5G introduces a paradigm shift in how cellular services will be deployed and commercialized. Operators must now design their services not just for consumers, but also for industry verticals, like smart agriculture or eHealth. And while technologies such as network slicing and virtualization are important, the design of the slices requires a different way of modelling and thinking about the network.

The importance of these services is clear when it comes to operator growth and revenue aspirations:

  • Over 50% of operators believe that more than twenty percent of their revenue will be attributable to industrial applications.
  • Nearly 50% believe that more than twenty percent of their growth will be based on 5G massive machine type communications (mMTC) and ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC).

This is a big shift from where we are today. Supporting these changes will require operators to predict and plan for what impact these services will have on their network and its performance. Operators will also have to make decisions about how to design networks to deliver the SLAs required, and whether adjustments are needed to support these levels of service.  Both decisions will have commercial implications. Design teams will need to be closer to these business decisions and conversations than ever before and will require the right models and tools to support SLA design and analysis within and across various service slices.

5G Networks Today – Learning to Walk Before We Can Run

The commercialization of 5G is progressing faster than any prior technology. While 4G needed five years to reach half a billion subscribers, 5G is projected to reach that number by the end of this year.  Progress is also evidenced by the number of commercial networks. To-date, there are over 120 operators offering 5G service across forty countries, with a commitment from 400 more who are in progress.

The initial round of services, however, are still primarily consumer-centric, and not dissimilar to today’s 4g services. A recent GSMA survey indicates that the largest perceived benefit of 5G is still speed. The truth is that few new 5G services appear to be hitting it big as the next ‘killer app’. In advanced markets such as Korea and China, initial success appears to be coming from performance enhancements in the streaming of mobile data, with high-definition video being one of the only new 5G service offerings.

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) is also emerging as a popular proposition, with over 200 commercial offerings around the world. This is supported by the availability of large bands of millimeter wave (mmwave) spectrum and is especially popular in countries that have limited wired infrastructure.

On the industry standards front, 3GPP Release 16 is finally complete, despite various pandemic-related challenges and hurdles.  Release 16 was focused on delivering enhancements to address critical URLLC and mMTC requirements. But the hard work has paid off. Many 5G services are expected to break new ground – especially regarding industrial applications, but also in immersive consumer experiences.

Looking Beyond – The Rise of the Bespoke Network

Looking beyond the immediate future, what are the new service capabilities that are emerging – and what will tomorrow’s networks need to address?

One of the key tenants of 5G is that the technology can be tailored to the service and provisioned to the needs of the customer. This will materialize differently – based on whether the consumer is a “thing”, a person, or even an enterprise. But what is common is that the provisioning of these services will need to be addressed by the same network, at least for those that are served by the public (vs. private) network.

It becomes noticeably clear that when it comes to supporting 5G services and the different markets they serve, operators require a varying range of technological capabilities. For instance, a sensor monitoring service will benefit from connecting a massive number of ‘things’ through low power transmissions, while an e-health application might require greater uplink capacity to transfer high quality video with ultra-reliability. Each of these use cases require different technology elements.

Consider also that networks must service everything from very wide, rural geographies to very urban, densely populated regions, or even indoor spaces. Meeting these varied design and technology requirements adds additional complexity, which is why 5G network planning and design is so important for today’s operators to get right.

Designing for 5G – Key Challenges

Below are some key challenges 5G presents for network designers:

5G Network Design Challenges

Hybrid Networks – For the foreseeable future, 5G will need to coexist seamlessly with LTE. These non-standalone networks (5G NSA), rely upon LTE for everything from signalling to bandwidth sharing.

Localized Coverage – 5G design must also account for very localized services that require highly accurate propagation and environment modelling. This is due to 5G’s reliance on mmwave spectrum, which does not travel far and requires the precise placement of cells to ensure adequate coverage. For example, network designers need to create highly accurate scenarios that must consider that the volume of cell sites will need to increase substantially to cover a typical city for a service like FWA. This presents a major challenge as most of today’s operator planning models cannot provide the level of detail needed.

Wide Area Coverage – This same network must also provide reliable wide area coverage to address subscribers in rural environments. This means that both large-scale and localized modelling needs to be possible at the same time, to cope with providing both rural and urban coverage, which will be a key requirement.

New Technologies – 5G network designs also need to account for the wide range of technologies that have been added to accommodate the flexibility of the system. These technologies range from Massive MIMO antenna modelling to more advanced methods, like decoupling uplink and downlink transmissions.

Performance Metrics and KPIs – 5G network modelling is complex and constantly evolving, with new requirements being added as the standards change to address new services and capabilities. The need to accommodate new services implies new KPIs, especially for industry verticals with highly specialised services, such as an automated factory or a warehouse. These services will require new performance indicators (like latency) to be built into the design, with performance metrics that are guaranteed as part of the service SLA. Even consumer services will require this element-of-design approach. Delivering gaming-on-the-go is just one example. These specialized KPIs are so critical they have been coined the new ‘currency’ of 5G, which is an accurate way to describe the new demands of 5G networks.

Data Consistency – Another important consideration of network planning needs to be around the automation of processes and decisions making. This will be critical for meeting the needs of complex 5G networks and includes everything from automatically and reliably updating planning teams with the latest network configurations, through to the decision-making process. If this point is overlooked, the network plan and the actual network may deviate to the point that they have thousands of differences, and modelling becomes impossible.

5G Technology Design Challenges

Active antennas – 5G introduces the concept of active antennas in relation to Massive MIMO/beamforming. These antennas provide a step change in the coverage and capacity of 5G cells.

Numerologies – 5G introduces a much more capable Air interface relative to its older siblings. This flexible numerology introduces new challenges with the way waveforms are built and managed, with many more variations to consider, such as subcarrier spacing, UL, DL configurations and bandwidth parts.

Multiple frequency bands – 5G supports multiple radio frequencies for a ‘layered’ implementation. This is designed to leverage the strengths of the different bands. For example, the sub-6 frequency bands provide wide area and indoor coverage, and the mm wave bands provide extra bandwidth capacity. For network designers, this adds a whole new dimension of complexity.

New Spectrum – 5G introduces mmwave frequency bands, which have never been used for cellular communications. This introduces a new set of challenges for network planning as mmwaves do not propagate well through walls and vegetation like bushes and trees. They also suffer from absorption loss in rain and snow. In addition, mmwave links require a direct ‘line-of-site’ path to the end user, which makes predicting the propagation channel especially challenging.

Multi-Generational Support – Finally, 5G will be deployed in a multi-technology environment. Unlike earlier generations, 5G is not intended to overtake previous cellular technologies. Instead, it must be carefully designed to co-exist with, and not disrupt, what is already in place; something that is easier said than done.

How We Help

Designing a 5G network is not for the faint of heart, but help is here.  For over 25 years, TEOCO has helped network operators run state-of-the-art networks and profitable businesses. The ASSET suite of products support operators, enterprises, and systems integrators. It delivers all the radio planning capabilities one needs to design the best 5G network possible.

5G NR modelling with advanced propagation models, complex antenna arrays and full multi-technology 3D coverage and capacity simulations are all supported; everything from coverage analysis and traffic modelling to 5G network planning and design. But ASSET is not just for 5G. It is one tool that does many things, including the simultaneous planning of wireless networks across GSM, UMTS, LTE, 5G and all other supported technologies.

You can learn more about ASSET’s capabilities across all technologies here.