5G: Disruption is in the air has been saved
5G: Disruption is in the air
A radical new way to run mobile networks could make connectivity better and cheaper
To get a glimpse of the future, Japan is often the place to go. In the Land of the Rising Sun, the future of mobile connectivity may be coming into focus. New entrant Rakuten Mobile has soft-launched a radical new mobile network that could dramatically lower the cost and increase the flexibility of cellular services.
Base stations break out of the straitjacket
Rakuten’s nascent cloud radio access network (Cloud RAN) virtualizes the radio network functions, separating hardware from software and enabling it to use off-the-shelf equipment. It is a dramatic departure from established practice in the mobile industry, which has always employed base stations composed of a tightly knit combination of hardware and software. As well as cutting costs, the Cloud RAN architecture promises to give operators much greater control over their networks – capacity and processing power can be dialed up and down in different parts of networks, while network services can be continuously adapted and upgraded to meet customers’ needs.
This architecture should also make it more cost-effective for enterprises to set-up and operate their own private 5G networks, putting such networks within reach of companies of a more modest size than Bosch, BASF and Volkswagen.
Will new network architecture go global?
When Rakuten Mobile launches in earnest in 2020, its progress will be closely watched by the global telecoms industry. If it is successful, the new network will validate the open RAN/virtual RAN architecture developed by Rakuten and its technology partners, which include Cisco, Intel and Altiostar Networks. It could also turn the industry’s economics upside down by demonstrating it is now possible to operate an advanced mobile network at a fraction of the opex1 and capex costs incurred by incumbents.
Major telcos in Europe, such as Vodafone and Telefónica, are exploring open RAN systems through the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), an industry group founded by Facebook2 to rethink and ultimately revamp the technology that underpins connectivity. Tellingly, Rakuten Mobile has just joined TIP. One of TIP’s key projects is to develop fully programmable RAN solutions based on ‘general purpose processing platforms’ and disaggregated software, which will increase flexibility and allow for software-driven development, fuelling a faster pace of innovation.
The emerging open source ecosystem
At the TIP Summit 2019 in Amsterdam in November, there was a palpable sense of excitement and purpose about the disruptive potential of new open source network software. TIP is a relatively new initiative, but a vibrant ecosystem is already forming around the project: The ‘TIP Exchange’, an online market, now features more than 50 open source applications. For example, the exchange offers a software-centric distributed packet core called Magma for free. Developed by Facebook, Magma can be used by mobile operators to virtualize their core networks.
As well as its annual summit, TIP holds a series of events each year where new solutions can be tested for end-to-end integration, while also providing labs where innovators can hone their concepts. As interest in private networks grows, more enterprises are likely to participate in the TIP ecosystem, working with system integrators to customize and adapt open source software to meet their specific needs. As well as being free, open source software has the advantage of being continually improved and enhanced by a disparate group of developers. As such dynamism can complicate commercial deployments, both telecoms operators and enterprises are likely to rely heavily on the expertise of systems integrators to get these avant-garde networks up and running. In this new world, the notion of ‘vendor lock-in’ could be replaced by ‘systems integrator lock in.’.
Tackling the urban bandwidth challenge
The rising interest in reinventing telecoms reflects the growing importance of reliable connectivity to our societies and economies. As billions of new devices, appliances, machines and vehicles come online, there is a risk of severe congestion and even systems failures - the telecoms industry needs to bring about a step change in the capacity of its networks.
To that end, Facebook is developing a solution, called Terragraph, to what it calls the ‘urban bandwidth challenge.’ Using street-level radios operating at high (millimetre) frequencies and installed in existing street furniture, Terragraph is designed to deliver fibre-like connectivity to customers at a fraction of the cost of fibre. Terragraph employs a multi-node mesh network, allowing for automatic signal re-rerouting to ensure consistent connectivity. Facebook says these systems are capable of a peak data rate of 4.6 Gbps in one direction, while providing an average peak throughput for each user of 1Gbps over distances of up to 250 metres.
Beyond throughput, a key metric for the next generation of wireless networks will be latency – responsive networks will be critical for applications, such as delivery drones, that need to be controlled or monitored remotely. One way to reduce latency is to deploy computing power on the periphery of the cellular network – a concept know as mobile edge compute. When Rakuten launches 5G in mid-2020, it plans to employ 4,000 mobile edge compute centers to lower network latency and bring processing power closer to consumers and businesses.
Its status as a greenfield operator and the widespread availability of cost-effective fibre in Japan is allowing Rakuten to pursue such an aggressive edge computing architecture. Although established operators in other markets are likely to be much more conservative, the outcome of Rakuten’s massive experiment with edge computing will heavily influence the future development of the telecoms industry.
In summary, 5G has become a catalyst to rethink cellular networks from the ground-up. For consumers and companies alike, the ensuing disruption should usher in a new era of low cost and highly flexible connectivity.
¹ Analyst at HSBC estimate opex savings of 25% versus a standard network.
2 Facebook is keen to improve Internet connectivity to make it easier for people to access its services.