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Getting ready for 5G?
Five things to think about now...

By Gavin Jones

Managing Director Mobile Operator Division

Paving Your Journey to 5G

Discover how we can help you build a 5G ready network.

Preparing for 5G has been on everyone’s mind for some time now but with recent announcements on 5G handset availability and a green light for a 5G auction, things are starting to hot up. I think there are five key areas that MNOs need to consider, to get the most out of 5G. It’s not definitive but it’s worth a discussion.

1. Network architecture evolution

The more society relies on mobile connectivity, the more we will all need to focus on improving availability, latency and quality. For MNOs this will probably mean an extensive evolution of the current architecture to address single points of failure and shared fate scenarios, moving content closer to the edge and extending quality of service implementations to full network slicing.

We also have to consider the relentless thirst for more data and faster connections coupled with the customers’ lack of appetite to pay more for it. Capacity and coverage challenges, combined with network performance and commercial realities will demand bold, robust and dynamic architectural solutions but what will these look like? In my opinion we have to look at packet core evolution, network function virtualisation, Cloud RAN and Mobile Edge Computing. We have to include New Radio introduction to support 5G, including Non-Standalone (NSA) and Standalone (SA) options, Resilience options (Mesh, diverse and ring technologies), mass small cell deployment and a shift to a Service Based Architecture. All of this has to be taken into consideration while coping with legacy infrastructure. 

2. How to build and manage a 5G-ready network

With a typical UK MNO having in the order of 20,000 macro base stations to support current spectrum bands, network infrastructure is already challenging. An ever-increasing commitment to coverage and higher bands reducing individual cell coverage means this is set to rise further of course.

One answer must be collaboration. 5G will make it increasingly difficult and expensive to build and maintain networks, let alone provide the services on top. We all need to work together, to ensure a resilient network is established and maintained, one that is also developing next generation data-driven, automated, self-healing solutions to minimise downtime and maximise opportunity.

3. Virtualisation

How will MNOs cope with the demands of 5G services? One idea is to separate network functions from application specific hardware, in a Network Function Virtualisation model. This should help MNOs be more agile and reduce costs.

By embracing virtualisation, we can all build a base from which we can develop robust and cost-effective upgrade paths for the next 10 years. As 5G has been conceived and designed as cloud native from day one, it’s worth considering. Virtualisation on standard hardware will bring new software players into the market and foster innovation, as it has in the IT space. Scalability, easy automation of network service orchestration and interoperability are attractive benefits which should also mean no one is tied into proprietary vendor equipment, limiting growth and efficiency. 

4. Phase synchronisation

I think understanding phase synchronisation is a must. Whatever backhaul solution is used, a reliable and universally available time and phase synchronisation network service will surely ensure an effective and robust response to many of the issues MNOs will face with network and demand growth.

The evolutionary path to 4G LTE-A and 5G introduces new network topologies that will make the best possible use of spectrum. New features that have been developed to improve both capacity density and spectral efficiency are based on the assumption of strict time and phase alignment between the different mobile cells. In other words, adjacent mobile cells must be aligned in absolute time, as well as in frequency, to be able to coordinate the transmission and reception of data from multiple cells to the end device.

While GPS has traditionally been used to provide phase information, network synchronisation is by far the more robust and future-proofed solution. You can find out more about the benefits of using the network here.

5. Small cells

All MNOs surely need a small cells strategy. 3G proved to be a false dawn for the day of the small cell. To a broad extent, MNOs have been able to mitigate capacity exhaustion in the 4G network by continuously investing in the macro layer. However, 5G will change all that.

The expected surge in demand for mobile network capacity, driven by video consumption, augmented/virtual reality and other new data hungry applications, is surely going to change how capacity in high density areas is managed. Small cells can become the capacity workhorses of the network, perhaps providing a more cost-effective approach to managing capacity within built-up areas and buildings with dense populations, such as sports stadia.

Is this a shift in thinking and approach? If so it is worth considering. While sharing infrastructure may not be to everyone’s taste, it is almost certainly the most cost-effective and efficient way forward. I think finding a sharing model that works (site assets, backhaul and even hardware) will determine the level of cost reductions that can be achieved while enabling MNOs to retain spectrum control.

Final thoughts

Overall it’s not an easy journey. 5G demands a considerable shift in how MNOs approach network services, which is why collaboration and partnerships could be key. BT Wholesale certainly has the infrastructure, technology, skills and resources to make the path to 5G much easier. Please get in touch with your Account Manager to find out more about how we can help you.

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