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The four key investments in 4G which will pave the way to 5G

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The journey to 5G has been like a summer road trip, with choruses of “Are we there yet?” mixed with exciting discussions about all the things we’ll do when we get there. It’s going to be a long haul, though, as 5G isn’t expected to officially “arrive” for several years. What we’ve seen so far is a smattering of 5G handsets on the market and a few tier-one operators that have deployed 5G radio access networks. Most operators and consumers, however, are postponing their 5G plans until the future is more certain. Sound familiar?

4 Key Aspects of a 4G Network

In fact, now is the perfect time to be planning for it. There are a lot of things that operators can be doing today to prepare for 5G and, at the same time, improve the 4G networks they have right now. In particular, operators looking to enhance or replace their existing EPC networks should consider these four aspects in order to simplify their transition to 5G:

  • Seamless support for 5G Radio (NR) and dual-connectivity handsets
  • An architecture that provides Control and User Plane Separation (CUPS)
  • Virtualization and support for public and private clouds
  • Interface interoperability and support for multivendor deployments

 

Seamless Support for 5G Radio

Initially, the path to 5G will follow a non-standalone architecture (NSA) for most operators. 5G NSA is a hybrid approach that leverages the existing 4G/LTE network while adding 5G connectivity over time. Another important piece of the early 5G rollout is E-UTRAN New Radio Dual Connectivity (EN-DC), which allows mobile devices to consume 4G or 5G services as they’re supported/available. 

Seamless 4G Experience:

As for the existing vEPC, it should provide a seamless experience across these technologies:

  • For operators: the vEPC should not force changes in the existing billing or policy infrastructure, but it should enable operators to roll out new 5G services
  • For subscribers: the move between NR and LTE connectivity should be invisible, including the delivery of the same QoS levels and value-added services.

 

Control and User Plane Separation

Another important consideration is CUPS (Control and User Plane Separation). This is a native feature of 5G, but one that operators can get value from right now in 4G. As its name implies, CUPS separates the control and user plane functions as opposed to the traditional approach of combining them in the same purpose-built appliance (e.g., a gateway). There are two major benefits to CUPS: scalability and manageability. With CUPS, you can scale selectively, such as adding more user plane capacity at the edge. In a pre-CUPS network, control and user plane functionality is scaled together, which increases cost and complexity as more boxes and more interfaces are added to the network.

 

CUPS & Multi-Access Edge Computing

CUPS plays an important role in multi-access edge computing (MEC)—another cornerstone of 5G—particularly in the case of Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLLC). For example, in the case of autonomous vehicles, an operator could quickly scale up their user plane capacity at the edge to deliver low latencies, add breakout gateway capabilities to decide which traffic could remain local and which needed to be backhauled through the core network, ultimately reducing network traffic in high-traffic areas, ensuring that vehicles continued to receive reliable, real-time information.

 

Virtualization and support for public and private clouds

Most operators have already virtualized much of their network, but when it comes to how to prepare for 5G, they’ll need to “cloudify” their network—i.e., be able to deploy network functions in the cloud. Another compelling reason for investing in a vEPC today is the ability to deploy core network functions in a private cloud or on a public cloud platform such as Azure, AWS or Google Cloud. The public cloud is a natural fit for edge computing applications because it allows operators to deploy functions close to customers in more regions through a globally deployed network.

 

Interface interoperability and support for multi-vendor deployments

Interoperability is also something that operators need to be thinking about now, especially if they want the flexibility of building a best-of-breed 5G network down the road. A 5G core (5GC) that supports a wide variety of interfaces and standards allows an operator to mix and match the best components independently over time, such as replacing their existing policy control routing function (PCRF) with a dual 4G/5G policy control function. But interoperability can be misleading. Even with the fact that 3GPP has defined standards for PCRF interfaces, there are broad interpretations of those standards from vendor-to-vendor that can complicate interoperability. Therefore, it’s important to choose a vEPC with a proven track record of multivendor interoperability versus a “closed box” EPC vendor.

 

Summer may be over, but it’ll take a lot longer for 4G to end. In other words, you’ve got time—but you’ve also got a lot of work ahead of you. Now is the perfect time to be talking about the road ahead to 5G and planning how to get there faster, smarter and safer. If you need directions, we’re here to help.

 

The Greatly Exaggerated Death of 4G

by Paul Phillips Paul Phillips No Comments

Everybody’s talking about 5G. But how close are we really to a 5G revolution?

According to GlobalData’s Global Mobile Broadband Forecast, 5G subscribers currently account for less than one percent of the global market. Even with steady growth, 5G subscribers are still expected to represent less than 20 percent of the global market by 2023. In other words, don’t throw out that 4G network just yet.

The reality is that 5G-ready devices are only now beginning to enter the market. 5G use cases are mostly speculative at this point. As with most technological transitions, operators should anticipate the long tail of 4G and expect to support 4G devices for years to come. And that brings up an interesting question: When should you start making the transition to 5G? The answer, surprisingly, is right now.

Transitioning to 5G

The path to 5G is irreversible, just as 4G and 3G before it eventually became the industry standard. For now, however, 4G subscribers and services are the main revenue drivers for operators. 4G networks will need to be updated, enhanced, grown, and maintained for years to come, even as current network infrastructure reaches its end of lifecycle and EPC vendors and products invariably disappear from the market. And here’s where operators have a choice: Do they simply limp along with their existing 4G technology, with the hopes that it will support the remaining subscriber growth, or invest in newer technology that can efficiently support the 4G growth offer many of the technological advancements and cost-saving features of 5G, and enable a smooth transition to pure 5G core?

Why a 5G Non-Standalone Architecture Works

Using 5G NSA (non-standalone architecture) combines existing 4G technology and the technological advances and cost-saving features of 5G networks.

A Best of Both Worlds Approach

This best-of-both-worlds approach is the idea behind the 5G non-standalone (NSA) network architecture. With 5G NSA, operators can support 5G radio networks and 4G networks from a single, enhanced 4G core. This allows operators to make 5G investments where they make the most sense—initially, in the RAN to deliver 5G speeds and performance to users whose devices support that—and still support 4G services, incrementally transitioning their network from 4G to 5G until they’re ready to make the move to a 5G standalone (SA) architecture.

Moving to 5G NSA Means Moving to vEPC

Moving to a 5G NSA architecture also means moving to a virtualized evolved packet core (vEPC). There are many operators that are already running their 4G networks with a vEPC. You don’t need a 5G network to reap the benefits of a vEPC, such as lower OpEx and CapEx costs, and better scalability. In fact, many operators have taken the stance of implementing a vEPC as a way to reduce costs and redirect those savings to fund their 5G investments. That’s smart, because the same GlobalData report I mentioned at the beginning of this blog also found that the average revenue per user (ARPU) is expected to drop by 50 percent over the next three years, even as 4G traffic doubles over the same period. Given that trend, operators need to find a way to do more 4G with less money, which plays right into the vEPC’s strengths.

A 5G Service Without a 5G Network

Now, you may still be asking yourself: Why invest in a 5G NSA architecture if 5G services haven’t even arrived? Not every “5G” service requires a 5G network. For example, low-latency multi-access edge computing (MEC) applications are often touted as part of 5G’s value proposition, but operators can deploy those services today with LTE. Similarly, operators can use a vEPC to roll out new services faster using a microservices-based architecture. And, with the right vEPC in place, operators will already have the skills and technology in place to make a smooth transition to a completely 5G network.

How Will You Transition to 5G?

It’s human nature to get excited about new technology. How many of us, for example, purchased an ultra-high-definition 4K television just to watch 1080p movies? We know 5G will get here eventually. The real question is: How will you get there? Preparing for 5G now by investing in a vEPC is the smartest way to support your current (and future) 4G subscribers while preparing for the 5G subscribers that are coming tomorrow.

That said, simply deploying a vEPC isn’t enough. You need to choose one with the right capabilities that will not only support the remaining subscriber growth, but also the enhancements which will enable a seamless transition from 4G to 5G. What are those capabilities? Find out in my next blog on the Four things to look for in a 5G epc.