators’ individual needs, whether they have the necessary spectrum required to provide the widespread coverage in the SA mode or whether they are interested in making adjustments to their LTE RAN infrastructure and connecting to the next generation core. Ensuring the transition to a robust, secure and agile network, which can handle the immense increase in usage 5G will bring, is a key challenge for operators. A fully cloud-native environment where NFV and SDN support the underlying infrastructure is a necessity for 5G which requires high flexibility in order to deliver its high speeds and diverse services.
One of the key requirements of a 5G ready network is the continued transition to EPC+ and the separation of the Control and User Plane, referred to as CUPS, which was initiated in 4G. This allows the user plane function to be placed flexibly within the network, leaving the control plane as a centralized function. The separation allows gateways to be placed as close to the access point as possible, increasing the number of gateway nodes by up to a factor of 30 times from the original amount.
Additionally, the 5G architecture will allow operators to utilize Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) which requires a cloud-based infrastructure and involves running applications and performing tasks closer to the customers’ devices, delivering faster speeds and lower latency. MEC will also help create a more efficient network, reducing the signal load on the core network and creating an improved experience for the customer.
Another feature which will improve the efficiency of the network is end-to-end network slicing which allows an operator to assign a particular portion of routing capacity to a dedicated service or sector, which have a particular set of requirements. Segments of network slices can make a broadband network into multiple virtual networks, each serving a different market, with different parameters and different priorities. For example, a network segment dedicated to driverless cars will require super low latency and real-time feedback to ensure cars are able to react with human-like reflexes, in comparison to enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) which will enable the download of an Ultra HD movie in seconds and requires a high bandwidth slice. The challenge with end-to-end network slicing is to deliver only what that particular service requires and differentiating them on the network. Service assurance will enable operators to effectively manage these different slices ensuring the correct requirements are being delivered. If operators are able to do this effectively, they will be able to serve different services and sectors concurrently supporting a range of SLA’s, exploiting a common technology platform for very different needs. 5G has a diverse set of performance requirements and as such operators need to be able to offer flexibility which network slicing offers them.
In preparing for a new network architecture, operators need to be equally prepared for a massive financial and resource investment. The challenge is two-fold for operators; managing the OPEX of investing in a 5G ready network as well as looking to reduce the CAPEX by automating processes and monetizing the network where possible. With this the costliest “G” transition to date, operators face the challenge of finding use cases which justify this investment. Every resource in the network needs to be utilized. If there is a function or resource which is running but not delivering, then operators owe it to themselves to remove them from the network.
These challenges will need to be overcome if operators want to make the shift from being a communication tool to an integral part of a person or enterprises day-to-day. 5G and its permeation into every area of our lives elevate connectivity to something of critical importance.
Delivering on 5G presents its own set of challenges, where operators will play a key role. One of the major goals in this journey is maximizing the potential of eMBB as consumer trends lean toward increased consumption of content and capacity demand. Whether this takes the form of user-generated content, higher quality video content or just the expectation to be able to stream and access content anytime and anywhere. According to research done by Qualcomm, one such request of consumers is to have a seamless experience without the need of having to connect to wireless hot spots meaning that customers will be using a greater quantity of bandwidth. For this MEC must be utilized as it is designed to create a more efficient network delivering faster speeds and improved connectivity.
Operators need to be able to capitalize on how new technology such as so-called millimeter bands can generate new opportunities. One such area is Fixed Wireless Access (FWA). With the latency offered through 5G networks, customers will be able to achieve download speeds of up to 25Gbps which rivals some of the current fixed broadband speeds and at a fraction of the cost. There is huge potential for growth in servicing those customers in remote locations, where perhaps a physical fiber line wasn’t a cost-effective option for the operator. Even in mature markets such as the USA, there are vast swathes of the rural landscape that until now have suffered from poor connectivity. With FWA, a customer simply needs to purchase “Customer Premise Equipment” which can be easily set up and installed without the need for a technician. Service assurance will be able to offer a key role in monitoring these connections and catching issues for customers who would otherwise be cut off. For operators, an additional challenge is transitioning enterprises to FWA. This may pose additional security issues, somewhere service assurance will be able to offer an additional safety net, but is likely to be a much more distant prospect. For SME’s an FWA option could reduce their costs and maintain the same Quality of Experience.
Perhaps the greatest potential for growth is within massive connectivity and the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) and later Massive IoT (MIoT). Ericsson predicts 29 billion connected devices by 2022, with 18 billion relating to IoT, this roughly translates to 3 devices per person globally. Operators are an integral part of the development of IoT as they must be able to manage the exponential growth in the number of connected devices as well as provide a secure and stable network for devices to connect to. As ever, service assurance will be critical for operators in maintaining the service levels required for the huge numbers of connected devices. In addition, devices which fail or lose their connection will rely on service assurance to catch the fault, which cannot be reported by the device itself.
Network slicing will also be crucial for IoT as certain devices will require higher bandwidth or lower latency. Indeed, for something like driverless cars, the network and its ability to deliver real-time and accurate data can be a matter of life or death, with inaccurate information causing road accidents. Expected to be pervasive in our lives, IoT will be collecting, transferring and analyzing data at a constant. Security and data privacy poses a huge challenge to operators who may not be in control of other devices a customer interacts with, e.g. security cameras. Customers will expect to be constantly connected and utilizing their connectivity to enhance and improve their day-to-day. It is the operator’s challenge to deliver this shift.
5G will be a huge leap in how we engage in an always-connected world. As a result, operators need to prepare their transition to a cloud-native environment, supported by NFV, SDN and MEC, and a 5G enabled service assurance solution will be key in monitoring the network and delivering the highest possible QoE to the customer, both in the transition to 5G as well as in its on-going maintenance. The potential of 5G can only be realized with investments in new core network architecture. This will, in turn, deliver other challenges, but the possibilities to maximize on a 5G network are endless.