5G — The Network Regains Its Stature — Part One

Rob Edwards

In the network generation updates of years past, killer application talk, bandwidth upgrades, and breakthrough OTT applications have grabbed the limelight. As for the network, despite being essential for maintaining the heavy digital loads that define the booming digital economy, it has been overshadowed by the other, more glamorous services they carry. The arrival of 5G, with its game-changing capabilities, has succeeded in pushing the network and Telcos out of the shadows and made them the center of attention again, and I say rightly so.

5G Technology — Everyone is Waiting For It

There is a lot to be excited about with new 5G capabilities, which will blend entirely new technologies as well as a next-generation evolution of radio concepts that were tested and refined in 4G.

  • Virtualized Architecture: The 5G network truly separates the control of the network from the user data being streamed/uploaded/exchanged.
  • Service Based Architecture: A web services approach to control the usage of the network, promising a more open and IT-centric way for the delivery of services.

Deploying a Network Is Hard Work

Successfully building a network requires engineers, across the complete supply/delivery chain, with vast technical knowledge and experience, equipped with sophisticated test/measurement equipment. They need to cope with aspects such as convoluted modulation/encoding schemes, in addition to 5G’s new beam-forming and tracking technologies.

How do I know how hard this work is? When I was an embedded software engineer working for a handset manufacturer on the logical layer 1 area of the protocol stack twenty plus years ago, engineers would drive around in the back of vans testing and measuring handset performance. We examined synchronization, neighboring cell signal strength reporting, handover performance, call setup/quality performance, data performance (mainly circuit switched back then — just on the verge of GPRS) and so on. Over two decades later, the handsets may have grown exponentially more powerful, but the work still requires engineers drive-testing around in vans testing radio performance, handovers, data throughput rates and voice call quality.

This is why I believe the complexity of 5G deployment creates a clear opportunity for Telcos to reclaim their lost respect. Providing a global mobile telecommunications network is an immensely complex task. It takes the hard technical and debating work being carried out by the standards bodies (individuals within vendors, Telcos and increasingly vertical representatives) to produce and manage such a mission. Another reason why it is of vital importance to have a vast knowledge base, with experience, forming the foundation of the enterprise’s DNA.

Increased Flexibility, Greater Complexity

At the radio level, 5G offers increased flexibility for Telcos, such as variety in numerology and framing mechanisms used to support an increased number of radio spectrum bands and a wide radio band of operation. Add in 5G’s new beamforming and tracking technologies, being introduced en masse, and the complexity level of network deployment and operation skyrockets thus requiring governance when introducing this technology.

More Bandwidth, Less Latency

The promised increase in end device bandwidth and ultra-low latency use cases means that hard assets will be required to house the functions that will be used for this delivery. While virtualization will underpin the network, these network functions still need to be executed on physical hardware. Servers, x86 server banks and, increasingly, GPU and FPGA banks implement tasks such as sophisticated modulation algorithms that can be used in emerging CRAN type architectures. With automation and AI/ML techniques increasingly used to orchestrate the when and where aspects of network function deployment, Telcos will still be responsible for setting the overall policy as to align with their unique business objectives.

Putting Telcos Back in the Limelight

With every new trial, chipset/modem/availability announcement and business scenario, the power is shifting. There is a vast and diverse worldwide industry involved in the production, delivery and support of these advancements. Telcos have the knowledge to define what’s possible, and in part two of this blog we will explore how they, alone, have the technical expertise that can make the promises of 5G a reality.

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