Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Stéphane Téral, Chief Analyst, Light Counting, and Oliver Korfmacher, VP Strategy, Telecom BU, Enea, offer some top tips for operators jumping on the 5G bandwagon.
If you thought a pandemic would stop 5G in its tracks, think again. In fact, during a recent panel discussion, Verizon and BT outlined how 5G is growing even faster than what many had anticipated. Sure, the initial lockdowns in March did slow down deployment timelines, but the foot is firmly back on the 5G accelerator.
In 2020, according to LightCounting Market Research, the revenues for 5G network infrastructure could almost double to reach just over $15 billion and operators are also ramping up investment in the core. There are well over 100 5G networks live worldwide now, and although most of them are non-standalone (NSA), a number of operators have gone the extra mile with standalone (SA) service-based architecture (SBA). These operators are putting in place a 5G core and deploying network functions. So, what can operators learn from these pioneering 5G deployments?
To better understand the state of 5G SBA deployments, let’s start with the three main categories of network functions used to deliver services: 5G Core, Data Management and Policy and Charging. A study conducted in July found that unified data management (UDM) is the most tested and deployed 5G SBA network function so far this year. These findings are based on interviews with leading service providers accounting for almost half of the world’s total mobile communications subscribers. Combined, they operate 30% of the total commercial 5G networks.
5G data is gold
More than half of these networks (58%) are already migrating to 5G SA this year. What some may find surprising is that in large part, they are starting their SBA migration with data management. Why? That’s because data is the new gold and forward-looking operators recognize this. Given how valuable this data is, operators face competition in the shape of hyperscalers such as Google, Amazon and Microsoft who want a large piece of that pie.
The Silicon Valley behemoths are looking to take hold of the data at the edge and monetize it – leaving operators out in the cold. What’s more, it is important for operators to own and control their own data schemas. In this way, network providers will have the freedom to tailor it to their needs without having to rely on large infrastructure vendors – as was the case with 4G. That is why data management functions are incredibly valuable for 5G operators going forward.
With an open, cloud-native network layer that shares user data across the entire network, challenges traditionally associated with data siloes disappear. This allows operators to bridge all the data from various 5G use cases such as IoT to connected cars and secure new revenue streams.
Managing the data flood
If there is one sure-fire certainty, it is the tsunami of data that use cases such as IoT will produce. In the next five years alone, IoT devices are expected to generate over 80 ZB of data according to IDC. That’s why operators need solutions to manage this data effectively.
The research also uncovered that there are three distinct approaches that operators are taking to deploy data management functions. Some are following an old road by working with the large traditional network equipment manufacturers (NEMs), but they risk losing speed and flexibility by getting locked into a specific vendor.
Others are going the do-it-yourself route by building their own core with the help of ecosystem partners — this group includes AT&T and Rakuten. And the third approach is a hybrid tactic that leverages elements of the first two.
Those operators pursuing the hybrid approach to data management can leverage 3GPP Release 16 to take advantage of a set of network functions developed by specialists. However, there is still integration work to be done to ensure that crucial network functions are interoperable.
Mistakes, challenges and best practices
While the 5G future still looks bright, pulling the plug on 4G networks to transition to SBA is easier said than done. And there are a number of mistakes that are being made in the rush to deliver valuable next-generation services. Here are a few best practices to get a head start from the beginning.
Migrating to 5G SA architecture requires implementation of a 5G core to enable new uses. However, 5G networks will continue to operate alongside legacy 4G architecture for some time, so interworking between 4G and 5G has to be addressed from the beginning.
5G SBA is a complex architecture, including many network functions. Some functionality already exist from 4G and come from the evolved packet core (EPC), while others are new — such as network slice selection. Preparing to support all functions requires operators to do their homework. Some vendors may claim that their solutions are ready for network slicing, but you cannot implement network slicing end to end if your network is not truly ready. That’s putting the cart before the horse.
Additionally, some operators already have multiple data management silos on their networks from 4G uses cases. Voice over LTE (VoLTE) might use one core, while another core could be connected car use cases. With 5G SBA infrastructure, all these pools of data need to be consolidated into one central data management solution. This is called a common data layer and offers a number of benefits and simplicity when it comes to monetizing 5G faster.
Operators must exercise caution before jumping on the 5G bandwagon. It is important to have a roadmap to monetize use cases and take advantage of the freedom 3GPP’s Release 16 offers. And finally, don’t write-off 4G. It is not going to disappear overnight. In fact, operators have had to leverage their 4G networks to cope with the rise in traffic over the past few months. According to the GSMA, while 5G will continue to be deployed widely, 56% of connections in 2025 will be 4G. That is why it is more important than ever to have a clear 4G to 5G data management migration path to take full advantage of SBA architecture. Operators can ill-afford to miss out on the 5G data goldmine!
Stéphane has over 31 years of experience in the telecommunications industry, including 23 years in Silicon Valley and is regarded as one of the top analysts. He specializes in a number of areas including next-generation mobile infrastructure including 5G, cloud and quantum networking, programmable core networks and service provider digital transformation.
Oliver is responsible for portfolio and product management of Enea’s Telco Solutions for Core Subscriber, Policy, Authentication network functions. His current focus is on cloud native architectures and to align the standardization definitions with the market realities for user and machine communications networks.