The industry is already buzzing about the arrival of 5G. With speeds up to 10 Gbit/s, ultra-low latency around 1ms, and a small fraction of today’s cost per bit, the next generation of mobile holds enormous promise. But is 5G plug and play, or does it require fundamental changes in the way mobile broadband networks are designed, built, and operated? Network operators will make big bets on 5G—but we believe that without significant changes to the network infrastructure, much of this investment will be wasted.
Existing mobile broadband networks have yet to overcome many performance challenges. The majority of 3G and 4G networks suffer from poor radio signal quality, configuration errors, imprecise key performance indicators, and inadequate information on customer behaviour. Working with operators around the world, we have seen many mobile broadband networks running at less than 30% of their achievable payload. Even in GCC countries with world-class broadband networks, such as UAE and Qatar, customers can experience volatile speeds and disrupted data sessions. To receive the full range of benefits from 5G, network operators will need to move quickly and embrace new technologies.
We have identified five key enablers for reaping the full throughput benefits of 5G.
The first one is self-organising networks. As networks become ever more complex, automated processes can lighten the technical and financial burden on operators. Self-organising networks (SONs), which were standardised in 3GPP release 12, enable operators to automate configuration, optimisation, and healing.
Secondly, spectrum efficiency. Mobile networks are hampered by inefficient use of spectrum and radio network assets. The actual spectral efficiencies seen in today’s LTE networks are a far cry from the optimal 4bits/s/Hz—in reality, they are much closer to 0.5bits/s/Hz. In 5G, with values reaching 10bits/s/Hz, the impact will be even higher due to the greater noise sensitivity of the radio signal quality at high modulation schemes. The efficient use of spectrum and network assets will be critical.
Smart antennas is the third enabler. A good user experience with high-speed data requires excellent signal quality. Today’s signal quality tends to be poor because most mobile networks were not originally designed with mobile broadband usage in mind. Smart antennas with 3D beamforming (such as adaptive arrays) have excellent potential to overcome signal challenges. Importantly, these antennas depend on advanced SON functionality to deliver their full benefits.
The fourth key enabler is small cells. In a world where a user device should be less than 100 meters away from the antenna (or less, depending on speed and obstructions), small cells are essential to extend networks, improve coverage, and boost capacity.
Finally, the last enabler is big data. To support the way next generation 5G networks are designed, built, and operated, we need more intelligence around individual customer behaviour and preferences. Big data analytics will play a major role in the successful deployment of 5G—both technically and commercially.
Network operators cannot view 5G simply as an upgrade or tuning exercise of existing mobile broadband networks; rather, it requires a fundamental transformation.
A project to “pimp the LTE ride” will not result in a 5G take-off. And there is no time to lose. Given the scope of changes needed in network architecture, radio network design, and operator skills, the planning needs to start today.