2019 is seen as the kick-off year for 5G, with many global operators quickly accelerating their investment in their infrastructure to support 5G use cases and services, offering great potential for both consumers and businesses. 5G represents a fundamental transformation of the role that wireless network technologies play in society, naturally evolving from 4G networks and offering advanced technological features such as increased data speeds, lower latencies and spectral efficiencies. Telco Operators can leverage the higher performance capabilities (of 5G) and enable new products and solutions for all their customers across traditional and non-traditional market segments, generating new revenue streams and profits. However, existing mobile network architectures were designed to provide and fulfil voice, multimedia and data requirements, which have proven to be an insufficiently inflexible platform due to complex interfaces and many 3GPP version upgrades. Knowing how networks have evolved will help us understand the present and plan for the future.
First Generation Networks (1G) introduced analog mobile voice services and established seamless wireless connectivity by licensing spectrum (installing base stations that provided subscribers access to mobile networks through exclusive usage of radio spectrum) and frequency reuse (multiple cell sites enabling a live connection to be transferred between cells during a voice call, without interference). Although 1G was revolutionary, analog transmissions had capacity limitations in terms of spectrum efficiency, together with limited scalability using analog devices (heavy, expensive, inefficient power).
Next came the GSM Standard (2G), evolving from analog to digital transmissions and enabling further capacity using TDMA methods, as well as supporting roaming between different networks. GSM provided a network platform to enable new mobile services (SMS, MMS, Picture messaging) and improved voice quality and clarity by digital coding. Scalability improved with digital devices since they are cheaper and lighter (digital signals consumer less battery power) than analog devices. GPRS (2.5G) was later introduced to support packet switched technology which ultimately provided data communications services including WAP, Email and World Wide Web access at a data rate of 56 kbit/s - 144 kbit/s.
After the turn of the new millennium we saw a rise in demand for mobile data services (gaming, video conferencing, large emails, video streaming) together with an increase in mobile subscriptions, and as such the Third Generation (3G) networks (implementing UMTS) ushered in a new era of high-speed internet access with transmissions speeds of 2Mbit/s, higher capacity and enhanced mobile broadband experiences. With the insatiable demand for higher internet speeds rising, Fourth Generation (4G) networks were introduced in 2010, aimed to deliver a faster and better mobile broadband experience with higher data capacity. The advantages were simply to increase the bandwidth and service offering from 3G whilst increasing efficiencies by reducing the cost-per-bit on the network. 4G benefits are accomplished technologically by implementing OFDMA, supporting wide channels and using signal coding and multiplexing schemas to provide higher data speeds (up to 100 Mb/s) to many users. A key differentiator of 4G over 3G is the implementation of an all-IP network, abandoning circuit switched infrastructure. Voice services together with data is transmitted over a packet switched network (voice calls replaced with IP telephony i.e. VoLTE).
Now we are at the cusp of the next generation network, with limited rollouts of 5G already happening in the US, and we will begin to see more comprehensive global rollouts in 2019-2020. 5G can become the key enabler for a wide range of new and innovative industry services and applications. However, satisfying new communications solutions requires meeting diverse and complex technological demands and it is important to review the actual technology requirements of 5G, compared with previous generations.
The golden triangle of 5G technology requirements are Latency, Connection Density and Throughput. To reach latency levels below 10ms will challenge the laws of physics and network layout topologies. Low latency is a fundamental requirement for business use cases that require communications which are instantaneous and ultra-reliable, such as remote surgical procedures and self-automated driving.
Moving onto Connection Density - 5G networks can provide up to a million connections per square kilometre (supporting a mass amount of concurrent connections to the network) compared with 4G which has a typical connection density of 2,000 connections per square kilometre. With the increase in popularity of IoT applications (i.e. Smart Wearable Technology, Smart Home Technology, Smart Cities, Smart Grids) the high connection density of 5G is a vital capability that will enable Mass-Machine Time Communication (M-MTC) use cases and satisfy the demands of a digital society.
The biggest advantage that we saw in the evolution from 3G to 4G was higher throughput, and moving forward with 5G this will also be a major factor. The aspiration for 5G is to deliver 10 Gbps throughput that will enable the uses cases for Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), providing an infrastructure platform for new services such as VR, AR and UHD.
Implementing and delivering on just the golden triangle described above will simply not cut it when it comes to delivering on the superior user experiences and the entirely new solutions that 5G promises. There are certain actions, techniques and business models that operators must embrace, this includes Spectral Efficiency - spectrum at higher frequencies with larger bandwidths will be required to provide the necessary capacity to support a very high number of connected devices and to enable higher speeds to concurrently connected devices. Spectral efficiency is imperative as operators begin running out of capacity on their networks. 5G will be introduced in higher frequency bands with many Operators expected to deploy their 5G systems in the mmW frequency band level. Radio Frequency (RF) spectrum is a limited natural resource, supporting the continuous growth of wireless technologies, systems and services. As the available amount of RF spectrum becomes saturated in high-density environments, new spectrum efficiency methods must be taken into considerations. Massive MIMO technology uses multiple antennas to transmit carrier signals simultaneously, performing both input and output functions within the same spectrum allocation, along with beamforming, which is a technique used to focus radio interfaces into a beam for directional signal transmission and reception, increasing overall RF spectrum efficiency can ultimately improving user experience.
Operators must also consider their NFV/SDN strategy and how to incorporate it into their Core and BSS/OSS Architecture. Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) is the migration of Physical Network Functions (PNF) into Virtualized Network Functions (VNF) and the Cloudification of application programs. Businesses and Telco Operators must transform their Core Network Functions (i.e. EPC, IMS, HSS) into Virtualized Network Functions, whereby service applications are deployed in Data Centers on cloud-based platforms. Software Defined Networking (SDN) is an extension to the Cloud Architecture and NFV, performing dynamic configuration of the network topology from a centralized software-based control pane, based upon load and demand (i.e. directing additional network capacity to where it is needed to maintain the quality of customer experience at peak data consumption times).
An ‘All Cloud’ strategy will provide a harmonized and co-ordinated architecture that can support agility, automation and intelligent closed-loop assurance on a single software-based network infrastructure, capable to manage diverse service requirements on virtualized network functions and supports elasticity on the network, which is delivered by Network Slicing - a function that enables dedicated and logical functional layers (slices) on top of a shared physical infrastructure, providing an end to end virtual network across multiple domains (Access, Transport, Core). The elasticity benefits of Network Slicing provide Telco Operators the opportunity to partition their network resources and host multiple different users, introducing Network Service/Slicing As A Service (NSaaS) business model that will offer a customized end to end wireless network as service, accommodating and managing the diverse range of 5G applications with differentiating transmission characteristics on a single shared infrastructure.
Finally we must consider Edge Computing, which is a technology requirement strongly linked to connected cars as it is function of processing application data closer to the users at the edge of the mobile network, enabling the network to deliver ultra-low latency for critical business use cases (i.e. self-driving car) or enhanced user experiences (i.e. AR/VR).
5G is coming our way in a hurry, however this next generation network will be different from the ones in the past. It is not simply about delivering on improved technology features to provide higher bandwidth to consumers. It is to change the traditional method of working for communication providers, enabling them to introduce entirely new eco-systems for new 5G uses cases to live, and the ones who embrace this change can become the key stakeholders in the value chain and will be the real winners in the 5G era.