The telecommunications industry has seen a new mobile standard being launched every ten years. The first generation of analog based mobile networks or 1G was released in 1982. The second generation of mobile networks or 2G was launched in 1991, and introduced digital protocols leading to GPRS and EDGE extensions. Subsequently much faster and efficient mobile networks, 3G and 4G were released and standardised in 2001 and 2012. It is expected that 5G mobile networking technology may start appearing after 2020, based on the same ten-year development cycle, rule of thumb.
Some of the expected characteristics of 5G mobile networks will be significantly faster download speeds of the theoretical order of 10,000 Mbps, ability to support more complex mobile applications, higher density of broadband users, support for massive machine communications, support for device communications, support for Internet of Things, as well as lower battery consumption and lower latency.
“5G is not just another G. It is much more than that. Our society has been through a series of industrial revolutions, each making fundamental changes to the way we live. The 5G era will be based on cloud and digitalisation, bringing augmented and virtual reality into mainstream use, enabling billions of sensors not just connected but feeding and fed by artificial intelligence, and enabling smarter factories and processes,” says Aji Ed, Head of Technology, Middle East and Africa at Nokia.
Other than performance characteristics, critics argue that the standards of benchmarking 5G networks against 4G advanced networks, should move to other areas including use cases. All players within the industry are preparing for the new standard of 5G networks including carriers, processor manufacturers, OEMs, application and solution providers.
Another important reality check is while the industry shares a common vision and standard, there is still no official standard for 5G networks. Says Andrey Koynov, Chief Technology Officer at InfiNet Wireless, “There are no products that support 5G at this time, because there is no approved standard to define fifth generation of mobile wireless systems. It is now in the definition, research and proof-of-concept stage, so the actual 5G deployments and the actual mass products and 5G-based service are a few years down the road.”
The US Federal Communications Commission has approved the spectrum for 5G, which includes 28 Ghz, 37 GHz and 39 GHz bands. These frequency bands are also referred to as millimeter wave bands, in relation to their wavelengths and in comparison, to the longer wavelengths used in 1G, 2G, 3G technology networks. Higher the frequency and smaller the wave length of radio transmissions used, the better is its capability to carry data and support much larger number of multiple users per channel.
A recent report indicates that Middle East mobile operators are investing $50 billion in 5G networking infrastructure over the next several years. “VMware is working closely with Middle East service providers on public-private partnerships to deliver 5G network infrastructure,” says Ahmed Auda, Managing Director, Middle East and North Africa at VMware. While many service providers are eager to deploy 5G solutions, there are several inhibitors. This includes the cost to install the infrastructure, long timeline for deployment, and preparing for use cases that may not even exist as yet.
On the plus side, usage of millimetre wavelengths in 5G networks, are expected to drive the birth of Gigabit smartphones with much faster data access speeds, richer applications and user experience, better network connectivity through multiple embedded antennae, and more efficient use of the spectrum.
“One important asset for 5G networks is spectrum. High bandwidth services are spectrum-hungry, and 5G opens the door for using higher frequencies such as cm-Wave and mm-Wave that simply cannot be used by LTE,” says Nokia’s Ed.
On the negative side, usage of millimeter wavelengths in mobile networks has its drawbacks and limitations. 5G networks will require larger number of transmission sites because of the shorter range of transmission, since they require a more consistent line of sight to the end points.
5G networks using millimeter wave technology will be susceptible to obstructions, bad weather, window pane glass, hard walls, amongst others. There is also concern about congestion in the millimeter wave spectrum band and interference with other devices.
5G relies entirely on the new spectrum, not on overlapping and sharing the frequencies already being used by GSM, 3G or LTE technologies. There are many frequency bands between 3 and 90 GHz being looked at in order to achieve the performance targets. However, the two bands which are in the key focus of research including 3.5-4.2 GHz and 27-31 GHz, have already been utilised by service providers for fixed terrestrial and satellite connectivity across EMEA.
“Freeing-up the required frequency resource will involve a lot of spectrum harmonisation and re-farming work. The radio waves have sufficiently lower penetration from outside into the glass-and-concrete structures common in the Middle East’s biggest cities. To tackle this problem, besides the other measures, it is being proposed to increase the density of the infrastructure and install so-called small cells every few hundred meters or so. Some of the operators have expressed doubts, that it might be cost-prohibitive, as they are not only looking at installation and equipment expenses, but also additional costs associated with backhauls, operations and maintenance costs,” continues InfiNet Wireless’ Koynov.
Nokia’s Ed points out the operational issues of managing the gains and limitations of the 5G spectrum maybe staggered in the roll-outs. “High frequencies and the available bandwidth provide the ability to offer hyper-local services, but they only have a very short range. Wide area coverage and in-building penetration needs lower frequencies to be opened up, which will come later.”
According to Ericsson Middle East and Africa’s, Head of Networks, Chafic Traboulsi, 5G is a technology that promises at least 10x improvements in many dimensions ranging from energy efficiency, throughput, number of simultaneous users, low latency, security and sustainability. It will enable digitisation of many industries, which will in turn reduce the production costs resulting in increased global social welfare and standard of living.
5G will also bring new business models where entrepreneurs will use the massive amount of data being generated by sensors to create services and value that is beyond our imagination today. 5G networks need to fulfil a different set of requirements for different use cases. For example, computing has to be done at edge for low latency, and whereas signaling needs to be minimised for long battery life. Virtualisation and network segmentation are essential technology fundamentals to make this happen.
Virtualising the 5G network platform
While it is relatively easy to point out that 5G networks should interconnect thousands of devices through the Internet of Things, a straight forward calculation indicates that any fixed capacity roll-out to support the Internet of Things will never become commercially viable or even feasible. The key to the solution is that devices and other connected devices need access sporadically and not continuously. A software defined, intelligent and virtual network, hosted in the cloud is a technological solution to the enormous network capacity required on-demand in 5G networks.
Similar to many other digital transformation projects, communication service providers are finding that their legacy networks will need to be transformed and disrupted to pave the way for the 5G network era. The skill sets of the networking and operational teams within communication service providers will also need to broadened. These efforts to adopt a software defined, virtualised network, and cloud native hosted applications, are not just a technology exercise but require a change of business and organisation structure.
VMware’s Gabriele Di Piazza, Vice President of Products and Solutions, Telco NFV, elaborates. “Telecom operators are transforming rapidly as they deploy network function virtualisation with the goal of achieving a software defined architecture that empowers them with the capabilities and flexibility to compete in a highly-connected future. Operators recognise that this transformation, which will see them become on-demand service providers rather than commodity bandwidth vendors, is not a simple technology refresh, instead it requires business-wide transformation.”
In the Internet of Things, operators will not able to achieve economies of scale that are needed without the capabilities of a software defined environment. IoT devices often need to communicate only sporadically so providing continuous capacity is unnecessary. In a traditional architecture, capacity would be fixed and possibly over-provisioned to ensure quality of experience.
With IoT forecasted to generate billions of device connections, such fixed provisioning of capacity is cost-prohibitive. Operators will need to deploy network function virtualisations to enable them to provision capacity and connectivity on demand and in real-time. They are increasingly recognising that a fully automated environment is a pre-requisite for delivering a software defined service platform supporting flexible allocation of capacity.
A software defined operation is also fundamental to the successful deployment of 5G networks because the mixture of technologies involved in 5G will require flexibility and the ability to be dynamic, spinning up network function virtualisation as and where required before turning them off when demand stops. Automation is vital to handle the scale and frequency of changes.
The absence of physical devices with defined capacity means that the network is always dynamic. Therefore, capacity availability must be tracked and managed, utilising insights generated from analytics. The whole point of virtualisation is to put a common infrastructure in place where capacity, can be allocated to services as required. By managing capacity demand in a dynamic way, sufficient capacity can be made available for new services delivering operational agility not possible using the legacy approach of communication service providers.
This analytics-enabled, automated, software-defined environment presents a substantial organisational shift for communication service providers. Their network engineers are experts at managing specific network hardware. All the intelligence lies in the software so network engineers will need to learn new software skills to augment their domain knowledge. “Such domain knowledge is still necessary but it needs to be expressed in software-defined rather than hardware-defined terms,” points out VMware’s Piazza.
This is the primary reason that is driving change in skillsets within the teams of communication service providers. They are moving to a structure composed of an IT organisation supported by a networking organisation to run the core telecommunication services. The high-level services knowledge of the networking professionals is still required but networking professionals are becoming familiar with using capacity that is delivered to them from the virtualised, cloud hosted and commoditised platform.
“These challenges go straight to the heart of the communication service provider business. As operators harness virtualisation technologies to drive down their cost of operations and drive up their quality of services, they will cease to be the providers of connectivity and become the providers of monetised, digital experiences,” reflects VMware’s Piazza.
Building the user experience
To date, mega-outdoor attractions, like concerts, festivals, sporting events, have created dilemmas for all communications service providers. The sheer volume of mobile devices competing for the communication service providers’ bandwidth, means it is not uncommon for texts, photos, social media updates to get delayed, only being uploaded after the event is over or from other locations. After the next digital switch over, 5G networks will hit the extraordinary speeds of 10,000Mbps, surpassing the 1,000 Mbps limits that 4G has. Network function virtualisation is expected to help improve this operational agility.
“One of the main drivers of 5G adoption in the Middle East is the anticipated mega-events. 5G networks ensure that connectivity never drops when there is large scale user access especially during mega-events. Middle East communication service providers are also looking at 5G networks for innovations such as virtual reality country tours in national pavilions, augmented reality instant replays in stadiums, and holographic football matches simulcast worldwide,” explains VMware’s Auda.
“Network function virtualisation is perceived as the missing piece of the puzzle helping communication service providers to achieve exactly that, moving a network function, from a proprietary box that has typically been locked, into a software defined cloud,” states VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger. 5G with network function virtualisation delivers networks that optimise themselves for the service they are delivering, increasing the amount of traffic they can manage without increasing the cost.
With 5G enabled, the user experience at such mega events is expected to change forever. This will include connected athletes and information about athletes in real-time, smart stadiums and immersive experiences, watching instant-replays off a mobile device or changing the location for watching a game, all this while inside the event. 5G is expected to bring down the cost of real-time virtual reality and immersive experiences. High speed data transfer at economical costs will allow video streaming through untethered 360-degree cameras with unprecedented user experience.
How will 5G networks roll out across such mega-events, opportunities, and use cases? Says Nokia’s Ed, “5G will be built first in islands, using hyper-local capacity that meets the needs of specific use cases, without even needing mobility. Coverage aspect comes next to allow hyper-mobility within extended islands.”
Just a decade ago, viewers used to consume the Olympic Games in front of a TV. Now, people want to see live events on their mobile devices anytime they want. During the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, audiences both at the games and at home used mobile devices as a second screen to watch, connect with others and find results. Many even used a mobile device as a first screen to stream Olympic Games content. These innovations in mobile technology will make Tokyo 2020 the most digital Summer Olympic Games ever. Experts anticipate demand from connected users to rise, not only for mobile content but also for the speed at which viewers can access it.
5G networks enhance the level of cybersecurity for communication service providers. Internet of Things and 5G hugely enhance identity management applications and allow tracking within such mega-events. Vmware’s network function virtualisation can micro-segment network communities, protecting user-groups based on their nature.
Another use case that will benefit tremendously from 5G networks is the ecosystem of connected devices including wearables, large scale city-wide sensors, self-driving cars, amongst others. Hyper-converged infrastructure, network function virtualisation, software defined environments, cloud native applications and platforms, are all expected to make such eco-systems far more stable, efficient and realistic. This itself will release a new generation of business models.
“One of the first 5G drivers being discussed is fixed wireless access. There are also some unique industries in this region, such as oil and gas. However, we expect the initial investments to take place in industries such as utilities, automotive, public safety and healthcare within the region,” says Ericsson’s Traboulsi.
- Globally, energy and utilities are expected to bring 22% of the total 5G revenue. However, in the Middle East region, this sector is expected to have a much bigger portion. Some of the use cases in this sector include: drones for field maintenance; smart grids to control and monitor transportation and production of energy; smart energy management to control and monitor consumption.
- Globally, manufacturing is expected to bring 16% of the total 5G revenue. Some of the uses cases in this sector include: automation and control of robots and smart logistics systems; planning and design systems; field devices and applications to gather data.
- Globally, smart transport is expected to bring 8% of the total 5G revenue. Some of the uses cases in this sector include: monitoring, communication and analytics; passenger information systems; smart ticketing systems.
Apart from trials and early pre-commercial deployments, operators need to keep a close watch on 5G developments and build future proof networks without compromising on their current needs. Since 5G will enable different sets of use cases and business models, it is important to work closely with industries, universities, manufacturers to develop use cases, assess revenue potentials and prepare corresponding business models.
5G use cases will require transformation at every stage so it is good to plan and be prepared for that. First deployments of 5G will be in a non-standalone mode, which means 4G coverage is required to provide 5G services. Signaling, call setup, tear down, mobility, will be provided by the 4G layer, while payload and capacity will be provided by the 5G layer. “Therefore, 4G and 5G are complements and not substitutes. It is important to keep 5G in mind while deploying 4G. Since both of these generations needs to interwork and coexist over the same geography,” adds Traboulsi.
Ericsson has already deployed 5G trials with STC, Turkcell, Etisalat and Batelco in the region. It has demonstrated the region’s first 5G with mobility, including indoor and outdoor use cases, covering massive MIMO, beam steering and latency. It has memorandum of understandings, with more than ten customers in the region and is continuing to increase collaborations with various industries as well.
- 4G and 5G are complements and not substitutes
- 5G era will be based on cloud and digitalisation, bringing augmented and virtual reality into mainstream use
- 5G is not just another G. It is much more than that
- 5G use cases will require transformation at every stage so it is good to plan and be prepared for that
- 5G will be built first in islands using hyper-local capacity that meets use cases without even needing mobility
- As operators harness virtualisation they will cease to be the providers of connectivity and become providers of digital experiences
- Coverage aspect comes next to allow hyper-mobility within extended islands
- Federal Communications Commission has approved the spectrum for 5G, which includes 28 Ghz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz bands
- First deployments of 5G will be in a non-standalone mode, which means 4G coverage is required to provide 5G services
- Freeing-up the required frequency resource will involve a lot of spectrum harmonisation and re-farming work
- High frequencies and available bandwidth provide the ability to offer hyper-local services but they only have a very short range
- It is important to keep 5G in mind while deploying 4G since both of these generations needs to interwork and coexist over the same geography
- Network function virtualisation is perceived as the missing piece of the puzzle
- Operators will need to deploy network function virtualisations to enable them to provision capacity and connectivity on demand and in real-time
- Service providers are finding their legacy networks will need to be transformed and disrupted to pave the way for the 5G network era
- Telecommunications industry has seen a new mobile standard being launched every ten years
- There are no products that support 5G at this time because there is no approved standard
- Wide area coverage and in-building penetration needs lower frequencies to be opened up
Cloud native applications and network functions, as an evolution of the virtualisation of the telecommunication network, have the potential to substantially improve capital efficiency for communication service providers. Communication service providers are actively virtualising network functions in the mobile core network, customer premise, and datacentre to both lower capex but more importantly change the operating cost curve that exists today in their operating environment. The cloud lets communication service providers take advantage of delivering services more rapidly to their customers at a far lower operational unit cost.
The journey towards virtualisation and cloud-native which combines virtual network functions, software defined networking, and cloud native applications will be more disruptive than the move from circuit switched to packet networking. The cloud native approach is application centric where applications consume resources, scale based on customer demand and are completely de-coupled from the infrastructure. Cloud native applications utilise a micro-service based architecture versus a monolithic software stack which is pervasive in every communication service provider operational environment today.
The challenge for communication service providers is how to rapidly transform their processes and systems to achieve the inherent benefits offered by the cloud and virtualisation. The tight coupling of the network to service deployments combined with a monolithic management stack inhibits communication service providers from fully realising cloud native, virtualised network functions. Migration to a cloud-native paradigm will also require rethinking of the way applications and services evolve to single-function micro-services, and the speed at which they are versioned and deployed.
The rate of market adoption towards cloud native virtual network functions will follow a pragmatic process given both the culture of the communication service providers and tolerance for risk. The telecommunication market moves slowly and both culture and organisational realignment are necessary to achieve success. Technology alone cannot move the market forward.
Telecommunication systems and practices are in many ways the opposite of cloud native architectures and practices. This is a result of regulatory requirements, outdated processes, rigid systems, and the belief that telecommunication services are unique from other industry verticals.
Communication service providers typically must design the network management environment for each new service, with limited reuse of functionality and with extended time to market. A successful move to cloud architectures is as much about operational change as it is about technical system change. Successful implementation of cloud concepts, require major changes in the way the business works.
Without this operational change, the very real benefits of cloud native architectures are very easily lost. The challenge for communication service providers are that most existing telecommunication system and operational practice runs directly counter to cloud native practice.
Appledore Research Group has identified five key steps in the evolution of the telco network to a cloud native network. These steps are about architectural change but also about the underlying characteristics of the services delivered and the operational model that is wrapped around the network. Success in the evolution of the network to a cloud native model will require successful change in the underlying technology but also in the way services are defined and the way that they are operated.
Excerpted from the report, Preparing Telecommunication Operations For Cloud Native Virtual Network Functions, by Appledore Research Group.