5G Update: Standards, Challenges, and the Role of SDN

5G seems to have made the transition from purely theoretical to something at least partially tangible that mobile network operators (MNOs) are beginning to say they’ll be launching early rolls-out of—in some form or another—in the next few years.

18 mobile network operators are now committed to implementing next-generation services based on pre-standard 5G technology by or before 2019, The Mobile Network reported, citing Global mobile Suppliers Association’s (GSA) quarterly update on network tech and spectrum deployment trials. GSA didn’t list specific operators, other than mentioning Etisalat, Telia Sonera, TIM, and Verizon as examples.

It’s worth pointing out that exactly how operators define and market 5G—pre-standards or not—may differ somewhat. And the term ‘5G’ is no doubt a good marketing strategy, even when it’s referenced as something the provider is closing in on with the latest iteration of high-performance services. For example, as Light Reading pointed out, AT&T is marketing 4G LTE network upgrades—available now to Samsung S8+ users in Austin, Texas and planned for roll-out in 20 other metro areas by end of the year—as “5G Evolution.”

Regardless of how it’s defined or marketed, RCRWireless News posited that operators and other engaged in 5G development would do well to incorporate lessons from previous technology generations. Such as: avoid complexity, plan inter-carrier interfaces, keep the network application-neutral, and reuse backhaul wherever possible. 

From a more practical, ground-level perspective, getting to 5G will require refining and incorporating a variety of techniques, technologies, and resources. Those will include incorporating active monitoring for network slicing, hiring or training ‘hybrid’ technicians with skills that span wireless and wireline technologies, and using millimeter-wave frequency to meet the exponential increases in demand for spectrum.  

And, of course, software-defined networking (SDN)—in its various forms, including SD-WAN—plays a crucial role in getting to 5G. Citing market growth predictions from IDC, and a Dimensional Research survey commissioned by Versa Networks, RCR Wireless News recently characterized SD-WAN development and adoption as having hit an inflection point. Sales of SD-WAN tech and services, which have the potential to help large enterprises in particular overcome the most challenging aspects of managing their WANs, are projected to reach $6 billion by 2020.

Breaking the network into parts (disaggregating devices, separating control from data) using SDN has cost and significant agility benefits, noted Network Computing. But, realizing those benefits requires building integrated SDN solutions. Organizations like the the new ONF (combo of ON.Lab and ONF) are working on that goal through initiatives such as its Open Innovation Pipeline, in order to accelerate the deployment of SDN. 

Similarly, the TM Forum’s Open API Initiative is focused on standard APIs for SDN and orchestrated Carrier Ethernet services, RCR Wireless News reported. AT&T, Orange, and Colt are collaborating with MEF and the TM forum to bring together the MEF’s Lifecycle Service Orchestration framework and TM Forum’s Open API framework.  

These and related efforts illustrate that, although open source principles are vital to the flexibility and agility goals of SDN in support of 5G, standardization is also vital.