Overcoming the challenges of 5G
The uptake of 5G is progressing faster than any of the network generations that preceded it. According to data provided by , 225mn new 5G subscriptions were activated between 2019 and 2020, a total which took 4G LTE four years to attain. And there are signs that the rate of 5G uptake is continuing to accelerate, with a 66 per cent increase in new subscriptions in Q4 2020 compared to the previous quarter.
With many 5G rollouts and deployments already under way, what do mobile operators need to think about as the technology and their network build out evolves? How can they adequately plan and design their networks to meet the needs and requirements of 5G today and tomorrow?
As 5G reaches maturity, mobile network operators (MNOs) must adapt their network design capabilities to encompass a constantly evolving variety of use cases for consumer and enterprise customers.
Co-existence with LTE
While 5G is certainly the mot du jour in the wireless networks space today, the technologies that preceded it are not going to disappear anytime soon. In fact, 4G/LTE networks will not only exist alongside 5G for the foreseeable future, but will also be subject to further development and growth. In many cases, 4G is still of key strategic importance for operators and will continue to evolve. But this transition comes with a unique set of hurdles, requiring many changes within a mobile network.
5G networks, for example, consist of many more cells of varying sizes compared to 4G networks. These cells are needed to provide the coverage some 5G spectrum requires, but they can overlap and cause inter-cell interference when not managed properly. There is also the issue of unpredictable coverage and dynamic performance within each cell, due to 5G’s RF designs being inherently more complex than those of 4G. This makes understanding and predicting the coverage of each cell much more difficult, as 5G signal propagation will be affected by the behavior and location of all other devices in the same cell.
Highly localised services
One of the main enterprise use cases for 5G is fixed-wireless access (FWA); for example, in the manufacturing industry where it provides the connectivity parameters needed to enable smart factory environments. However, these highly localised services require highly accurate propagation and environment modelling. This is especially true of millimeter wave services in a fixed wireless access application. At these frequencies, small obstructions become extremely disruptive, and threaten the overall reliability and availability of the network.
In order to overcome unexpected areas with poor performance that seriously damage customer confidence on 5G FWA networks, it is necessary for MNOs to have a very accurate modelling capability – both in terms of propagation behaviour and environment modelling. This is an area where many MNOs will face a novel challenge, as it will be likely that their capabilities will be attuned to the requirements of previous wireless generations in which these issues were less sever
Evolving network technologies
While 5G has been a reality for some time now, there will be a constant evolution in the wide range of network technologies that enhance the capabilities of the system for the years to come. These include features used to improve the flexibility of the system, such as mMIMO antenna modelling, and uplink (UL) and downlink (DL) decoupling but also features that aid rolling out 5G in a cost-efficient manner, such as dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). While DSS may work in the interim to boost 5G coverage, its impact on 4g needs to be considered carefully and since it works best when overall 5G traffic is low the point when it will become detrimental to the overall QoE needs to be clearly understood
Overall, this paints a picture of a more complex infrastructure for RAN engineers to manage. One dimension of the solution lies in using automation to take over certain management tasks – otherwise known as a Self-Organising Network (SON). However, the development and roll out of these tools will be incremental, meaning that the rate of human tasks being automated may be outpaced by the new tasks created by increasing complexity. As a result, operators must not only keep up the pace of innovation by deploying SON tools, such as ML-RCA, adaptive thresholds and anomaly detection, but also ensure that this innovation is sustained by empowering engineers to use them to their full potential. Moreover the second dimension of the solution lies in enabling automation to support the design of the fuure of the networks and improving its ability to deal with the growth scenarios introduced by new services by various industry verticals. There automation needs to support the decision making of engineers allowing the evaluation of many what if design scenarios that inevitable will become business scenarios
A look ahead
5G is clearly the technology needed to create the new capabilities and new propositions that will drive up the value operators can offer to both consumer and enterprise customers. . But when looking at both the infrastructural complexities and new service level requirements to come, it’s clear that operators must adopt strategies today to overcome these issues and ensure high Quality of Experience (QoE) over 5G networks in the future.
There are many new technologies and capabilities that need to be considered when modelling and evaluating the performance of 5G networks. These can only be realised when operators can accurately simulate and model the radio network with customer needs in mind, effectively creating a 5G network that is truly built for purpose. But to do this, designers will need to start thinking more broadly, expanding the portfolio of performance indicators to try to tailor what they can offer in terms of network services. And while The design requirements in each case could be vastly different, with accurate modelling and insight-fed planning, the pathway to maximising the benefits of 5G will be much clearer.