Phil Marshall of Tolaga Research points to the key future trends for communications networks and how operators can prepare for them.
‘You can’t see the future, but you can be ready for it’. We coined this phrase for the Nokia AirScale Radio Access solution, but, we wondered, just how unpredictable is the future of communications? And how can operators prepare?
To help us find some answers, we asked Phil Marshall, Chief Research Officer at Tolaga Research to share his insights.
“Operators need to continue to advance the network to meet the tremendous growth in demand,” Marshall says. “There are three key areas – ultra-broadband, low latency connectivity and ultra-reliable services. While the demand for ultra-broadband is well understood, it’s harder to predict the need for low latency and ultra-reliability. How quickly will virtual reality and augmented reality take hold? When will autonomous vehicles be adopted and how will it be implemented? These are uncertainties that can be addressed by building pockets of capabilities, which can scale up flexibly to support these services where they are needed.”
Fragmentation is happening now says Marshall: “In the short to medium term, we need to anticipate growing fragmentation and move past the traditional concept of one large network, to a model where targeted capabilities are deployed in specific places for subscribers. The move towards 5G has a focus towards localized campus areas, for example to support Industry 4.0 or along highways to provide automotive connectivity.”
Another issue Marshall pinpoints is the growing difficulties of finding real estate on which to deploy the infrastructure needed to meet demand. The real estate squeeze can be addressed by “small cells, which represent a change in strategies for getting infrastructure in the right places, while a focus on partnerships and network sharing will be needed,” Marshall says.
Cloud RAN and edge will converge
Serving local demand will depend heavily on Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC), which Marshall says is a key part of the shift from traditional approaches and an essential component of future 5G networks. MEC places cloud computing capabilities at the edge of the network, close to the users to enable the delivery of ultra-low latency, very high throughput and locally-relevant services.
“I am bullish on the need to distribute resources to the edge. Future-proofing the network depends on an understanding of how distributed computing will evolve over time. Many operators are emphasizing the use of MEC to augment network architecture and drive new revenues,” explains Marshall.
“We also need to push the boundaries of antenna technology, as well as understand the overall economics of macro infrastructure, small cells and Cloud RAN. To optimize resources, it’s a challenging equation to balance.”
Marshall sees cloud technologies as being crucial, with Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) and Software Defined Networking (SDN) being catalysts for operational change. The result will be a move away from focusing on managing complexity to the use of IT technology and automation to abstract complexity and simplify operations. The communications industry should aim to leapfrog the IT world “to develop virtualization technology for the network environment, particularly through container-based architectures. Such changes are significant from an operational standpoint, particularly for operators that continue to maintain legacy regimes. This is not a good thing and operational transformation is crucial,” he explains.
5G will enable greater innovation
5G will enable leapfrogging advances, believes Marshall. “In reality, operators are not going to migrate their entire network to container-based web-native infrastructure any time soon. However, 5G will manifest itself in local initiatives, where disruptive change can be incubated. Operators can experiment without creating a disaster if things don’t work out – it’s about having flexibility and 5G provides a means for doing that.”
Marshall also says that deploying Cloud RAN will be essential for 5G end-to-end network slicing to support specific services. Cloud capabilities are already established in the core network and are now pushing out to the edge of the network. But he sees challenges: “Network engineers are not always IT savvy. Many see cloud technologies as being unreliable and incompatible with their operations. This is where Nokia’s expert services can provide the competency to help operators make the transition, to incubate these solutions into the network with low risk. A good example is the work Nokia is doing in edge computing and its collaboration with Amazon Web Services Greengrass. It’s not about driving operators along a set trajectory, but about how to incubate change and where the opportunities are.”
Another technology central to future 5G networks is mmWave radio. “mmWave is a wild card. If we put the technology into urban environments, we can create massive capacity and offload traffic from conventional networks – there could be some strong economic drivers for mmWave, particularly if advanced radio systems are developed to address coverage challenges” he says.
For Marshall, the most important message he has about 5G for operators is to “take a local and focused approach. Don’t treat it as 4G. Use it as a platform for change as you can go in all kinds of different directions from here.”
What did we learn?
Here’s what we consider as the key take aways fromMarshall’s insights:The real estate issue means a change from traditional architecture with more deployment of small cells and making greater use of existing sites with compact, highly efficient base station solutions.
And clearly, Cloud RAN and MEC deployment will be critical for providing the low-latency, high-throughput needed to capture new revenue from demanding new services, whether on the road or in venues and industrial sites.
Flexibility is needed to scale up and meet unpredictable demand and the uncertainties of how quickly new services and applications will be adopted. This calls for infrastructure and operations that take advantage of virtualization, as well as advanced antenna technology.
And of course, 5G is always part of the equation. Deploying 5G-ready infrastructure that can run all radio technologies, including mmWave, is essential to give operators the flexibility to try out new services and evolve to a network that will provide the ultra-broadband capacity so essential to meet future demand.
Whatever the future holds, you can be ready.
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