Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Paul Gowans, Wireless Strategy Director at VIAVI Solutions, offers some top tips for getting your networks ready to switch to 5G.
The promises of 5G have been much heralded, from speeds of up to 100 times faster than those delivered by current connectivity to ultra-low latency in the range of one millisecond. The result is that end users already have huge expectations for the services and applications supported by 5G networks.
But 5G isn’t simply the next incremental update to existing communication standards. The services and network quality expected from 5G networks depend upon the seamless integration of many different elements. As such, innovative and rigorous testing is essential at every phase of 5G deployment, if network operators are to ensure delivery of consistent performance that both applications and users demand.
However, the inherent complexity of 5G represents a number of obstacles for any testing process. Unlike the linear expansion of 3G and 4G, 5G requires an exponential increase of RF channels, making channel emulation much more complex. Moreover, 5G’s infrastructure is vastly different, comprising massive MIMO (multiple-input/multiple-output), the use of new frequency bands such as millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, larger carrier bandwidths, and beamforming. As such, the technology used in 5G test equipment must advance rapidly to compensate for this new level of intricacy.
For example, massive MIMO can have more than 256 array elements that require a larger number of radio channels. The addition of beamforming means the array elements that serve the device can dynamically change, so traditional cable testing is neither viable nor cost-effective. Meanwhile, mmWave testing is a challenge because it can only be demonstrated using over-the-air (OTA) testing and specialist chambers. As such, operators must take into account the fact that mmWave is more susceptible to propagation and interference from both within and outside of the network.
As these examples illustrate, 5G deployment testing can be complex and challenging. Consequently, the successful and seamless deployment of 5G depends on the application of an optimized test toolkit at each of three individual phases.
Phase 1: Before beginning
Robust technology verification and validation (V&V) are essential before any 5G deployment can take place. It is during this phase that virtual network functions (VNFs) and network services are verified to ensure quality and reliability from the instant the network is deployed.
Measuring the complete performance of the network requires the application of scalable 5G test systems with integrated data services that are capable of simulating real-world user behavior in 5G field trials. 5G V&V also is intrinsically dependent upon the use of software to emulate and measure millions of unique data flows to enhance load/capacity testing and benchmarking capabilities.
Operators should take into account the need to perform functional and load testing of base stations in production environments, as well as the need to lab test new 5G features and interfaces. End-to-end testing of the air interface at the system level, as well as infrastructure validation testing of pilot network deployments, also are key.
Phase 2: Up and running
Once the 5G network is operational, an operator needs an appropriate suite of test tools for activation and scalability. This includes base station analyzers that are augmented to analyze the spectrum and interference of 5G signals in the millimeter wave range. Plus, network technicians require complementary testing software that monitors and ensures network performance while verifying service level agreements (SLAs). This augments existing 5G activation, performance monitoring and troubleshooting.
Advanced fiber testing is equally critical to 5G network performance. By co-locating baseband unit locations away from busy antenna sites, centralized radio access network (C-RAN) architecture can help facilitate the coordination of radio resources in real-time.
Phase 3: Monetization opportunities
Once the 5G network has been successfully deployed, it creates a myriad of opportunities for monetization. Operators have the opportunity to charge subscription fees for a range of new services and applications, such as ultra-fast mobile broadband, mobile HD video streaming, virtual reality gaming and multitudinous IoT applications.
However, the viability of these services and applications relies upon excellent quality of experience (QoE). For example, the demands of 5G traffic density can be met and QoE optimized by connecting a real-time intelligence platform to virtual agents throughout the network lifecycle.
Furthermore, operators have the opportunity to monetize network slicing. Enabled by 5G, network slicing allows operators to create multiple virtual networks that share a single physical infrastructure. Each slice can then be used for a specific use case based on a number of factors, including quality of service (QoS) and latency. For an operator to successfully monetize a slice, however, the network must be adequately tested and validated for performance assurance.
As the potential of 5G continues to be realized, the ongoing development of new applications and services will require more innovative and cost-effective testing tools. Likewise, for the bandwidth and latency improvements promised by 5G to occur, it’s crucial for operators to employ robust testing tools throughout the deployment lifecycle.