5G: Think Things Over
History repeats itself. Or does it? Following a recent 5G debate, I recalled a discussion in 2008 with a friend who worked for a network operator. Having experienced the introduction of 3G, he was concerned about 4G. “A new odyssey begins for us every decade or so,” he said. “But each new odyssey overlaps with the previous one. Lucky Odysseus only had to endure a single 10-year-long journey!”
My friend was right. 4G, a promising technology for network operators, brought additional challenges and demanded significant investment. Meanwhile, the 3G (and 2G) journey was not over. Operators had to continue to enhance their legacy networks, introducing new features and optimizing existing infrastructure. Today, my friend and I could have a similar discussion about 5G. Of course, the landscape has changed. This is evident in key areas such as network monitoring, analytics, and automation.
The weakest link
The need to monitor every part of the network is not new. Network and service operation centers have focused on mobile network domains (access, backhaul, core), end-to-end network performance and customer experience.
What is different now? First, better visibility is required, and in more demanding timeframes. Checking network performance every 30 minutes is no longer good enough. In addition, mobile networks have been transforming to become more efficient by incorporating new physical/virtual components. This transformation presents further challenges, for instance in remote fronthaul monitoring for centralized/cloud RAN deployments.
As discussed with a network operator recently, it is crucial to proactively detect RF interference (including intermittent or narrowband) and passive inter-modulation (PIM), without live network interruption. Moreover, fronthaul performance depends on the underlying fiber network. Any fiber issues should also be remotely detected, accurately positioned and rapidly addressed to minimize customer experience degradation.
Such considerations will be vital for 5G and end-to-end network slicing. Indeed, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Analytics will play a decisive role here.
The wooden wall
“How can we best prepare for 4G?” “Where should we deploy 4G first?” “How will we monitor 4G and its interworking with existing networks?” Replace 4 with 5, and you can ask the same questions today, although the setting is not identical.
The arrival of 5G emphasizes the importance of actionable insights. For example, customer experience geolocation can pinpoint the hotspot areas to prioritize for 5G deployment. In this case, geolocation accuracy would help make the most of existing and new network infrastructure.
The higher the uncertainty and/or complexity, the clearer and more expertise-driven insights should be. Hundreds of years ago, the Delphi oracle advised the Athenians – who were worried about the Persian invasion – to trust “the wooden wall”. Rather than remain behind city walls, Themistocles persuaded the Athenians to trust their (wooden) ships, flee the city and fight the Persians on the sea. The rest is history.
Even with Themistocles-like engineers, network operators must now be able to derive unambiguous, predictive and prescriptive insights using embedded-expertise software. Especially as automation permeates network operation.
Mechanization/automation is not a 4G or 5G only theme. There have been consistent efforts to improve efficiency in mobile networks and operational processes, including self-organizing networks (SON) or – recently – automated virtual/hybrid network assurance. What differs now is the level of machine intelligence.
Indeed, artificial intelligence (AI) has been making the headlines. It is easy to understand the appeal of networks that learn from past events, predict the future, take pre-emptive action, and use resources optimally. Yes, this would make the 5G journey more of a space odyssey.
But should operators wait for AI to increase operational efficiency? Even mature networks can gain from automation now, through expert software solutions. For instance, based on a recent project with a European operator, the analysis time for critical RAN optimization activities could be reduced by 69%.
Today, intelligence amplification can assist stretched network teams whose expertise is not optimally used. What happens tomorrow is another discussion.
Like 4G, 5G will be an interesting adventure. Lessons learned from past network launches should not be underestimated: even when sailing on new waters, navigation experience is helpful. In fact, 5G also relies on concepts relevant to 4G. On the other hand, 5G presents unique or, if not entirely new, accentuated challenges. But there is no need to panic. A well-thought, innovative and collaborative approach can make the 5G journey successful.
Back to that discussion 10 years ago, I remember my friend getting upset about his predicament, and me saying something like “I think you should sit down calmly and think things over.” When he heard this, my friend laughed and replied “OK, HAL*.”
*In the “2001: A Space Odyssey” movie, the hero is about to disconnect the AI computer HAL, which tells him “I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly […] and think things over.”
— Dr. Konstantinos Stavropoulos, Solution Marketing, EXFO