Mobile architectures are poised to go through radical changes from 5G radio, which ranges from sub-1 GHz to millimeter wave bands, to web-enabled, real-time network slicing. Operators are finding new approaches for expanding use cases which have very specialized service requirements. While many of these will be fully realized later in the future, we will see significant efforts in 2019 to increase network and back-office flexibility and functionality to reduce cost, increase efficiencies, and prepare for new use cases and network functions. Thinking back to the earlier Mobile Technology evolution, the move from first generation analog to second gen digital networks was a significant change leading to improved performance capabilities. The disruptive change was realized when operators embraced 3G technologies as the proliferation of data-enabled smartphones became ubiquitous, moving the internet into our hands. The move from 3G to 4G/LTE has led to greater bandwidth and improved service quality, which has been more incremental than disruptive. What we have seen today is nowhere near the sea change coming with “5G” use cases. I use 5G in quotes because it is the use cases which will emerge from new network capabilities rather than yet another new radio standard. 5G use cases will replay on numerous radio spectrum, both licensed and unlicensed. As preparation for major changes in use cases begin, below are three trends I predict we will see Mobile operators embrace this year.
#1: DEEP INTEGRATION OF LICENSED AND UNLICENSED NETWORKS
For many years Mobile operators have benefited from subscribers “offloading” their own data in the office and at home on private Wi-Fi networks. This data is backhauled over the existing broadband connection, reducing the overall CapEx needed to support all of the subscribers’ data services. Once operators embraced the obvious benefits of unlicensed networks, they switched their focus to improving the two biggest gaps in Wi-Fi networks: (1) user experience, and (2) security. Solving these using technologies such as Hotspot 2.0 or Passpoint, has led operators to see how much deeper they can integrate unlicensed networks now that many of the on-boarding and security issues have been solved. As Mobile operators now look to radically change their technical and commercial structures to support innovative use cases, think AI and machine learning (ML) driven automation, they realize they must leverage any and all available network capacity. Being able to apply real-time policy, billing and Quality of Experience (QoE) on both licensed and unlicensed networks requires deep interworking and integration of network cores, BSS/OSS systems, policy and charging systems. This integration work is accelerated through network function virtualization (NFV) but requires a flexible interface-laden interworking fabric to realistically get to market quickly. Treating unlicensed networks the same as licensed will require new capabilities for many operators such as running their unlicensed data services through the same IPX used for LTE data services. Operators will be expanding their internal network and OSS/BSS systems and processes to fully and better incorporate unlicensed networks in 2019.
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#2: MARRIAGE OF CARRIER AND ENTERPRISE NETWORKS
AI and ML applications including automation, customer support, operational support and analytics rely on local and global networks. Cloud-enabled solutions leveraging enterprise networks alone create unnatural limitations to many use cases which extend beyond a single location. Device/container tracking, connected cars, autonomous vehicles, unmanned aerial systems, and numerous smart city applications all require the ability to leverage both enterprise and carrier networks. Tracking high-value items from the manufacturing floor, to shipping container, to delivery vehicle, to building, and even to the specific shelf in a specific office on a specific floor is becoming a very common in-demand use case. There is no single network that can economically serve all these coverage scenarios. Leveraging multiple network types will be the only efficient way for full realization of these use cases. Mobile operators are embracing this concept and partnering with Enterprise and venue owners directly to enable the technical and economic efficiencies brought upon by devices being managed in multiple networks. Security and service exposure are key aspects of this “marriage” which will be a key focus this year.
#3: WEB ENABLEMENT
2019 is too early to expect full network slicing functionality and availability. That said, operators will be moving very fast this year to stage their business and technical architectures to allow for full, end-to-end web enablement. Operators who rapidly embrace the concept of an Enterprise’s ability to create on-demand network parameters for specific use cases will find themselves best positioned to capture greater Enterprise market share in the new 5G economy. The upcoming 5G networks will be truly capable of “mashing” with other cloud-deployed Web services such as ERP, web monetization, etc. Preparing for 5G has required carriers and operators to review and change their systems from legacy, closed interfaces to web-enabled APIs, cloud-based functions and NFV architectures. This is no easy task as many legacy systems are deeply entrenched in back office systems and methodologies and require adept changes of products, sales processes, operational support systems and provisioning.
The new economy of adaptable service enablement has arrived. Operators who embrace this reality and spend their time and energy this year preparing will benefit the most. Preparing for the deployment of 5G networks through deep integration of licensed and unlicensed networks, embracing the partnership of enterprise and carrier networks as well as rapidly changing to end-to-end web enablement capabilities are on the most innovative carriers “must do” list for 2019.