Depending upon your preferred reading material, there are now over 300 operators worldwide in more than 120 countries trialling and demonstrating 5G, be it mobile or fixed wireless access. Looking specifically at the mobile sector, as we like to do, over 50 operators in 30 countries have heralded the arrival of 5G in their network although just how many conform to exactly what parts of the 5G 3GPP specification is still open to conjecture.
What we do know for sure is that the focus has certainly been on adding elements of the 5G radio interface to the existing 4G core. I think we can also say that many MNOs around the world have done their first piece of work towards getting a feel for 5G and some have certainly claimed a 5G launch. Despite the number of trials and tests going on, the vast majority of MNOs are yet to select their vendor for the first serious 5G standalone rollout whilst the non-standalone deployments we are seeing today are really limited to working with the existing 4G vendor.
Considering this state of play, at Azenby we don’t think it is too late for MNOs to start to draw up their tick list for evaluating vendors offerings for a fully-fledged standalone 5G network. In thinking about this, we considered very carefully the fact that for the first time, this is not a ‘bolt-on’ technology upgrade to the last generation of mobile architecture. Getting 5G right is not just a technical decision, difficult though that is, it’s about architecting a network that allows for vital collaboration between MNOs and partners to deliver new services, to new customers, and to be much more than just the connectivity player in the 5G world. It’s also about adapting technologies beyond the 3GPP specifications to achieve scale, faster service deployment and lower costs. This means a new approach to operating networks and moving away from traditional diagnostics to networks that think their own way out of trouble. The challenge facing mobile operators goes way beyond getting just the 5G vendor decision right but nonetheless, getting the 5G supplier aligned to your overall strategy is an imperative.
Azenby has compiled a set of questions we believe every MNO should be asking themselves and then their prospective 5G vendor:
Support for the commercial aspirations
What is the business case for 5G?
When you strip away the vendor hype, there are some underlying advantages to 5G though many would say they do not add up to the complete ecosystem change that the hype suggests is necessary. To test this thesis, ask the vendor what the business case is for 5G as opposed to 4G simple expansion.
What is the business case for replacing existing infrastructure with 5G?
This is a variation to the previous question, where inevitably it will be suggested that equipment that is not end of life will need to be written off and upgraded. This questions the business case for doing that, again once the hype has been cut through.
What benefits can 5G bring during the roll-out period when it is not ubiquitous.
This is a crucial consideration, the answer to which can have huge implications of the rate of spend required in network roll-out and consequently the timing of investment. It is vital to understand the impact on services if the roll out of 5G services is not ubiquitous, in particular if network slicing is being used. This is a good example to press for a view on, as slicing may only be effective when 5G has been deployed across the whole geography where the service is to be used, and this will impact the customer sales process, perhaps to such a degree that it is unusable.
How can the network slicing capabilities and QOS management features in 5G be used to develop new propositions for new customer segments, particularly in IOT, and differentiated service delivery to different customers for a given proposition? Please provide uses cases for above propositions.
The Slicing and QOS tool kit has to be used carefully for its benefit to be greater than the potential adverse impact to some customers. Is the tool kit sophisticated enough with adequate feedback loops, decision logic and automatic optimisation of the resource allocation? Naturally, the customer SLAs must reflect the degree of sophistication (or lack of) and the system must be capable of measuring and reporting service delivery against SLA.
Has the vendor any business case models showing the benefits of network slicing?
This question asks the vendor to quantify the propaganda around network slicing, giving for instance a couple of user cases that demonstrate how effective it is in theory. Similarly, it asks if the vendor has models that can be used to predict the effect in a live network, particularly supporting high mobility use cases.
Have the results of network slicing testing been benchmarked in a real deployment?
It is really important to see evidence that the modelling output has been benchmarked against a real deployment of their equipment. This can’t be relied upon if it is slideware alone.
What 5G ‘unique’ features can be supported on your 4G infrastructure e.g. a proxy of network slicing, MIMO techniques?
This question builds on the previous questions and is a theme about what the vendor is doing to help optimise previous network investments. Specifically, it asks if they have managed to make any of the new 5G features backward compatible to some degree with the existing 4G infrastructure.
What is the hardware and software upgrade path from non-standalone to standalone 5G for RAN and Core, and are there any impacts on any terminals
This question is self-explanatory, the expectation is that the NSA core will have a smooth upgrade path to the SA core whilst preserving all services. The second part asks for any incompatibilities that can occur between NSA and SA architectures that impinge on the mobiles themselves.
Can I take your equipment in a mixed vendor radio environment, e.g. just deploying 5G economically?
Here we assume the answer will be that each site has to be a single vendor site for the radio, but it would be interesting to see if they have considered any methods to install 5G as a standalone.
What are the benefits of taking your equipment as an upgrade, compared to if I was a new customer to you?
Often vendors offer deals to new customers that are as good or better than the deals they offer to existing customers. This question is designed to overtly explore that.
What bandwidth efficiency will you guarantee for me for my deployment Mbits/s/km
Again, there is a lot of hype about efficiencies and this is an impossible question to answer but posing the question will yield some interesting insights.
Spectrum Aggregation: How will Spectrum Aggregation at 5G differ from 4G, in terms of the range of frequency bands included and the pairings permitted, including Supplementary Downlink and CBRS spectrum? Can the additional capabilities available in 5G be retrospectively applied to your 4G equipment in my network?
Higher speeds in 5G are in part made possible through more versatile spectrum aggregation as well as the new air interface and massive MIMO. If similar powerful spectrum aggregation capabilities existed for 4G, this would extend its life and delay 5G spend for some MNOs. This is also a good time to find out how much of the frequency bands and pairing options available are set/constrained by standards and how much is vendor commercial choice.
What 5G specification options are you making available and when, and what are the prerequisites for us to deploy them.
Like 3G, and certainly 4G, the 5G specs come with a lot of options. So, understanding what the vendor includes in their 5G offering is very important. At the high level this could be is URLLC, eMBB and mMTC included. Diving deeper into the specs one could ask is de-coupling UL/DL included? But really, there are 100s of ‘options’ in the 5G specs so understanding what you really need and what is being offered is crucial.
Explain your strategy and policies for the support of interoperability and the use of proprietary or open internal interfaces
Again, this question is self-explanatory, there are a huge number of internal interfaces emerging in 5G and a generic policy statement on the use of interfaces and interoperability should be pre-requisite to any contract.
How much of your 5G offering is dependent upon legacy infrastructure?
This question probes how much of the 5G offer is complete in its own right, and how much additional equipment is assumed to be sourced by the customer, DNS, Routers, Firewalls, security/encryption functionality.
What is the scaling capability of your 5G Core to support MMTC/IOT i.e. how many devices can each core node support and what are the upgrade paths to support further volumes?
This is a question designed to tease out capacity of the core but also the underlying principles they have used in determining that capacity, it is actually a very difficult question to answer in a meaningful way unless a model can be provided.
What is the scaling capability of your 5G Core to support mass small cell deployment i.e. how many small cell base stations can each core node support and what are the upgrade paths to support further volumes?
This question is self-explanatory
What is the scalability of your 5G OSS for supporting mass small cell deployment i.e. the volumes of small cell base stations that can be managed by the OSS instances?
This question returns to the much promised but little delivered topic of orchestration but in this case in support of small cells where the node counts can be much higher.
Automation: How will network automation features in 5G compare with those in 4G, particularly in RAN where the operators continue to bear high costs of labour-intensive design, optimisation and operational processes?
Automation has not been a great success story through the 2G-3G-4G journey. Some progress in automatic frequency planning, and SON in RAN and SDN in transmission are a far cry from self-configuring, self-optimising, self-diagnosing and self-healing networks which we envisaged more than 15 years ago. In fact, NFV has made a real difference indirectly in this area. There is much talk about AI in RAN automation. Time to sift fact from fiction and put pressure on the vendors to make a real difference. Will real RAN automation happen only when RAN virtualisation arrives? It’s also time to see how much of this RAN automation will come from functionality and features embedded in vendors’ equipment and how much from adjunct analytics platforms. It’s not just RAN either, of course, there is still quite labour-intensive design, implementation and operational processes in transmission and to a certain extent in core and backhaul too.
Explain your supply chain including sustainability of the vendors and any involvement in trade sanctions even one step removed, including component sourcing, and 3rd party services
This question is self-explanatory, but in today’s global supply environment, an issue with a single component involved in e.g. Chinese sanctions, can bring a line to a shuddering halt.
Is the software supported in your home market?
This question stems from the very public critical source code failure at a major MNO in Europe, where support was outsourced to such an extent that the in country local support team were completely unable to even restore service. Hence it is both a security and support issue. Don’t become dependent upon some small vendor who is more than one step removed from your prime vendor to fix bugs or even just renew your SSL Certs when the network is on its knees.
What additional measures to secure AUSF in 5G will you support
The focus of this question is to see if the vendor has a high entropy and physically secure solution for their AUSF, such as for instance a hardware based HSM.
Does your 5G system offer protection and security from cloned or fake/rogue small base stations
The question looks to understand if the vendor is aware and defends against rogue base sites which are easily implemented seeking to steal IMSIs or other confidential information through man in the middle attacks.
We know that this list is just the tip of the iceberg but if it has convinced you to start pulling together your own list then we have done some good today. Compiling your long list of FAQs is a vital part of evaluating your strategy for commercialising 5G and these decisions are probably the most crucial calls your business has ever had to make. At Azenby, we would be happy to help you make sure that you have all the bases covered. Contact Azenby and let’s have a discussion.