- Carriers are coming face to face with 5G’s increased scale and complexity as well as the need to monetize network investments by developing many more services than before.
- To design, deploy, and operate 5G networks profitably, carriers will need to increase automation, adopt AI, and select the right ecosystem partners.
With the July 2020 completion of 3GPP Release 16, we now have the first round of specifications for a full, end-to-end 5G network. Most wireless carriers have started to plan their journey to 5G, and a few are already providing 5G SA connections. During every stage of this journey, carriers are coming face to face with 5G’s increased complexity: more network nodes to install and maintain, more parameters to adjust, and more services to design and operate.
Since specifications generally provide little detail on exactly how to design, deploy, and operate these services, the entire industry is learning these practical aspects as it goes. Carriers and their services partners will experience a challenging, but ultimately virtuous, cycle: the more they take advantage of 5G’s performance improvements and flexibility to address new use cases and improve service, the more they need to optimize their networks and fine-tune their network management. These improvements, in turn, will increase carriers’ ability to introduce new services and so on.
What follows is a very brief summary of how we see each area of network services changing in response to this new technology generation:
- Planning is a crucial first step. Once the operator carries out its internal CapEx and strategic planning, it still must carry out the more practical tasks of deciding what areas to upgrade first, understanding where the competition has coverage holes, and finding new sites to handle new spectrum and edge use cases. The operator needs new tools to do this and likely services partners as well.
- Design carries those decisions into more detailed coverage and transport design, especially as they relate to the new propagation challenges of C-band spectrum – which can shift with the seasons – and to the coverage problems and benefits posed by beamforming, especially for in-building and other 3D coverage.
- Rollout is essential to keeping CapEx under control; if greenfield site designs are not standardized, brownfield elements not upgraded with the help of artificial intelligence and digital twins, and multivendor site work teams not managed efficiently, rollout work is likely to chew through a 5G carrier’s profit margin.
- Optimization requires much more dynamic, even continuous adjustment as traffic patterns change, even over the course of a single day. AI-enabled automation will be the only way to keep pace with the ongoing challenges of dynamic parameter adjustment.
- Service and slice creation will be the foundation for a host of innovative 5G applications in the enterprise market. Operators will therefore require agile development techniques such as CI/CD and likely an extensive partner ecosystem – as well as the tools and expertise to manage it.
- Operations must incorporate automation and artificial intelligence to keep up with the experience demands posed by 5G’s new infrastructure and services.
- Training and consulting are also essential to enable operators to realize the full value of their investments in 5G.
What’s more, all of this is just for the new 5G network; most carriers have to address all of these factors while simultaneously operating their earlier-generation networks, migrating users and services off them, and planning for their eventual decommissioning.
Back to the idea of the virtuous cycle: at least in the early years of a deployment, 5G’s complexity is inextricable from its benefits. But in the interests of resiliency, efficiency, and – not least – profit, operators must automate as much complexity out of the system as they can. Choosing the right partners and tools for these tasks is therefore one of the earliest and most important decisions in 5G transformation.