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.