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5G network architecture: Conquering multiple use cases

by Blogs & Opinions
Article ImageWhen people first hear of operators moving to 5G, many are puzzled. Why would they need 5G, if they can watch YouTube at high quality and play games online with 4G already?

Companies then issue PR and educational campaigns to explain to their users that 5G is essential not only for faster video streaming and data transfer but for automated services as well which will, in turn, make our lives better. Smart homes, complex medical procedures and seamless remote operations would be made possible with the new technology. At this point, a significant chunk of the client base gets excited and expects all these good things when their providers announce the adoption of 5G. Turns out, it is easier said than done to deliver on this promise.

In order to step into this near sci-fi era of super-speedy Internet that connects everything everywhere, all parts of the network architecture should be ready. New technology offers great potential, but telcos need to restructure the entire ecosystem in order to use it. Without interworking of network domains, technologies, components and services, 5G will remain just the slightly fancier version of the previous generation. So how can the new technology be implemented in a smart way and truly become a breakthrough?

Slicing the network for preferred applications
The abundance of use cases for 5G (content distribution, emergency services, health monitoring, wearables, industrial automation, etc.) can be split into several categories according to the desired connectivity requirements. In order to address these requirements, the air interface between the antennas and devices will possess specialized behaviors slice types.

For now, there are three slice types:

    1. URLLC (having ultra-low latency and high reliability) is the best fit for tactile Internet, emergency services and telemedicine, control over utilities, vehicle and industrial automation
    2. mMTC (used for devices with smaller power course) will be used by the massive Internet of Things
    3. eMBB (having ultra-high speed) is targeted at devices that provide content distribution, immersive 4K and 3D video experience, security and CCTV.

As new technologies get developed, other slice types can be added in the future. This poses the question of resource and network allocation. Creating end-to-end networks for each type of slice is too expensive and impractical, therefore sharing techniques must be employed.

Building networks with 5G in mind
There are multiple functioning 5G networks set up all over the world. The majority of them are focusing on particular use cases, not utilizing the interconnection of the different slice types to full potential.

BT has designed its network structure based on the existing network technologies and the requirements of the user base. Initially, the eMBB use cases were addressed, with subscribers accessing the Internet and corporations using their private intranets via dedicated Access Point Names (APN.) Consequently, 4G, 5G and fiber were successfully combined in BT Halo.

The Finnish Transport and Communications Agency Traficom is another company heavily involved with 5G, but its interest lies in the transport and logistics sector. URLLC and mMTC constitute the majority of its use cases.

Valqari, a US-based company providing drone delivery solutions, requires 5G for fast video streaming and processing, as well as for communication between drones and other devices. This means that eMBB and mMTC are its primary use cases.

Unlocking the power of interworking
To fully exploit 5G, it will be necessary to implement the 5G Next-Generation Core (NGC) network along with 5G NR (New Radio). The NGC is an evolution from the Evolved Packet Core (EPC.) They share the same data processing parts and integrate with the 3GPP radio access network in a similar way. However, what distinguishes 5G from the previous generations are the service-based interactions between network functions. The services are available over network function interfaces, which are connected to the common service-based architectures (SBA).

In the early days, the radio control plane will remain on 4G LTE, due to better coverage. Though it is expected of mobile operators to re-farm their 4G LTE radio spectrum to 5G NR, realistically, it will probably take many years.

Fiber is another network to be intertwined with 5G. On one hand, a 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) solution helps providers accelerate Gigabit fiber deployments reaching every customer. On the other hand, the fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network can be utilized to connect thousands of small cells, which are needed for 5G to function properly. Furthermore, Wi-Fi 6 will enable the operators to provide better 5G experience to their customers in their homes.

Telecommunication companies will have to pave the way, cooperating with each other to allow all kinds of devices to have a 5G connection provided by different operators. Ideally, any device that can be connected to 5G would be gliding through the smart city network getting signal from micro-cells owned by different operators. It might look complicated for the corporations to establish complex partnerships, but it's really not. There are already existing out-of-the-box solutions, that can make revenue sharing, as well as data and customer management between two and more partners seamless and easy. This way, end users will know only that they are getting a lightning-fast and secure connection anywhere and everywhere, without worrying about the technicalities.

As with any new technology, 5G has to start somewhere, building gradually from thereon. The full beauty of interconnected devices, serving a variety of use cases at once, is yet to be reached. Basic components are already in place, with 5G towers being set up all around the world. Now it's time to carefully plan and implement the next step: building an all-encompassing network. The more companies in various sectors and locations willing to collaborate, the more various use cases can be answered with the help of 5G.

— Val Morozov, the Vice President of Product Management, MaxBill

Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash

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