Analysis by Abderrahman Azza, business manager at Networks and Services, Sofrecom, and Philippe Mendribil, consultant at Networks and Services, Sofrecom.
As operators continue to roll out 4G/LTE, they already must anticipate the arrival of 5G, a disruptive technology announced for 2020. To guarantee the durability of their investments they need to start thinking right away about the future upgrades of their 4G network architectures to 5G.
While 4G is still not fully deployed everywhere worldwide, the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) is already working on new specifications to introduce 5G. The first commercial deployments of this new cellular network standard are scheduled for 2020.
Unprecedented network performance
5G promises to push back today's capacity and speed limits, bringing a peak data rate higher than 10 Gbps, compared to "only" 300 Mbps for 4G. It will provide ultra-fast connectivity, fluid fixed-mobile convergence and wider coverage to assure continuity and a high quality user experience in all environments. With latency times down to about one millisecond (ten times less than with 4G), 5G can be supported by critical, very high reliability, real-time services such as industrial robots and long-distance surgical interventions
This future network will be just what we need in tomorrow's hyper-connected world. While the 4G network was tailored for the smartphone, 5G actually needs to support a wide variety of device types used in fast-developing services such as the Internet of Things, connected cars and virtual and augmented reality. It will revolutionize the mobile usages of businesses, public organizations and individuals.
An architecture that will underpin innovation and productivity for operators
The 5G architecture, natively founded on the concepts of network function virtualization (NFV), software defined networks (SDN) and cloud techniques), will facilitate agile configuration of innovative solutions that will no longer be integrated in separate network hardware elements but in centralized software. This will substantially reduce the time to market of new service invented by operators with great flexibility and reactivity for all kinds of vertical markets (transport, industry, healthcare, smart cities, etc.) thanks to the creation of virtual sub-networks, a technique known as network slicing.
These evolutions will also make networks more energy efficient and therefore reduce operators' operating expenses. They will support low-energy "green solutions" in tomorrow's digital economy, which will be a vital advantage for battery-powered connected objects needing to run for long period without battery replacement.
Anticipating virtualized network functions
Like FTTH, 4G/LTE will continue to evolve up until 2020 and then become a component of 5G that will employ a new radio interface known as "NR" (New Radio) and operate at frequencies higher than 6 GHz. To assure the long-term profitability of their present investments and a key role in the future mobile ecosystem, operators will be well advised to opt right away for virtualization solutions in their existing or emerging networks.
Virtualization solutions are already used in the core network. At radio access network (RAN) level, C-RAN (Cloud RAN) virtualizes and centralizes signal processing functions at a point. This reduces operating costs by facilitating the sharing of resources by allocating them dynamically to each radio site in a given zone. This architecture can be deployed only in zones well served by optical fiber which is indispensable in view of the expected data speeds.
The improved capacity and latency times brought by 5G obviously have implications in terms of transport bandwidth and times. Other solutions are therefore being examined and must be integrated into the network architecture strategy. These include alternatives to C-RAN and also evolutions of the microwave networks to cover zones where fiber rollout is not planned in the short or medium term.