The 5G race is getting tighter and tighter

The idea that a new technology, or product, or service will “change the world” is an all too common claim these days. 5G, however, might just do that. By Steve Douglas, Head of 5G Strategy, Spirent Communications.

5G will introduce ultra-low latency, broader bandwidth and faster connection speeds into mobile networks. On top of that, it will enable features like the much vaunted network splicing which will allow network operators to host different virtualized networks on the same physical network infrastructure. This means that those network operators will be able to provide new services to customers based on their specific needs. So when online gaming requires one kind of network configuration while automated vehicles require another, a network operator can meet both their needs on the same physical infrastructure.

This innovation in mobile networks is going to have a huge impact in a wide range of areas. For example, It will be critical for the development of Smart Cities. The cities of the near future will be filled with connected devices. Basic services like traffic lights, waste management, public transport, energy grids will be able to collect information in real time, improve their services and, to a large extent, automate themselves.

Current mobile network technology struggles with providing adequate connection speeds in high population density areas. However, high connection speeds and ultra-low latency will enable 5G networks to accommodate millions of connections per square kilometre of coverage.

That same is true of industry too. Factories will become replete with devices all needing fast connection speeds to automate operations, enhance productivity and cut down on error. Public utilities like electricity grids will also be able to collect information about use and efficiency, allowing operators to improve services and mitigate inefficiencies.

The race is on. The private and public sectors are both speeding towards bringing 5G coverage as wide as they can. Open initiatives are accelerating development and adoption in Core and Radio Access Network (RAN) technology by fostering collaboration between government bodies, nonprofits and private enterprises.

It's in that excitement around those promises that the competition to bring functional 5G networks to market is heating up. 5G subscriptions are now forecast to reach 3.5 billion by 2026 and the various network operators are in the middle of an intense competition to stake out their chunk of that market.

Firms struggle to stand out in a race that is packed with contestants. Competitive differentiation is what is driving many hopeful 5G network operators. Considering 5G's wide range of applicable use cases - the question for customers is not just “which is the best network”, but “which is the best network for me?”

The potential capabilities of 5G can’t be taken for granted. Whether that potential can be realised, is largely up to the quality of 5G networks.

Many of the greatest developments that will be brought about by 5G are safety critical - so the accuracy and reliability of the data that its network can provide is of paramount importance.

Take so-called “self-driving cars.” When 5G does mature, fully automated vehicles may become a reality, but only if they’re safe to use.

This will make the crucial difference between successful and unsuccessful network operators - how well can their networks operate and how well can they serve their customers’ use cases.

In order to establish that - network operators need to start testing their networks, attaining information on their operations and building from there.

Testing 5G networks will not be like testing 4G networks. A working 5G network will be handling petabytes of data and hosting thousands of calls, videos, messages and signals every second of its life. As such Radio and Core networks need to be stress-tested under real world conditions.

The new functionalities of 5G demand it too. If your customers will be using your 5G networks for automated vehicles, then they need to be tested as though they were supplying the huge data and coverage demands that automated vehicles absolutely require. Governments have taken a keen interest in the applications of 5G to city management, energy provision and the military. These use cases will need networks that can be relied on like never before, and if a network can’t measure up to those high expectations - then they invite failure or calamity.

As such, 5G networks must undergo rigorous evaluation and network operators should strive to test as thoroughly, continuously and under as life-like conditions as possible.

This kind of testing will help network operators understand their networks better, identify problems and improve service. Performance and reliability are the main selling points of 5G and if a network can’t provide those things, then revenue will reflect it.

It can also help network operators pursue sustainability goals by cutting down on wasteful energy. Testing can help streamline a 5G network by establishing which parts aren’t energy efficient and which parts can be automated, allowing network operators to do more with less. When testing is made remote, it can also cut down on carbon emissions by eliminating the need for in person testing. Taking the immensity of physical mobile networks into account, that translates to a significant shrinking of the carbon footprint.

Testing is necessary but not sufficient to effectively compete. Plenty of network operators can say that they have an unbeatable 5G network, but fewer can actually prove it. Those marketing claims have to be substantiated in order for customers to trust them.

This is why it's important to work with a neutral test partner who can certify and validate that test data. They will need credibility and a proven track record of assuring network operators and their customers that their networks really are as good as they say.

Ideally, that partner would have experience in 5G testing as well as new and existing mobile technologies from leading industry players. They should use proven methodologies and test plans which can be verified against global cloud based measurement systems. Network operators should choose carefully and remember that the credibility of a test partner impinges directly on the credibility of the operator. If they cannot bring this kind of integrity to bear, then the test results they certify could also be thrown into doubt.

The world is counting on 5G to enable a new generation of digital transformation and they’re expecting 5G network operators to get them there. Network operators need to be testing and verifying their networks now if they want to prove to their customers that they can make good on those promises. As the race to bring functional 5G networks to the world intensifies, those that can’t help customers realise that potential will fall behind.

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By Jean-François Allard, director, EMEA Utilities & Communications, Hexagon’s Safety, Infrastructure & Geospatial division.
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