5G is the buzzword today and almost everybody is talking about it. Many MNO’s have launched or are in the process of launching their 5G networks but let us understand, what makes 5G so interesting and how it is different from the previous generation of Telecom Networks.
A lot of new telecoms, IT/ITES, and Startup companies are entering this space and this 5G space is buzzing with a lot of excitement.
In this article, we will try to understand what makes 5G so exciting, what new capabilities it brings to end-users, and what business opportunities it is going to bring to the companies.
Telecom, Networking, Cloud and IT worlds
Telecom was typically referred to as Wireless and Wireline Networks for providing connectivity to the end-users, Networking was more about IP Networks created using many Switches and Routers, Cloud was a public or private infrastructure and IT was referred to as some Software application hosted on On-Prem Data centers or public or private cloud Infrastructure.
Telecom Networks were mostly very closed networks in the early days and most of the Telecom hardware was purpose-built for Telecom Software which was again very specific to Telecom Applications. Communication between various Telecom Equipment was happening using telecom Specific protocols and was not very scalable. So, the telecom industry was dominated by a handful of companies.
However, Cloud Infrastructure was mostly built using some commodity hardware and the IT application running on them were also standardized and had a huge open ecosystem.
Even IP World was using mostly open protocols and have a lot of benefits like interworking and Quality of Services.
Challenges with Telecom Networks
Because of these closed architectures, Protocols, and purpose-built hardware, Telecom networks were not scalable and replaceable and because of not so open ecosystem, It was not easy for new companies to enter into this business as well there was a very limited scope of innovation.
Mobile Networks Operators have very few choices, and it was not easy for them to change the existing vendors as they need to replace whole hardware and software.
All these types of equipment were given to MNO’s as black boxes and mostly they were not able to play either with hardware or software.
Because of these limitations, MNO’s technical capabilities were limited and instead of managing these networks on their own, they started outsourcing these Managed services from OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers) or vendors.
Era of OTT (Over-The-Top) dominance
Major revenue sources for MNO’s were voice, SMS and Data Services, and when OTT like WhatsApp, Skype, and Telegram arrived, first they started eating SMS revenues of operators and then moved to voice revenues.
Most OTT applications were taking free rides on Telecom Networks and making money out of it whereas Telecom Operators were struggling to make ends meet.
At the same time, Operators were stuck with some OEM and didn’t have a lot of options while deploying these networks. Even these standard telecom networks were just good enough for providing some basic services like Voice and SMS were not capable of providing more advanced services which are required in the current scenarios.
What do mobile network operators want?
Operators wished to have some open networks where there are very less dependencies on fewer vendor companies.
These networks should be disaggregated, and software and hardware should not be purpose-built.
Operators wanted to have a larger ecosystem, Open protocols, Scalable networks, Networks that were more Software and Service centric and Networks where resources can be logically isolated, and networks can be used as multiple logical layers on a single physical infrastructure.
What’s new in 5G?
5G is not just another wireless technology but much more than that.
5G enables the network’s deployment on Public/private cloud infrastructure and Telecom Network Functions are created as VNF’s (Virtual Networks Functions) or CNF’s (Cloud Native Networks Functions). However, this is not a completely new thing, some of these efforts were initiated in later updates (read 3GPP releases) in 4G networks as well.
All these Network Functions can be broken down into multiple microservices and can be hosted in containerized environments. This makes Cloud Native Architecture a front runner in 5G Deployments.
Finer granularity in these Network Function and Cloud Native Architecture will fuel the usage of DevOps in Telecom which was completely missing in previous telecom generations.
Let us try to understand what new functions and features enable the 5G for next-level growth and how it is going to benefit the users and businesses-
- 5G Service Vertical – From day one, 5G was not planned as a ubiquitous Network that is one size fits all.
Instead, 5G is designed for multiple service verticals like eMBB (Enhanced Mobile Broadband) which can provide data rates up to 20 Gbps in the downlink, mMTC (massive machine type communication) which can accommodate millions of devices, uRLLC (Ultra reliable and Low Latency Communication) which can promise very low latencies (<1ms) and very high reliability (up to 99.9% or more) and V2X which may be specifically designed for Vehicular communication.
The performance requirement of these different service verticals can be very extreme and may be difficult to meet in a single network hence network resources should be isolated logically and should form multiple logical layers in over a single physical network and these logical layers are called Network Slices.
- Network Slicing – Network Slicing is one of the most recognized features of 5G Networks where physical resources can be isolated and formed into some logical layer which are meeting certain performance requirements and these Network Slices can be allocated to a variety of users.
Some of these slices can be standard and available for retail users and provide some required performance for service verticals like eMBB, uRLLC, and mMTC whereas some other slices can be further customized and can be provided as NaaS (Network as a service) to enterprise customers, industry verticals and Public Safety and mission-critical services
- Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC) – As many of the 5G use cases will require very low latencies and a lot of local processing, we may need to bring some of these applications closer to the end-user and mostly at the base station. There is not something new to the IT world as a lot of content caching and Content Delivery Networks (CDN’s) were defined but little new for Telecom as it was rarely used in previous generations.
- Open protocols – As mentioned earlier, most of the communication within telecom networks were happening on Telecom Specific protocols, and most of these Telecom-specific protocols are being scrapped and migrated to industry-standard protocol like HTTP2 and HTTPS and all telecom-specific information is written into JSON Schema in HTTP Body. All these network functions communicate with each other using RESTful API-based communication and this is a first in Wireless Networks. This makes 5G networks more open and enables them to communicate with IT infrastructure and other applications.
- Virtualization and Containerization- Most of the 5G Network deployments are happening in virtualized and containerized environments and that makes 5G networks more scalable, highly available, and cost-effective. Because all these network functions are designed using microservices, DevOps enables them to have continuous integration and continuous deployment (CI/CD) and improves software delivery cycles.
- Intervention of Hyperscalers – As Cloud infrastructure comes into existence in Telecom Networks, Hyperscalers are active in this space and introducing a lot of new features, Functions, and services to empower Wireless Networks like 4G, and 5G. In fact, some of the MNO’s like Dish Wireless in the USA have deployed their complete 5G Network on AWS Infrastructure
- Network Orchestration – As we need a lot of dynamism in Telecom Network management, it is practically not possible to manage these networks manually and that’s where the larger intervention of Automation and Orchestration kicks in. Today all these future networks are powered by the latest Network orchestration techniques which are fueled by Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence.
- 5G private Networks – With a lot of these new requirements from new use cases of 5G networks, achieving diverse performance requirements may not be possible in the public networks. So there is a lot of stress upon deploying many of these use cases in private networks referred to as Private 5G or NPN (Non-Public Networks). These private networks can be completely isolated from public 5G Networks and can be integrated with Public Networks. Even Networks Slices can be used as a private network in some scenarios.
As technology is evolving quickly it brings a lot of challenges as well. Today MNO’s are struggling to make these big investments in the networks and are cautious about return on investments.
There is a huge skills gap in the industry and companies are struggling to hire skilled resources which have brought unique challenges to the industry.
In this article, we have looked at the big picture of 5G without getting into too many technical details. 5G looks very promising right now and is still in its very early stages. 5G promises a lot of new features and use cases but it is a bit early to say how many of them will be successful.
Initial deployments of 5G networks are going to have a lot of dependencies on existing 4G networks and a threat from early discussion of 6G Networks.
So far, it’s looking like a pretty exciting place, and expect a lot of action over the next few years.
Co-Founder and Technical Director
Sanjay Kumar is a distinguished Entrepreneur and Senior Telecom & Cloud (AWS) Training Professional with 20+ years of experience in Telecom Training, Operations & Maintenance, Projects and Training Content Development, Telecom R&D and testing, etc.
Published in Telematics Wire