Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this post, Patrick Ostiguy, CEO at network performance monitoring experts Accedian, explores some of the network barriers preventing operators from achieving a 5G utopia
The global mobile industry is uniting behind the 5G dream: the ability to seamlessly consume any application or service, regardless of bandwidth requirement, with perfect QoE anytime, anyplace, anywhere. A fully functioning personal network on tap. A network whose applications and services aren’t just consumed, but are used to control every facet of daily life.
The success of 5G will be measured by the material and human impact it has on subscribers – by its ability to meet constantly evolving expectations and react to the impulsiveness of connected living. 4G has started the journey, but there is still a long way to go before we achieve a 5G utopia.
Some bumps in the road
The current reality is that delivering this 5G experience will present operators with significant challenges. The transition from existing to next generation requires a complete rethink in terms of how the network is managed and monetized.
5G networks must have the agility and flexibility to keep pace with accelerating consumer lifestyles, the thirst for faster and more direct business transactions, and an expectation of faultless user experience. Today’s largely hardware-based legacy networks won’t be able to meet these 5G expectations. If they are to be successful, operators must mobilize the network at the service of each subscriber. They must instantly know what type of experience their subscribers are getting, what demands they are making of the network and the services available, and have the freedom to identify, locate, and react to glitches as soon as they occur. This simply isn’t possible across the majority of network architectures today.
Everyone using the same highway
The amount of traffic going across mobile networks continues to grow exponentially, while the diversity of applications and the density of the network escalates. Operators continue to invest in technology to provide the widest data highways capable of transporting this vast amount of traffic in the fastest time possible. As with conventional highways, data packets can only travel as fast as the packet in front and the greater the number of packets, the greater the risk of bottlenecks and “crashes”.
Traditional network architecture is exacerbating these bottlenecks. Today, all network traffic is being choked by the same gateways to the evolved packet core (EPC), the central ‘control room’ where all traffic checks in to monitor quality, manage mobility, detect security threats, and determine if subscriber policies are being adhered to. These centrally orchestrated functions are fundamental to the provision of all mobile services but also threaten the 5G dream.
While the “command and control” of current mobile network highways is routed into and out of the EPC, new 5G architectures specify that network nodes – base-stations and radio air interfaces, for example – are also able to talk directly to each other without going via the EPC. These direct “paths” are the beginning of network decentralization, the shift towards any-to-any, full mesh connectivity, paving the way to virtualised networks that can take autonomous decisions to “self-optimise” performance and services.
Lack of visibility threatening the ultimate differentiator
Operators are pinning their hopes on new applications such as VoLTE, ViLTE (Video over LTE), Video QoE, and enhanced security to improve differentiation and experience. Each requires complete visibility from gateway to cell tower to ensure issues can be rapidly detected and pinpointed to their origin.
As networks get increasingly complex to manage and optimize with 5G, differences between operators will be magnified: those with unresponsive networks will demonstrate notably poor quality of experience (QoE) in contrast to those that have built an agile, adaptive 5G architecture.
Latency offers a simple example. While viewed as a growing inconvenience and source of subscriber annoyance today, its implications in a 5G world are far more severe. What damage could network latency cause to driverless cars and the potential for collision protection? What about remote monitoring capabilities for people with serious illnesses? The stakes couldn’t be greater.
Relieving congestion, relieving the pressure
Network traffic is routed via the EPC because it’s critically important that operators can interconnect efficiently with other operators and retain central visibility and control over content and services. The EPC ensures subscribers operate within the policies to which they’re entitled, security threats are minimized, and overall QoE is maximized. But the EPC is built with physical hardware that can’t be distributed throughout the network. Although all the traffic passes through the EPC, the vast majority of QoE issues and impairments arise in the backhaul and radio access networks (RANs).
Gaining a real time view into network performance (QoS) and quality of experience (QoE) per application, location, and user is the foundation that competitive, virtualised mobile networks will be built on. Being able to achieve this level of visibility across every network node, combined with user context, policy, security, and network performance with fast analytics, enables operators to optimize the user experience despite constantly changing conditions and without constant latency-inducing referral to the EPC.
The solution is decentralised network control
Breaking the bottlenecks and reducing latency can be achieved by distributing virtualised instrumentation throughout the EPC, transport, backhaul, and RAN layers. This ubiquitous ‘nervous system’ enables virtualising the EPC while augmenting its ‘awareness,’ opening the door to fully automated, self-optimizing networks that can tackle the complexity of countless applications, users, devices, and locations competing for a share of the network. Virtualized instrumentation supports distributed network control and virtualized network functions hosted in the cloud, bringing the network closer to the users. This will overcome the limitations of traditional monitoring impacted by geographical location, and inflexible and expensive hardware and scalability.
This revolutionary architecture relies on a wealth of data hosted in the cloud, with policies proactively sent on-demand across network layers to service nodes, where a quality-assured service chain can be established between the cell tower and the user’s device. This means that local issues and functions can be delegated to local control, and the number of network transactions referred to centralized EPC functions can de dramatically reduced. The benefits are clear. Network paths and latency are optimized, traffic is localized, and network capacity is available on tap for only as long as needed. QoE takes a large step forward.
Patrick Ostiguy founded Accedian in 2004 and serves as President, Chief Executive Officer and member of the Board of Directors. With more than fifteen years of pertinent telecom industry experience, Mr. Ostiguy is responsible for filing of several Patent Applications and has published dozens of industry conference proceedings and technology articles. Prior to founding Accedian, Mr. Ostiguy was co-founder of Avantas Networks and launched the industry’s first portable Ethernet and SONET field-services test-set.