Paving the way to 5G with adaptive networks

Ravi Mali, regional director, Middle East and Africa at Ciena looks at how network operators can meet customer demands.
Mobile network operators, Smart cities, Internet of Things, 5G, 5G NETWORK, Netflix, Whatsapp, Internet-only apps, Big Data, Dubai Expo 2020

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In a world that is more connected than ever, customers are demanding more and more from mobile network providers. They are always on their phones using internet-only apps that help them get through their day, such as WhatsApp and Google Maps; they make use of internet-powered entertainment at the comfort of their homes, like Netflix and online gaming; and their office work would not be possible without emails. All these activities would require a good quality internet connection, especially gaming applications.

Network operators are already facing difficulties in meeting customer demands with their current network capabilities and as we move towards smarter cities, the need for greater bandwidth and faster network speeds will increase, leading them to update their networks to meet these demands.

Internet of Things, augmented reality and virtual reality applications are bandwidth-heavy, and will add an unparalleled level of stress and pressure on network providers.  In the UAE, the Expo 2020 will also be a trigger for technological innovation as it aims to be a smart site that will inspire visitors throughout the entire experience.  Just like the Olympics and Football World Cups, this massive event will leave a lasting impact on the infrastructure and technological advancements of the city.

5G will be able to meet the current and future bandwidth needs as it is expected to offer up to 100x faster speeds, 100x more devices, 10x lower latency, and 1000x higher data volumes; and it is overall a more cost effective technology. However, these performance gains cannot be supported by scaling existing wireline networks by a factor from 10x to 100x, from a complexity, energy consumption, and space perspectives.

Deployed with virtualisation technologies, 5G will enable service providers to give consumers and businesses the experiences they demand, on demand – from Netflix to on-the-move video calls – at any time without the worry of the network getting in the way. This will obviously have a ripple effect from the wireless domain onto the wireline network and require higher capacity backhaul networks to be delivered to connect the user to the world.  If one thing is clear though, it will be that 5G will demand much more of the network than simply increased bandwidth.

Some network providers are looking to scale up to 5G with an autonomous network, a network that is able to run with little to no human intervention and which is able to monitor and configure itself independently. The idea of a technology that is self-diagnosing and self-healing is an attractive idea that is coming closer to reality, due to the advancements of artificial intelligence and cloud storage technologies. The autonomous network is definitely a step forward away from current static infrastructures, but why would network operators want to have a network that works by itself and outside their control?

A more holistic view that takes into question the needs for businesses and the requirements of telecom providers is the adaptive network. This is a vision of how an end state to the network looks like. The adaptive network expands automation to make it more programmable and driven by intelligence and analytics. This means that agility and automation is required to flexibly allocate network resources when and where required. The adaptive network framework can grow with a company as its business needs and market conditions change.

This framework includes multiple layers such as software and automation, which can help automate certain tasks so the network can operate at full capacity with no interruptions. This is very useful as research from the Dimension Data’s 2016 Network Barometer report has shown that 37% of network failures can be avoided with automation. This automation software is able to work across multiple vendors, and this flexibility is very important as it is rare for a network infrastructure to be built using gear that comes from one single vendor in mind.

The adaptive network also has a programmable infrastructure – which includes both the physical and digital elements of the network. This flexible and intelligent infrastructure gathers analytics and intelligence such as small data and big data. Small data are things that are happening very quickly, such as a customer request or a circuit flicker, and big data will identify trends that assist the network in anticipating failures before they happen. Human operators can review the decisions taken by the network and make changes to the policies as needed, unlike a completely autonomous network which does not allow for an operator to have any say in this process.

Today’s static networks, where functions are fixed and are not scalable, will not be able to handle the increased traffic from mobile broadband and IoT, as this enormous amount of data will need to be stored, moved and accessed throughout the network seamlessly.

It needs more than just a simple network expansion, it requires a more agile and mobile network that will be able to automatically measure the demands of humans and machines and distribute bandwidth as needed.

The adaptive network is a new milestone for the networking world. It provides the best of both worlds: it has the power of automation that helps reduce human error and the power of intelligence that aids in identifying problems before they happen; and the inputs from extensive operator expertise that gives network providers the degree of control that they would appreciate.

As we get closer to Expo 2020 and many operators in the region are starting the test phase for 5G, the Middle East can set an example with the adaptive network vision.

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