By Nishita Hathi, Product Director, RAN Solutions, TEOCO

5G is ushering in a new age of connectivity that will reshape how we communicate and do business across the world. Not surprisingly, the transformative technology of 5G has also significantly reshaped what the radio network (RAN) itself is capable of – and with that, how it is designed.

Let’s look at some of the amazing technological changes that the 5G RAN has enabled, and how these are impacting the way latency and other 5G features will be managed:

1. Massive MIMO Antennas
Massive MIMO antennas help to increase the capacity and coverage of 5G radio streams. There has been a lot of talk about Massive MIMO and beamforming, but none of that would be possible without today’s new generation of antennas. These provide increased coverage and capacity of 5G cells and enhance network performance for both uplink and downlink connections.

2. Flexible Numerologies
5G introduces a much more capable air interface relative to its older siblings. This includes flexible numerologies, which help allocate radio frequency in a way that optimizes the use of 5G spectrum. It does this by providing the ability to create flexible subcarrier spacing – basically a wider or narrower path – to support the different 5G use cases. Think of it as a highway with lanes that are customized to the width of the vehicle. The narrower subcarriers are used for high throughput enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) services such as video streaming, and the wider subcarriers are used for the low latency, ultra-reliable (uRLLC) use cases, like what might be needed in a smart factory. The use of flexible numerologies allows operators to assign just a tiny slice of frequency, perhaps for an IoT device, that only takes up a fraction of a channel, while the remaining frequency can be assigned to some other purpose to be used at the same time.

3. Multiple Frequency Bands
Along with the customized ‘lanes’ for the various frequencies as mentioned above, 5G will also support the layering of these frequencies in a way that leverages their unique strengths. Picture it as a complex highway interchange, with a mix of on and off ramps and overpasses layered one on top of another – and in a way that smoothly enables traffic to get where it needs to go. The sub-6 frequency bands provide both wide area and indoor coverage, while the short millimeter wave band provides extra capacity, thanks to its abundance of bandwidth.

4. Dynamic Spectrum Sharing
Dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) is a hotly debated topic amongst the 5G network planning and engineering crowd. Mixed opinions abound, but the gist of DSS is its ability to divert existing 4G spectrum and use it for 5G. Given the high cost and scarcity of spectrum, some operators use this approach to roll out 5G sooner and in a more cost-effective manner, whereas others believe that it compromises the user experience on existing LTE networks, which is a bit risky because this is where the bulk of subscribers reside.

As is often the case with these two-sided debates, there are valid arguments on both sides. DSS does allow operators to deploy some 5G use cases without buying additional spectrum or undertaking costly site deployments, and it also provides a way to test-market some 5G services without overly committing. But DSS can negatively impact the 4G experience for existing subscribers, and it provides just a small percentage of what’s required to support a 5G standalone network. Eventually new spectrum will be required to deliver on the full 5G experience, so in many ways it is just delaying the inevitable – but for many operators, DSS is worth the trade-off. (You can learn more about DSS in my podcast.)

5. DL – UL Decoupling (DUDe)
Another 3GPP technology which can improve the performance of 5G networks is downlink- uplink decoupling, or DUDe. As with previous wireless generations, the uplink (UL) in 5G can be the weaker link.

Why does this matter, given that UL requirements are typically far less than DL? Video is the reason, thanks primarily to applications like TikTok, the world’s fastest growing social media platform. According to Influencer MarketingHub, 55% of TikTok’s 689 million active users upload video content every single month, putting a strain on the uplink limits of most networks. This trend is likely to continue, so having a more balanced uplink/downlink ratio is going to be necessary moving forward.

5G’s ability to decouple the downlink from the uplink frequencies allows RAN engineers to take a more nuanced approach when designing the network. By modelling the different options available for DUDe, operators can ensure that they have selected the best combination of technologies to maximum network performance.
(You can read more about DUDe in an earlier blog post.)

6. A New KPI for Latency
Low latency is one of the key differentiators for 5G. Low latency introduces numerous possibilities in sectors such as manufacturing, e-gaming, tele-medicine, and transportation, to name a few.

Latency is a new KPI for network design. It is not a KPI that we have had to consider in previous generations. As operators start moving towards stand-alone deployments and working with their enterprise customers to offer low latency services such as e-gaming and AR, there will be a need to accurately design the network to support specific latency SLAs. Read more about how to prepare your network for low latency services in our previous blog.

So, what does all of this mean for 5G network Design?
Given these new key technologies and capabilities, operators will require comprehensive and accurate simulation and network modelling capabilities to make the right choices in how they maximize network performance and minimize costs. After all, spectrum and hardware costs are huge concerns for every operator, and they need to be optimized to their fullest. Automating some of the decision-making processes will help ensure optimum 5G network design. This will not only reduce the time taken to design the network, but will also introduce consistency between different network planners.

There have been significant gains in the tools and technologies that network engineers and systems integrators can leverage. TEOCO’s ASSET Suite enables cutting-edge capabilities for radio, backhaul, and capacity planning across a wide range of technologies, along with dedicated functionality for indoor coverage, Wi-Fi and small cells.

Please contact us, or watch our latest on-demand webinars on 5G network planning to learn more.