Toward a common 4G/5G core network

SPONSORED: Heavy Reading's "Cloud-Native 5G Core Operator Survey" explores the importance of a common 4G/5G core.

Gabriel Brown, Principal Analyst, Heavy Reading

April 27, 2021

3 Min Read
Toward a common 4G/5G core network

In a mobile network, the core controls sessions, mobility, authentication, policy and more. In short, it is fundamental to how your smartphone or Internet of Things (IoT) device interacts with the network. To build a 5G standalone (SA) network that can offer advanced services, a new core network is needed.

A 5G core can be introduced as an overlay deployment, with various points of integration to support interworking with the existing 4G network, and/or it can be deployed as a new, integrated common 4G/5G core. One of the major findings from Heavy Reading's "Cloud-Native 5G Core Operator Survey" is that a large majority of respondents (86%) expect their company to operate a common 4G/5G at some stage — but not necessarily immediately.

The figure below shows an excerpt from the report. In answer to a question on the importance of a common 4G/5G core, the largest group of respondents (46%) said that their company needs "a fully converged 4G/5G core." This is just ahead of the 40% that say it is "important and desirable, but not essential to start with." Hardly any believe a common 4G/5G core is not important.

Figure 1: How important is a common 4G/5G core to your company? n=72 (Source: Heavy Reading) n=72
(Source: Heavy Reading)

There are three main reasons to pursue a common 4G/5G core strategy:

  1. To lower the cost of operations by minimizing duplication

  2. To introduce modern, efficient infrastructure across technology generations

  3. To optimize the service experience across radio access technologies

To achieve a common, fully converged 4G/5G core is, however, challenging. It is possible that respondents to the survey are over-confident or have a permissive definition of what constitutes a common core. In practice, this is a complicated task with many dependencies on existing 4G core functions, the RAN strategy, SA-capable device penetration and the transition to cloud infrastructure platforms.

Initially therefore, depending on the individual operator circumstance, it may be more appropriate to think in terms of specific network functions (NFs) or groups of NFs in common. For example, common policy control across 4G and 5G enables a consistent service offer to almost the entirety of the subscriber base. In other scenarios, a common user plane, session management and mobility management enable a more consistent service experience between 4G and 5G access. And in others, a unified subscriber data management solution may be an appropriate first step to a common 4G/5G core.

None of this is simple, of course. 5G core is a complex topic, with many variations and phases. But the direction is clear: operators want common 4G/5G cloud-native core networks.

The Heavy Reading "Cloud-Native 5G Core Operator Survey" focuses on the 3GPP 5G core, associated cloud infrastructure platforms and end user services. You can download a PDF copy here.

This blog is sponsored by Mavenir.

— Gabriel Brown, Senior Principal Analyst – Mobile Networks, Heavy Reading

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About the Author(s)

Gabriel Brown

Principal Analyst, Heavy Reading

Gabriel leads mobile network research for Heavy Reading. His coverage includes system architecture, RAN, core, and service-layer platforms. Key research topics include 5G, open RAN, mobile core, and the application of cloud technologies to wireless networking.

Gabriel has more than 20 years’ experience as a mobile network analyst. Prior to joining Heavy Reading, he was chief analyst for Light Reading’s Insider research service; before that, he was editor of IP Wireline and Wireless Week at London's Euromoney Institutional Investor.

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