Mobile network operations in a 5G world

5G promises many improvements over prior mobile technology generations, including higher data speeds, more reliable connectivity, lower latency and the ability to cope with large numbers of simultaneous connections. Key technologies underpinning 5G include massive MIMO and beamforming. Implementing these technologies will present challenges to network planning and the ongoing optimization of networks. Further challenges include the poor propagation characteristics of high-frequency spectrum bands, and coexistence between multiple radio access technology generations.

To better understand how mobile operators are addressing the demands of 5G, Heavy Reading conducted a survey that examined three key areas: planning, optimization and operations. As one of our survey respondents noted, "It is important to see that the operational tasks are part of the modernization of our overall processes and systems. These are covering all areas – architecture, planning, rollout, operation and optimization."

Network planning is about getting the right level of capacity, coverage and quality of service. These targets must be balanced against upfront capital costs and ongoing operating costs in order to achieve an optimal return on investment. The higher frequencies being used for 5G deployments are more susceptible to signal degradation due to the atmosphere, vegetation and buildings. This makes network planning even tougher for 5G than its predecessor technologies.

After planning and deploying a new network, engineers look to optimize its performance by adjusting myriad parameters. The goal of network optimization is to improve capacity and resilience. Optimization is usually carried out for distinct subsystems within the network (e.g. a transport link). When a change is made to the rest of the network (e.g. a capacity expansion) the configuration of a subsystem may no longer be optimal. As such, optimization is a never-ending task.

Operating mobile networks is complex. As new mobile generations are introduced new features and functions must be managed. New radio access networks must coexist with earlier generations. 5G introduces a new service-based architecture which should increase operational efficiency, in theory. In practice, to realize these efficiency gains will require a period of learning and adjustment. While virtualization was already introduced with 4G core systems, 5G will see the use of virtualization spread further throughout the network. This introduces a new learning curve for operations staff. One common factor to these operational challenges is the need for greater automation.

Our survey yielded many interesting insights about how operators are approaching the planning, rollout, operation and optimization of 5G. 3D multi-floor simulation of 5G coverage inside buildings appears to be an important new planning tool. Indoor positioning is becoming much more precise than in prior cellular generations, enabling new service opportunities. Boosting RANK number by adjusting massive MIMO performance is a key optimization technique. Our survey respondents are looking for service assurance to become more predictive and are trying to build real-time customer experience management capabilities. To enable such systems requires an overhaul of the IT systems used in operations. As one of our survey participants noted: "Operational complexity of 5G can only be handled with effective and intensive use of Analytics and AI driven automation."

To find out more about the results of our survey, please register for the Light Reading webinar "What are the Key Factors that Affect 5G Network Quality and User Experience?" on Thursday April 30.

This blog is sponsored by Huawei.

— James Crawshaw, Senior Analyst, Intelligent Networks and Automation, Heavy Reading

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