Not just another “G”, how 5G is Already Disrupting the Communications Industry

In the early days of any transformative technology, there’s often an interesting mix of hype, anticipation and confusion.  At risk of exposing my long tenure in telecom, I’ll ask if anyone else recalls ISDN?  In a 1994 article in the Los Angeles Times, the author presciently said that ISDN “is the first thing that’s going to come along that begins to give people a taste of what the future will be like.”  For those of us on the inside (I was at MCI at the time), ISDN stood for “I Still Don’t Know”!

Fast forward to 2019 and what’s different is not only the technical advances themselves, but the pace of disruptive change.  And yes, there is still confusion.  If you have an AT&T phone in the US, and have noticed a 5G E symbol, you know what I’m talking about.  But hey, this is not a post about confusion (that would be too easy for me).  I’d like to focus on 5G disruptions, but not the disruptions that you have likely heard about.

The “disruptions” that come to mind for many industry observers when it comes to 5G are faster speeds, significantly lower latencies, a dense communications matrix for IOT, mmBand spectrum, etc.  Sure, there will be many headline benefits from 5G.  What I find more intriguing about 5G is its role as a catalyst for change reaching far beyond the radio network.  Let’s briefly explore some of these.

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The whole world is starting to look like a data center – Historically, operator networks are full of dedicated telecom equipment rack-mounted in central offices, wire centers, and customer points-of-presence.  This contrasts with Web scale companies like Amazon, FB and Google who operate their networks from vast data centers full of commoditized hardware.  There will come a time soon when the two worlds merge, and 5G is helping to accelerate this.  A couple of key influences are 5G edge clouds and the emerging popularity of cloud-native applications.  These are prompting operators to rethink their networks and where they locate compute, storage and network equipment to enable the super low latencies of 5G.  Under the auspices of ONF, there is an project called CORD (Central Office Re-architected as a Data center) and the sub-project M-CORD which are loci for 5G virtualization and cloud-based initiatives like vRAN and vEPC.

“Where ever you are on your 5G journey, Subex is an essential partner to help you plan, operate, secure and optimize your network.  Our solutions will grow with you and guide you into the more open and automated future network.”

Open everything – Speaking of open source, 5G and open source software are tightly intertwined.  I recently attended the Linux Foundation Open Networking Summit and many of the sessions were devoted to community projects focused on establishing 5G infrastructure and enabling 5G use cases.  At the recent Big 5 Event in Denver, the first day was devoted to an open source track.  5G is the engine behind many early implementations of SDN and NFV.  “Open” doesn’t just mean software—so called “white boxes” start as bare metal hardware with operator or community-sourced software & firmware that turn them into routers or CPE or even ROADMs!  Why this trend?  Operators are looking to community-driven innovation to accelerate delivery of advanced use cases, lower costs and avoid vendor lock-in.

Start with use cases – Well, that’s a novel concept!  With 3G and 4G, there were clear expectations that simply enabling faster and more reliable mobile data would lead to various applications which leveraged that data.  The industry has taken a different approach to 5G.  At the Denver Big 5G Event, Ibrahim Gedeon, TELUS CTO, described 5G as “the first ‘G’ to be driven by use cases”.  These include AR/VR for factories, industrial automation, massive IOT sensing, connected cars and telemedicine.  5G is creating a rich mobile communications fabric with various speed and latency requirements that align with the specific needs of each use case.  Network slicing is another buzz-worthy aspect of 5G that allows operators to allocate portions of their networks to specific customers and use cases.

Break it apart, then put it back together – In industry parlance, this is called disaggregation and convergence.  Step 1: Take key network functions like PCRF, HSS and MME and peel them from the monolithic platforms on which they are currently hosted.  Step 2: Apply NFV to virtualize the functions into VNFs and make them portable. Step 3: Host the VNFs within converged platforms like COMAC, which is an ONF project that combines mobile, access and core networks under one umbrella.  This is part of a broader industry trend to package many telco functions and infrastructure components into massive all-in-one platforms.  Another good example, of course, is ONAP.  For many of these initiatives, the race to enable 5G is a driving force.

I’ve only scratched the surface of network and software trends that are precipitating extraordinary change in the communications industry.  The world is becoming more complex, not less.  Each promising new innovation usually has unforeseen issues that can increase costs and pose operational challenges.  Early NFV implementations offer such a cautionary tale.  Where ever you are on your 5G journey, Subex is an essential partner to help you plan, operate, secure and optimize your network.  Our solutions will grow with you and guide you into the more open and automated future network.

As for ISDN, I guess we do know now.  It really did help usher in the modern data-driven era.

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