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Cellular Networks in 2017: More of the Same in the Midst of Change

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Cellular Networks in 2017: More of the Same in the Midst of Change Image Credit: CommScope

The trends that defined the wireless network industry in 2016 are all still in play in 2017. While that might sound like more of the same, it can also be thought of as a prelude to 5G. Countries across Asia are planning ahead for 5G deployments. For instance, mobile network operators (MNOs) in Singapore are progressively increasing network speeds for 4G users as a build-up to 5G. High-profile events such as the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games will create examples for the world, according to The Financial Times. Now is the time when MNOs are laying the groundwork for the future while monetizing and managing their investments from the past. The trends of densification, virtualization and optimization are how they will do so. Densification

#1: Densification

The general shift in the wireless industry is from cell towers to street poles, from large-sized structures to miniaturized equipment. Densification means adding more sites where users congregate—on city streets and inside large buildings. Metro cell deployments continue to attract a lot of attention. The question is when will there be a major uptick. We can expect to see a significant increase for these kinds of deployments in 2017. The in-building wireless market continues to move from a carrier-funded to enterprise-funded model. We’ve been talking about this transition for a while as it continues to make headway. The big challenge here is getting the MNOs and enterprises on the same page in terms of roles and responsibilities, deployment quality and other logistics.

Densification also includes adding more spectrum to existing sites. Looking toward the future, 5G standards are targeted for release in the second half of 2018, or even sooner depending on who you talk to, while 3G/4G is expected to account for 70 per cent of mobile connections across Asia by 2020, according to GSMA. As deploying new technologies or making networks denser can be one of the solutions to address growing data demand, adding more spectrums might be a more cost effective way to enhance capacity.

The industry is also exploring millimeter wave spectrum, which is playing a role in fixed wireless access networks.

#2: Virtualization

Navin Vohra,
VP, Service Providers Sales, Asia Pacific,
CommScope

Everything is being virtualized in wireless networks. The first step toward capacity virtualization is deploying centralized radio access networks (C-RAN), which pull baseband processing into a centralized location serving multiple cell sites. The global centralized RAN (C-RAN) market remains mainly driven by Asia Pacific, where China has overtaken Japan in C-RAN deployments, according to IHS Technology. Chinese MNOs have been very active in 5G research and development including rolling out C-RAN trials in Beilun Stadium in Ningbo, which is an indoor gymnastic stadium with a capacity of 8,000 people, as well as deploying C-RAN in multiple cities.

In the future, such deployments will enable true C-RAN, meaning Cloud-RAN, where network capacity can be moved around to hot spots throughout the day. At the cell tower site, the C-RAN architecture makes it possible for operators to use smaller cabinets and platforms at the bottom of the tower because there is less equipment at the edge. MNOs will hopefully enjoy some cost savings due to lower power requirements and leasing costs in the C-RAN model.

#3: Optimization

Operators are still highly focused on controlling the user experience, and rightly so. Keeping customers happy is at the core of their businesses. How to best use unlicensed spectrum is a question to be sorted out in 2017.

The rudimentary first steps involved offloading traffic onto Wi-Fi, but that does not enable the quality control MNOs want. LTE-Unlicensed and License-Assisted Access make carrier-controlled use of unlicensed spectrum possible. MNOs still get the benefits of offload but can control the experience. Ultimately there will be a co-existence of Wi-Fi, other unlicensed technologies and licensed spectrum especially inside buildings. Managing spectrum to minimize network performance issues remains a mission-critical concern.

#4: Network Convergence

Looking down the road a bit further, an emerging trend – and buzz word for last 10 years – is network convergence. It’s been talked about a lot, but it’s truly happening in 5G. Network convergence means wireline and wireless networks coming together to best serve users. Fiber networks will become more pervasive in carrying wireless network traffic, moving from the core to the network edge. The last mile can be fiber or wireless, with millimeter wave competing with fiber for short drops in the RAN. Wireless has clearly won in user preferences, but it will be a combination of wireless and fiber that links them back to the core.

None of these trends—densification, virtualization, optimization and convergence—is brand new. But 2017 will see more work being done, and more resources being deployed, for all of them. More cell sites, capacity, virtualization, spectrum and fiber will all continue. The one constant in the wireless industry is “more.” Users want more bandwidth, MNOs need more capacity, and vendors are rushing ahead to develop more solutions. While 2017 might look like more of the same, it is expected to see significant developments in laying the foundation for 5G.

About The Author:
Navin Vohra is the Vice President of Wireless Sales for APAC at CommScope and is responsible for leading all of wireless sales activities in the Asia Pacific region excluding China. A 27 year veteran in the telecommunications industry, Vohra previously served as vice president of sales for India and South Asia region for CommScope. Vohra holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering, electronics and communication from Delhi Institute of Technology and a master’s degree in business administration from Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad.

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