The evolution towards 5G is something of a buzz theme in the mobile networks business at the moment. For Mike Smathers it’s the core of his work. As Nokia’s head of 5G E2E (end-to-end) solution architecture, it’s his job to support Nokia’s customers as they look to make strong future businesses using 5G.
The technology, which has undefined standards as yet, will bring greater network speeds and capacity. This will enable virtual reality and augmented reality development, and aid the growth of Internet of Things’ technologies and big data analytics. Cloud access will also be faster, and a host of other hot technologies enabled.
But 5G isn’t simply an upgrade of the mobile network, says Smathers. Instead, it involves optimisation, reconfiguration and advancement right across the network infrastructure.
Global 5G standards are being driven by the 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project), a collaborative group of telecommunications associations across the world that aims to develop technical specifications for new mobile technologies. The first wave of 3GPP specifications are set to be “frozen” in late 2018, with the first 3GPP-based 5G networks expected in mid-2019.
Smathers says while the use case for the LTE
(Long-Term Evolution) 4G standard was driven by internet access, 5G isn’t built around a single use case. Instead, it is a family of three broad categories: extreme mobile broadband; massive machine type communications; and ultra-reliable, low latency communications.
“Within these three categories you can think of all the things like virtual reality, using cellular networks for emergency services, support for the tactile internet, smart houses, smart cars, smart factories – also called Industry 4.0 – smart meters and a whole plethora of new use cases we believe will drive up operator revenues, as well as offer services to different countries. 5G is really a platform to support a country’s growth too.” (Virtual reality is an example of an emerging tactile internet technology.)
Smathers says 5G is also about driving down operational costs in increasingly complex environments.
“Cloud services, for instance, are a prerequisite for 5G,” he says. “We see the cloud environment being prevalent in both the radio space and the call space.”
“Within the cloud environment we see big data networks being developed, to make networks competent, so they can optimise themselves without human
intervention. And then we have self-optimised network functionality as well – for radio planning, for instance. These kinds of things help with the operational cost of networks,” Smathers says. (A self-optimised network might, for example, involve neighbouring base stations in a network reconfiguring their parameters to cover for base stations that switch off automatically – or waking them up when they need to meet a sudden spike in demand.)
While telco operators and vendors are driving 5G, with multiple research projects underway, Smathers says business input from a range of vertical markets is crucial to understanding how businesses can adopt mobile services, so they can work in a more cost effective, intelligent way.
“5G can bring huge efficiencies, smarter ways of doing things, services that we’re not able to support today, such as remote surgery and tactile internet. You need to have some pretty advanced infrastructure to support these things reliably, and 5G can do that.”
“As industries see they can put their mission-critical services on the new networks and combine them with data, sensor and data analytics’ capabilities, they will start to see how they can add automation and new services,” says Smathers.
It is a family of three broad categories: extreme mobile broadband; massive machine type communications; and ultra-reliable, low latency communications.
Another area Nokia is looking at for 5G is creating a converged world in to the mobile arena.
“Instead of having all these bespoke networks that require different services, one of the ultimate goals of 5G is to have a single network that can be efficiently connected,” says Smathers.
Convergence is a core design element in Nokia’s cloud core network. This provides a single provisioning platform for multiple access technologies, such as wi-fi, satellite and mobile, and uses the same security systems and policies.
As well as providing operator benefits – running a single network to a high level is less intensive than running multiple parallel networks – Smathers says a converged network also offers customers the same service environment, regardless of the access network they use.
He says a standout change with 5G is the
increased density of devices it allows – crucial in a world where device numbers are burgeoning.
The spectrum change is also key, he says. 5G will use a high frequency range. However, 5G will need to develop a way to get deep inside buildings and pick up devices’ signals, he notes.
But the spectrum change also presents opportunities, with 5G being able to support up to 100Ghz – a 15 to 20-fold increase on the current mobile networks, which are restricted to 6Ghz and below. Issues with poor propagation mean Nokia is working with Massive Mimo – or large antenna arrays – to enhance coverage for high frequencies and increase capacity for lower frequency offerings.
Smathers says software-defined networking and network function virtualisation will also play key roles in 5G, providing the building blocks of the telco cloud and
enabling network operator flexibility.
“The cloud is a prerequisite to 5G, both in the radio and the call space, and it’s very important to be able to nimbly deploy virtual network functions where we need them and scale them appropriately.”
Smathers is also excited about the potential of network slicing – bringing to mobile networks the ability to slice a single physical network to support individual tenants.
“So, network operators would be able to slice part of their network, either physically or logically, to support tenants and guarantee them a service level agreement,” he says.
“Devices themselves would be able to pick those slices and make sure they connect to the right path through the network, to get the right latency, reliability, throughput and security they need.”
Network slicing will also be crucial in enabling support for various services with different requirements.