PRAGUE -- 2020 Vision Executive Summit -- Some of the world's biggest operators are now gearing up for initial launches of 5G new radio technology in 2018. But there is still a huge amount of work to do on the network architecture side if 5G is to realize its full potential, according to a leading expert.
Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with the Heavy Reading market research group, says traditional standards bodies are not tackling challenges in some key areas, including lifecycle management, edge computing, RAN (radio access network) architecture and network slicing.
The gap this leaves is forcing operators to look outside the mobile industry for guidance, or to seize the initiative themselves. Giants such as US-based Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) are already experimenting with open source technologies to address some of the architecture-related challenges, says Brown.
Those efforts have happened while the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) has been heavily focused on the development of a 5G new radio, which is due to be frozen next week. While the standards organization has also come up with proposals for a full system architecture, some of its ideas about a service-based architecture are generating uncertainty or even confusion, according to the Heavy Reading analyst. (See 3GPP Approves Plans to Fast Track 5G NR.)
"The 3GPP is talking about network service functions, which sounds like a microservice, but the industry is not quite sure what is going on here," Brown told attendees at Light Reading's Vision 2020 Executive Summit in Prague earlier today. "The 3GPP also doesn't get into some operational issues and so the mobile industry will have to look to the cloud to see what they are doing in terms of service composition and lifecycle management and so forth."
Although telco progress is being made in this particular area, it is not happening quickly enough or delivering the performance that companies will need for more advanced 5G services, reckons Brown.
The remarks come just weeks after a senior executive from Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT) voiced similar concerns about 5G momentum outside the new radio area. Speaking at an event in London hosted by Chinese equipment giant Huawei, Antje Williams, Deutsche Telekom's 5G program manager, said there was "really need [for] a push" on so-called "cloudification" and "densification" of networks for 5G rollout. (See DT Is Not Going Radio Gaga About 5G.)
The 3GPP proposes to lock down specifications for a new 5G system architecture in June 2018 as part of its Release 15, under which the first 5G services will be launched. Its proposals include plans for the separation of the control and user planes, which could help to reduce 5G deployment costs, as well as the installation of user plane nodes in more distributed data centers.
The problem, as Brown sees it, is that the 3GPP is not answering some of the big questions about the deployment of these networks. "There is nothing in the 3GPP that says how to go and place workloads out at the edge location," he says. "If you are deploying compute and storage there, you need all the toolsets to do that. If those don't come from mobile, they will have to come from without and putting things together is a big challenge."
Verizon has been trying to overcome it by experimenting with the use of open source technologies to build a software-defined network. The results have undoubtedly been impressive, says Brown, but the technologies have not been tested in a commercial environment.
"Can you operationalize it to a level where you are supporting millions of subscribers?" says Brown. "There is still some way to go, I think."
The analyst also believes there is "an enormous amount of work to do" on network slicing, a technique that should allow an operator to provide many different types of virtualized network service over the same physical infrastructure. "There is a grain of understanding but no notion of transport," says Brown. "It has to be mapped to SDN underlay and there is not a clear enough view on that or relevant parties working together to make it happen."
Deutsche Telekom's Williams has at least expressed optimism that different groups are now in active discussions about network slicing needs. "What we see today are operators and vendors and customers trying to describe what the requirements are for slicing," she said in November. "This is a common industry effort."
Asked if it was up to individual operators to figure out the cloudification side of 5G, Brown said: "There is no consortium that will specify that and there never has been. The NGMN [Next-Generation Mobile Networks Alliance] and MEF [Metro Ethernet Forum] might provide guidelines. The elite operators are getting their heads around it and some of that will ripple out through the ecosystem."
— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading