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.