Before we can truly embrace the tantalising promise of 5G, network operators must consider a number of architectural realities
As we head further into 2019, the world of telecoms continues to be abuzz with talk about 5G networks.
5G represents an exponential step-change from our current cellular data networks (3G and 4G), promising speeds hundreds or even thousands of times faster than we have today. 5G has the potential to unlock incredible new digital services: from self-driving cars, to AI robots, connected cities, telemedicine, drone deliveries, smart farming, and new immersive virtual realities… among other possibilities. But just how does 5G work, and what makes it different from today’s mobile networks?
Despite the fact that technical standards are still yet to be confirmed by global telecoms bodies, 5G will almost certainly encompass a number of technical evolutions, including:
- Relying on high-frequency millimeter wavelength wireless communications bands;
- The ability to splice networks into many virtual networks (“network slicing”);
- Small-cell network technology that solves line-of-sight issues by using a multitude of low-powered mini base stations;
- Massive MIMO technology, which means more network ports to dramatically increase the throughput of data;
- Beamforming – to ensure a focused stream of data to specific devices (meaning far greater precision and efficiency than today’s networks, where signals ricochet off objects and interfere with one another); and
- Full duplex – so that radio waves can travel both forward and backward across a frequency.
“As a global community, we’re starting to get our heads around the concept of 5G,” notes Anton Jacobsz, managing director at Networks Unlimited Africa, which brings ProLabs advanced networking technology to South African shores. ProLabs is a global leader in optical networking infrastructure.
“The technology is emerging, and trial networks are already popping up all over the world, including here in South Africa and Lesotho,” adds Jacobsz. “But for the 5G dream to become reality, we can’t just think of the last-mile wireless innovations. Operators need to consider much-needed architectural changes to their fronthaul network.”
Jacobsz refers to ProLabs’ statements at the ECOC 2018 conference in Rome, where ProLabs’ Ambroise Thirion explained that: “The evolution needs to happen in terms of micro-cells and pico-cells, and ultimately this will require a complete fronthaul network re-design. Service providers will need to take this approach and transition from CPRI to eCPRI, point-to-point / point-to-multipoint topology and RF over fibre.”
Fronthaul refers to the connection between a new network architecture of centralised baseband controllers and remote standalone radio heads at cell sites.
Jacobsz says it’s unrealistic to expect a sharp switch-over to 5G, as the technology is fundamentally different from previous evolutions of our mobile networks. “5G isn’t so much a clearly-defined destination point, but more of an ever-evolving journey, where wireline and wireless services coexist in a single unified network architecture, to power unlimited possibilities in the future,” he explains.
“As we begin building the early 5G networks and exploring the technology, the use-cases will unfold – particularly in realms of the Internet of Things and Machine-to-Machine communications, which is attracting huge interest from almost every business sector.”
But, as the 5G conversations become increasingly practical, fronthaul architecture will surely be top-of-mind for telecoms executives.