The 5G gigabit era radically changes priorities from ‘best-effort mobile’ to proactively managing service quality and customer experience in real time. During 2019, operators will continue making upgrades to coax gigabit speeds and better performance out of their infrastructure. The big change will be how they monitor and monetize that performance, for 4G, 4.5G, and 5G, writes Richard Piasentin at Accedian.
The transition from 4G to 5G creates a bewildering range of network-based challenges for mobile operators. Networks are more complex and denser than ever before. The use of software-defined networks (SDN) and virtualized network functions is growing along with the pressure to develop new service revenues.
Operators need dynamic performance and service assurance tools and techniques to monitor their end-to-end network, and to assure the performance and customer experience for ‘new’ services and applications. Customers expect and demand reliable, high-quality mobile services, and operators must meet that need or face the churn music.
Until now, network functions were confined to discrete hardware boxes within the operator’s data center. Operators would use physical probes to extract data and measure the performance of each network function - everything from switches to media players - and how well they communicate with one another.
But with virtualized network functions, increasingly the norm in 2019, these conventional methods of monitoring no longer work. Instead, operators need real-time granular insight of their networks across all layers - not only the network and transport layers, but also the service and applications layers as well as new cloud infrastructure.
With all of this in mind, here are three significant developments that will shape operators’ attitudes towards network performance and service assurance in 2019 and beyond.
#1: All approaches to 5G bring radical performance management changes
2019 will see operators worldwide upgrade their networks with extra capabilities to improve performance and keep up with mobile data demands. A recent operator survey found that for 80% of mobile operators, deploying 5G is a top five priority; nearly half (49%) said 5G is their top priority.
Operators worldwide are investing in 5G to drive down cost-per-bit and to enter new markets with an array of services from Internet of Things (IoT), to industrial control applications, high-speed mobility, ultra-broadband, and more. These services place diverse demands on the network, radically shifting the focus to service level monitoring.
Also in play is the fact that operators are not all going about 5G development in the same way. Two approaches predominate: 1) piggy-back/non-standalone, in which a 5G radio layer is installed over existing 4G core networks with supplementary small cell deployments in high-density cities, and 2) whole hog/stand-alone, where 5G infrastructure is all-new and separate from existing networks.
Operators going with the second approach do so to reap the benefits of a completely new way of thinking about the mobile network. Instead of the classic hub and spoke, a fully virtualized, automated and mesh topology creates a true 5G design with capabilities like network slicing - the ability to design a service, automate the network requirements, and roll performance KPIs, policy rules, and other service aspects into a dedicated virtual network instance.
With the non-standalone model, the only really ‘new’ thing is the radio technology. Therefore, network slicing to support mission-critical services end-to-end is, with only a few exceptions, impossible.
Both approaches bring new, potentially very difficult, network and performance management challenges.
Chief Marketing & Chief Strategy
For example, the piggy-back approach brings into sharp focus an issue operators already deal with in 4G networks: the X2 interface between neighbouring base stations that lets mobile customers move between cells seamlessly. X2 is essential for efficient, high-speed data throughput because it enables channel bonding between base stations.
In 4G, X2 is used for a short period of time and for low volume traffic - to carry voice during a handover event for two to three seconds, for example. In 4.5G and 5G, it will be used for high volume data traffic for a long period of time, which has a higher risk of latency affecting throughput.
If operators want to offer wireless gigabit speed connectivity, they must properly monitor and manage the synchronisation and verification between base stations via this interface on a constant basis. If they don’t, and packet loss does occur, services that depend on continual synchronised functions - like real-time streaming - will suffer and their performances will dip.
Operators choosing the whole-hog standalone 5G network face having to develop a completely new and comprehensive approach to monitoring mobile networks at the service and application level in order to deliver a high quality experience.
#2: Critical 5G gigabit services demand real-time visibility and analytics
During 2019, operators will continue to deal with more data, diverse traffic types, and a growing number of apps with different performance requirements. As they begin deploying 5G, though, operators will also focus on pushing power to the edge of the network to satisfy very low-latency applications. This will make mobile networks more cloud-like with distributed virtualized network functions service chained with others that are centralized in cloud data centers.
Adding to the complexity, mobile operators face a range of new performance and service quality challenges to manage these competing apps and service-types - in real time.
To address these challenges, operators are turning to analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to accurately monitor and measure service performance. To do so effectively, operators need complete, real-time visibility of every link in the service delivery chain - at both a network and an application level - as well as better visibility into connectivity with application and cloud hosting companies and content delivery networks.
Only with this end-to-end visibility can operators properly monitor the network and the services running on it to identify and resolve potential issues and problems before they occur, and before they impact the customer experience.
#3: 5G SLAs become the new normal for mobile operators
5G is pushing service level agreements (SLAs) to a whole new, well, level! 5G as a service platform, combined with the concept of network slicing to control end-to-end service path at a guaranteed quality of service, certainly changes things for mobile operators who previously have not had to adhere to rigid SLAs.
“Best effort” mobile services will no longer be good enough. Many 5G services will be mission critical - like e-health monitoring, security, or processing real-time analytics from devices at the edge.
For these and other 5G services, customers will demand guaranteed service performance levels. To meet this demand, accurate, reliable and proactive network and application monitoring will become essential for operators.
CONCLUSION: a radical new era for network performance and service assurance
2019 brings us all one step closer to the 5G era.
The increasing importance of virtualisation for key network functions in 4G, 4.5G and 5G networks represents a radical change in network architecture, which calls for an equally radical change to service performance monitoring and assurance.
In 2019, it will be clear that current approaches to network performance and service assurance no longer work. Achieving complete real-time visibility across all layers of the network is the goal - not only for infrastructure but also at an application level, including externally hosted services and apps.
But visibility by itself isn’t enough. Analytics and machine learning will be equally important, to properly analyse performance on a continual basis, and quickly and accurately identify potential issues before they occur. In this way, operators can deliver gigabit connectivity and use performance monitoring to ensure services are delivered with a high quality of experience and reliability.
Which path are you taking to superior 5G customer experience?