In 1963, US President John F. Kennedy said, "Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” The quote still holds true today; no less in the mobile business than anywhere else. And, one of the biggest changes ever experienced by that industry – the build-up of the 5G network – is on the way.
5G has already been deployed in thousands of locations around the US. But for that change to be a positive one, it needs to be guided and managed – and the industry needs to do a better job of that. Management and deployment systems that were acceptable until now just won't work in the 5G era.
Done right, 5G deployment could open up a whole new window for development, as small companies and start-ups develop applications and services that will take advantage of the fast speeds and greater capabilities offered by 5G.
For that to happen, the telecom industry needs to implement systems that will enable operators to free themselves from the burdens they have carried for so long – specifically the need to deploy and redeploy technology to satisfy the requirements of telecom equipment manufacturers (Ericsson, Nokia, etc.).
Opening up 5G technology
To truly benefit from 5G, the market for services, applications, and even equipment needs to be opened up, enabling smaller companies, including startups, to develop for the market. Efforts to do that are indeed underway with the development of standards for open RAN solutions (O-RAN Alliance, TIP), and the deployment of automated 5G networks. But making headway has proven slow, and much more needs to be done.
RAN management is generally a “closed garden” for equipment manufacturers like Nokia and Ericsson. Operators (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) needed to build their applications and gear their service to satisfy the interfaces of the networks they were working with, based on the equipment deployed on that network – with the interfaces, of course, being different, as the equipment manufacturers sought to differentiate their products.
This resulted in a great deal of redundancy – having to essentially do the same work several times in order to match the requirements of the equipment, with applications, service management and assurance, and other ancillary services that were required for the smooth functioning of the network.
Siloed management systems, SON, and other tech and policy factors contributed to the situation – and the system cost operators a great deal of money. According to industry statistics, more than half of R&D dollars went into implementing the changes that allowed connecting and passing between networks – and the need to adjust applications took as much as three quarters of development time and costs.
Not just a big expense and waste of time, redundant development put a crimp in the ability to develop new solutions - after all, there are only so many hours in a day.
And because the telecom business was based on this system, resources were deployed to cope with it – to the extent that today, there are vested interests who prefer to keep things the way they are. Equipment manufacturers have an interest in keeping operators as customers for their closed-silo equipment and stack; IT teams have an interest in maintaining current systems that they are familiar with; and operators need to be able to integrate new equipment with legacy equipment.
That might have been acceptable until now, but it is proving to be a real drag on the deployment of 5G. New networks involve deployment of a lot more equipment, which means more things that can go wrong on more segments of the network. To truly take advantage of the power of 5G, and not get bogged down in the drudgery of ongoing maintenance and redundant development, a new way of doing things is needed.
The new way with 5G
Key to that new way is the decoupling of application development from equipment-specific systems. Developers would be able to spend more time building applications and services for the benefit of users – taking full advantage of the power of 5G – instead of doing redundant integration work for the various systems.
With a single standard that will apply to all 5G deployments, developers can give their full attention and creativity to creating new applications and services; operators will save huge amounts of money, savings that will likely trickle down to customers; and systems will be more scalable and redundant.
Initiatives such as those by O-RAN, which is developing standards for RAN virtualization, open interfaces, and AI-capable RAN, will enable the development of off-the-shelf hardware that could be used in any 5G deployment. According to the O-RAN alliance, the standard's open architecture will free up developers to develop many new, innovative applications and services, better and more efficient hardware, more secure base stations, etc.
Automated systems will also contribute to the effort. A single standard will allow for the development and implementation of automated management, deployment, and operation – an absolute requirement for 5G, because of the large amount of hardware that the small cell-based networks will require. Automation of systems, based on a single interface, will allow for the smooth redeployment of resources when needed, and easy repairs when an alarm sounds and a network component needs replacement.
To avoid missing that future, operators need to move forward. What we had until now might have been workable, even suitable; for the 5G future, it's untenable. If 5G is ever going to reach the potential we are relying on it to reach, things need to change, sooner rather than later.