Four things you need to think about before you get to 5G

by Paul Phillips Paul Phillips No Comments

The journey to 5G has been like a summer road trip, with choruses of “Are we there yet?” mixed with excited 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?

That doesn’t mean that operators shouldn’t be thinking about 5G. 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

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. 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 delivery of the same QoS levels and value-added services.

Another important consideration is CUPS. 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 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.

Most operators have already virtualized much of their network, but in 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.

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 an EPC 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.


Affirmed Networks Wins the Best Network Automation Technology Award at 5G World Summit 2020

by Affirmed Affirmed No Comments

The 5G World Summit 2020 event program may have been a virtual one but that didn’t take away from the event’s ability to highlight the criticality of the telecommunication industry during this unprecedented time.

This was especially true in the awards program.  Consisting of 15 dedicated 5G categories, the 5G World Awards are focused on celebrating and recognizing achievement and excellence in the industry.

We are pleased to announce that Affirmed Networks was named as a “Finalist” in three categories and won the top award for “Best Network Automation Technology.”  This award was created to recognize the best network automation technology from a vendor, with judges looking for specific detail of deployments and benefits.  Deployed at several of the world’s most innovative Communications Service Providers, Affirmed’s UnityCloud Ops solution measured highest in all of these categories, providing multiple use cases demonstrating measurable benefits and cost-savings across the network.

UnityCloud Ops is gaining traction in the marketplace because operators know that successful 5G deployments will require a high degree of intelligent automation, and network slicing to create, deploy, and manage new offerings. UnityCloud Ops is capable of doing just that and provides operators with reduced OpEX, greater deployment flexibility, and service agility.

All of this is contributing to the continued adoption of UnityCloud Ops by CSPs worldwide.

In addition to being named a “Finalist” and ultimate “Winner” in the Network Automation category, Affirmed Networks was named a finalist in two other categories based on our continued success helping operators deploy virtualized 4G and 5G networks.  These categories include:

  • Best 5G Core Network Technology
  • Best Edge Computing Technology

The entire team at Affirmed Networks is honored to receive this recognition from such a respected event and esteemed group of judges.   We would like to thank 5G World for putting on such a well-run and much-needed event and would like to congratulate all of the Finalists and Winners honored during the 5G World Awards Program.


3G Riding into the Sunset

by Harsha Kalkoti Harsha Kalkoti No Comments

Every now and then, a technology comes along that changes the strides humanity takes. The introduction of the first-generation iPhone in 2007 changed the way we look at the phone and how we use it. Smartphones and social networking have changed the way we communicate and work, which has had an unprecedented impact on healthcare, travel, education, national security, and political and social revolutions. If we look closer, however, 3G networks once played a very crucial role in the emergence of these smartphones and social networks, but now that time has passed, and the sunset of 3G networks is near. The ubiquitous nature of 3G networks, the high speed required to support this transcendental user experience, and low-priced data plans were the catalyst required for the huge impact that smartphones had on human history.

3G Sunset Dates: When Will 3G Be Shut Down?

In the United States, major operators have announced plans to shut down the 3G network. Verizon had plans to shut down the 3G network earlier in 2016, as it didn’t make economic sense to maintain the 3G CDMA network and a different 4G network, but those plans were delayed. 3G has lasted for years after, and until this today, 3G was still available, with no plan to shut it down or phased out. However, it appears the plan to stop 3G networks is back on track.

Tracking the 3G Sunset: Dates & Details

How much longer will 3G last? Here are some 3G sunset dates and how major U.S. carriers plan to end 3G.

Carrier When Why How The details
Verizon End of 2020 “Virtually all Verizon data traffic runs on our 4G LTE network. We have very few customers who are still accessing our 3G network.” Customers “are welcome to call into our customer service team and we will be happy to help them.” FAQs
AT&T “Early” 2022 “This will help free up spectrum to better accommodate next-generation technologies and services.” “We will work with our customers during this transition.” FAQs
T-Mobile “Over the next several years” but “we haven’t shared timing.” “We will be phasing out some older technologies… to free up even more capacity for LTE and 5G.” “We’ll make sure any affected customers are aware in advance to make adjustments if needed.” N/A

Source: Light Reading, “Goodbye 3G: Here’s when T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon will shut it off.”

Why Operators Should Move on from 3G

Here are some reasons for operators to make the move from 3G:

  • The primary driver is the re-use of spectrum for 5G. Spectrum is the lifeblood of the operators and there can never be enough spectrum for them.
  • Cost and operational efficiency of maintaining only 5G/4G networks.
  • A mad “gold rush” kind of frenzy to claim the first/early mover advantage of higher speeds and nationwide coverage on 5G networks, which in turn will help retain and add new subscribers to their network.
  • The promise of all the 5G features with Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC), and especially Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC) with limitless possibilities.
  • Decrease the complexity and increase reliability of the core networks, which aren’t required to support 3G technologies going forward.

Why Subscribers Should Move on from 3G

Here are some reasons for subscribers to make the move from 3G:

  • 5G-capable devices are already available now, which are more efficient and cost-effective in the long run.
  • The major US operators have confirmed there is no additional cost or surcharge
  • The majority of 3G/2G devices tend to be the IoT devices and there are a rich set of 5G Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC) features and more exciting features coming down the pipeline.

While the curtain coming down on 3G reminds me of Clint Eastwood riding off into the sunset at the end of the movie The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly,  there is a lot of excitement about the future of 5G and exciting applications such as augmented/virtual reality, Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X), the scale of billions of connected devices, and the insane speeds and low latencies never before experienced. And, finally, Peter Thiel will get his proverbial flying cars instead of 140 characters. Now, if only European operators would follow the lead from United States operators and also shutdown their 3G/2G networks. Come out of the dark ages and help me out on my roadmap. Is that too much to ask? Sigh!

Going Native: Why Carriers Need to Embrace Cloud-Native Technologies Right Now

by Ron Parker Ron Parker No Comments

The cloud isn’t an if. It’s a when. And it will probably start like this: a few forward-thinking carriers will begin moving large portions of their network functions into the cloud and realize that the savings are almost shocking. Not the 2X magnitude CapEx savings we’ve seen from replacing physical servers with cloud-based servers, but a 10X magnitude CapEx+OpEx savings that will occur when carriers move network hardware, applications and a significant portion of operations into the cloud. And when that happens, the rush to the cloud will be deafening.

Right now, the migration to the cloud seems relatively restrained, almost quiet. 5G still feels far off in the future. (In reality, 5G’s arrival is imminent.) Meanwhile, carriers are looking to get more mileage out of their existing infrastructure, and replacing it with cloud servers isn’t a compelling narrative. The compulsion will come when early adopters start proving that the cloud is a game-changer. At that moment, carriers will need to move quickly or be left behind. If they don’t already have a cloud-ready network architecture in place, they can forget about coming in first, second or third place in the race to deliver 5G services. That may sound like a dire prediction, but it doesn’t have to be.


What Cloud Native Technologies Hold for Carriers

A cloud-native network architecture can be had today—without ripping and replacing current infrastructure and without waiting for 5G to realize a return on investment. We see this as a phased approach to 5G: start investing in cloud-native technologies capabilities, with examples like control and user plane separation (CUPS), containers, Kubernetes and cloud-native network functions (CNFs) today to run your existing network more efficiently, and seamlessly shift those capabilities into the cloud when you’re ready.

Benefits of Going Cloud-Native

There are several important benefits of using cloud-native technologies now.

  • It delivers network agility by allowing carriers to quickly create and turn up new services, particularly private networks that will serve an increasing number of enterprises.
  • It offers automation of operations, which can dramatically reduce costs and accelerate time to market.
  • It provides network flexibility as carriers can deploy the same cloud-native architecture on their private infrastructure to serve millions of existing subscribers, for example, while spinning up new enterprise services in the cloud to avoid impacting those subscriber services.

This hybrid approach, by the way, is how we expect most carriers will consume the cloud initially. It’s critical as carriers pursue more enterprise opportunities and use cases that they continue to deliver the same or better levels of service to their existing subscriber base—it is, after all, where the bulk of their revenues come from today. Focusing on enterprise services in the cloud reduces risk and allows carriers to easily spin up new network slices for each enterprise customer. This may have been less of an issue in the past when carriers were managing private LTE networks for a handful of large customers, but it becomes unmanageable in a traditional network architecture when you have thousands of enterprise customers.

As you would expect, of course, the benefits of a cloud-native architecture are most apparent in the cloud. That’s especially true when the cloud-native architecture and the cloud architecture are managed by the same company, as they are today with Affirmed Networks and Microsoft Azure. Whether you deploy our cloud-native architecture in your own private network or in the public cloud, you’re getting the same code—tested and hardened in both environments—for a solution that is fully prepared for CI/CD environments from day one. No other company today can say that.

And, rest assured, day one is coming sooner than you think.

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.