Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece, Oliver Korfmacher, Vice President of Product Management at Enea, reviews the new capabilities that come with the latest iteration of the 5G standard.
It is finally happening – well almost. 5G Standalone (SA) is slowly but surely coming to fruition. According to a recent study, in the next 12 – 18 months, 27% of operators will deploy 5G SA and a further 10% will deploy it within 24 months. Better late than never. This makes the impending Release 16 rather timely. Announced by 3GPP – the international group that governs cellular standards – the release is scheduled for completion later this year and operators around the world are trying to get their ducks in a row.
Release 16 is significant. For the first time a stipulation clearly demarcates a split between 5G data and 5G functions. It also requires that different network functions on the 5G Core should no longer have their own database, but instead share one single database that links to a Network Data Layer (NDL), which comprises of a repository for structured and unstructured data.
This, combined with specific rules and guidelines outlined in the release will allow operators to utilize ‘best of breed’ solutions, affording them true flexibility and freedom as their dependence on big vendors starts to ease. Network providers will be able to mix and match vendors on a domain level or even as single network functions, allowing operators to optimise costs and functionality like never before.
What can operators do to prepare for Release 16?
In a major change from Release 15, non-functional elements such as alarming configuration, fault management and KPIs are now all standardised. Thanks to this dynamic and open approach, operators have more control and can flex their muscles to strengthen their networks and their market position. By leveraging Release 16’s cloud-native data-centric architecture, operators can for instance build their own alarming mechanism or are able to pick their vendor of choice to integrate one.
Therefore, to truly take advantage of the new release, operators around the world will need to start adopting new strategies to introduce the underlying infrastructure for a cloud that is not vendor-dependent. Combined with network slicing operators will be able to deliver tailored services for different vertical segments to monetize different enterprise use cases.
Notably Release 16 places greater emphasis on the interoperability between 4G and 5G, and is very much being positioned as the bridge between network generations. This will allow operators to take a phased approach to rollouts as not every consumer will immediately adopt new SIM cards and subscriptions. This interoperability is crucial, not only for consumer continuity, but for the management of data and a database itself.
The handling of data
The Unified Data Management (UDM) system – the 5G successor of Home Subscriber Server (HSS) and the Home Location Register (HLR) – manages subscriptions, and subscribers may be able to switch between 4G and the new 5G system. This will make it simpler for operators to migrate subscribers and is the same for IP mobility between 4G and 5G.
Figure 1. 5G Core architecture allows vendors with choice and interoperability, thereby, allowing extreme scalability and improved service availability.
To effectively manage data on all levels, operators will need to be cloud-native and have containerized micro services architecture that can deal with the new traffic models. Not only that, but this architecture should be scalable and open to automation to meet future needs.
Being able to launch new features on networks quickly is going to require continuous integration and deployment models on the 5G Core. The 5G core is also the main facilitator of multi-access edge computing (MEC). For many operators this is going to take some adjustment, and many will need to adopt a new mind set – simply upgrading old products will not work at this stage.
Ready, set, monetize 5G!
Operators will welcome the fact that Release 16 makes monetizing 5G easier. Being able to unify operations significantly reduces operational costs for network providers, while simultaneously providing a faster time to market for new features operators want to innovate and launch.
Savings can be made in other places too. In the past, it was common for operators to have multiple alarming systems to contend with from different vendors. While that is still very much an option, it’s now also possible to use one single overlaying system resulting in vastly simplified architecture. The initial outlay might cost more in the short term, but the savings in the long term are undeniable.
With 5G SA and Release 16, operators can offer high bandwidth, low latency use cases for IoT by leveraging the 5G core and the Network Data Layer. Network slicing allows operators to monetize these new services as 5G SA regional data centres will offer 10-20 millisecond latency. Edge and deep edge data centres will offer latencies of around 1 to 10 milliseconds.
Release 16 is an excellent start, but there is room for improvement. For one, more standardisation. Some large incumbent vendors have actively been trying to block greater standardisation to protect their own interests. Well, that is to be expected. After all Release 16 is a real game changer – it empowers operators to offer a wider range of use cases for new and existing devices. It also gives operators more choice – an à la carte approach to selecting what vendors they can use.
Another issue is the interface specification for unstructured data. While it’s good enough for subscriber and device data at the moment, it’s not yet mature enough to handle more dynamic data like binding data and sessions. I am confident that 3GPP will address these soon.
To 5G and beyond!
Release 16 bridges the gap between two significant mobile generations – 4G and 5G – seamlessly while laying the foundation for something truly future-proof as the 5G architecture can become the overall architecture for all data networks, embracing legacy, non 3GPP wireless and wireline. Therefore, it impacts operators and vendors alike, levelling the playfield for vendors and makes the market truly competitive for operators. It will be interesting to see how the vendor market evolves over the coming months and years and how operators unleash 5G’s true potential. Not too long to wait.
Oliver Korfmacher is responsible for portfolio and product management of Enea’s Telco Solutions for Core Subscriber, Policy, Authentication network functions. He is defining and developing solutions scope in the telecommunications space as well as the company’s strategic position in this challenging market. His current focus is to pave the way to cloud native architectures and align the standardization definitions (for instance from the emerging 5G concepts) with the market realities for user and machine communications networks. Prior to this position, he served as stream lead for Policy solutions in various large telco vendors and system integrators, and as principal consultant for an international mobile messaging and identity management company for many years.