Theworld was a different place in July 2016, when the Global System for Mobile Communications Association (GSMA) began working on 5G technology. Unlike previous upgrades, this release represented a complete redesign of the existing network infrastructure. As a result, more than five years later, the technology is still struggling to reach widespread adoption. The good news for Telecommunication Service Providers (TSPs) is that deployments are close at hand if they find the right technology services partner.
The network paradigm changes
Like other network upgrades, 5G networks promise improvements in:
- Speed: 4G operated at 1Gbps; 5G has top speeds of up to 20Gbps
- Support for more devices: The new standard was designed with IoT devices in mind. 4G networks support a maximum of approximately 4,000 devices per square kilometer; while 5G can work with a million.
- Reduced latency: 4G latency typically ranges from 20 milliseconds to 30 milliseconds; 5G network latencies range from 1 millisecond to 10 milliseconds.
5G is not a typical network upgrade
While the technology offers TSPs enticing features, moving from 4G to 5G networks is not just a routine upgrade, such as the one from 3G to 4G. Instead, the entire wireless network infrastructure must be reconsidered and redesigned. This change is exponentially more dramatic than recognizing how to use the upgraded bandwidth and speed found with updates of yesteryear. Here are a few new challenges for TSPs.
To gain the additional bandwidth, 5G designers work with a new radio spectrum. 4G operates on established frequency bands below 6GHz. 5G includes two frequency ranges: FR1, which operates below 6 GHz, and FR2, which includes bands as high as 300 GHz, which is uncharted territory. The military has already been using frequencies above six gigahertz, but TSPs are doing so for the first time.
In addition, spectrum being a scarce resource, wireless operators are delivering services that run in a mix of low-band, mid-band, and high-band spectrum. Therefore, the new technology requires a learning curve.
5G technology equipment presents another key hurdle. 5G’s signal range is very short, owing to the higher frequencies. Objects such as trees and buildings cause significant signal attenuation, necessitating ancillary devices to avoid signal path loss.
Addressing that problem requires a new deployment model with both small and large cells. There are three types of micro infrastructures: microcells, femtocells, and picocells that assist with densification issues.
Most urban areas will require a combination of these different cells to work in parallel to provide high-speed, low-latency networks to end-users. Deploying these multiple cells — considering 5G’s short signal range and the interference of multiple cells in a small area — can be more complex than 4G installations. 5G technology also includes technologies like beamforming and MIMO (Multiple inputs, multiple outputs) arrays to improve signal strength. However, to get the best results from these technologies, operators will have to extensively test their networks and algorithms. Operators will need to rely more on professional services and service integrators to quickly set up, monetize, and manage their networks.
Cloud-native, software-driven architecture
This new network architecture is coupled with other recent advances, such as virtualization, microservices, artificial intelligence, and machine learning. As a result, the traditional, often manual method of deploying network equipment and allocating bandwidth to applications is replaced by software-defined alternatives.
To accomplish this, TSPs deploy two, rather than one, network layers: one is for the network infrastructure layer and the second for its management and orchestration. These networks take advantage of cloud-native capabilities, which have a microservices architecture design that is very different from what was found in legacy telecommunications networks. Once again, such deployments represent a new area, one where most TSPs lack experience.
This modularity makes it so that operators can quickly and easily replace components in their 5G networks with improved or cheaper options. This creates healthy competition within the space, allowing operators to create a disaggregated network with best-in-class components to create their 5G networks. The increased flexibility means that operators will no longer be tied to a single OEM but, conversely, will require significant effort to set up, test, optimize and manage their networks. Larger TSPs and operators will no doubt have their own teams to manage their networks, but for Tier 2 and Tier 3 TSPs, this means greater reliance on service integrators or engineering partners, such as HCL, to help set up, update and manage their heterogeneous networks.
Where to find the needed expertise?
Given 5G’s fledgling status and new features, TPSs must determine how to take on its system integration, automation, and managed services. The first option is doing it internally. Since the technology is new, many TSPs are not equipped to take this path. In addition, a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach would require ongoing reinvestments and training as 5G continues to evolve.
Third parties present an alternative, with vendors from various market sectors moving to offer help:
- Network equipment OEMs
- Hyperscale cloud players
- Compute network infrastructure vendors
- Startups, which are being quickly acquired by the established vendor
All these organizations view the process as an opportunity to sell their own products. Therefore, TSPs then lock themselves into the vendor’s product line and are not able to pick best-of-breed solutions when they become available. Also, with technology’s current rate of change, they may quickly become weighed down by obsolete systems. What these companies require is a partner focused on their needs.
The increasing need for network services
Technology services providers, like HCL, are another option. They work with emerging technology and work out the kinks before implementing or deploying customer hardware/software. Also, they are vendor agnostic and therefore choose solutions that best meet the customer needs rather than the one that matches their business plan. They also provide expertise across both hardware and software and can offer help in this emerging market.
In conclusion, 5G technology is driving the development of the next phase of network transformation. TSPs want to take advantage of this nascent technology but lack the necessary expertise. By teaming up with the right provider that provides systems integration, managed services, and automation capabilities, TSPs can leverage the emerging technology and deliver leading-edge network services to their customers.