The Future of RAN Planning for the 5G Era
By Nishita Hathi, Product Director, TEOCO
The Fast Mode
With the 5G era truly underway, the latest generation of cellular networks is poised to deliver enhanced connectivity, low latency, and greater bandwidth, ushering in unparalleled opportunities for both the enterprise and consumers. 5G is enabling industry verticals to support a range of key business processes in radically new ways, develop new products and services using “connectivity as a service” models to deliver a new level of customer experience.
As operators look to 5G to unlock new markets, with a particular focus on enterprises, many are reassessing how they deliver services through the RAN, and specifically what that means for RAN planning and optimization. If operators are to capitalize on new revenue streams, they must demonstrate the ability to understand the evolving demands of their end customers. This starts by having the right tools to monitor, analyse, and optimize the network, ensuring that any issues are quickly identified and resolved to maintain quality of service (QoS). In a 5G era, network failures, outages or degradations of service are simply not an option—particularly for time-critical enterprise applications.
Assuring 5G success
With the number of connected devices increasingly on the rise and with the amount of data traffic across mobile networks also growing, 5G is advancing to support an increased variety of data, devices, and mission-critical applications and processes. Additionally, 5G delivers more than increased data throughput—it also enables increased capacity and ultra-low latency capabilities to support complex next-generation applications. The architectural design of the RAN is changing—in fact, it will be an important element determining the success of 5G in the long-term.
The rise of 5G means that telcos are now having to contend with considerable challenges that legacy architectures were simply not deigned to address. Prior to 5G, network planning requirements were generally preoccupied with matters concerning signal strength, coverage and mobility support for voice, video and basic data services. However, in an age of mission critical applications, the adverse consequences of system failures could be far reaching and severe—for instance, the disruption to mission critical emergency network services and its potentially harmful fallout. Currently the industry is experiencing a significant increase in the value of services, which in turn means that the potential for any service interruptions needs to be eliminated. Logically then, there must be greater emphasis placed on more accurate planning, testing, and validation. Engineers must focus their efforts on effective service delivery and continuity, while also actively guaranteeing optimal QoS.
RAN-enabled 5G enterprise opportunities
The RAN is an intrinsic component of the 5G network architecture because it implements all of the radio interfaces and call control functions. This means that to deliver the critical 5G services and use cases that enterprises now demand, RAN planners needs to take into account where their customers are located (and where their future customers will be located) and then build the required infrastructure from the ground up to meet the coverage, capacity and QoS requirements that the enterprise 5G use cases demand.
Now with the use cases for enterprise 5G rapidly expanding, different industry verticals are evaluating where the latest generation of cellular technology will enhance and optimize their operations. Key areas of interest for enterprises include ultra-reliable, low-latency services, faster and more reliable mobility, massive machine-to-machine type communications and secure private communications. In real-world enterprise scenarios, this translates to a variety of advanced use cases including 5G private networks, IoT-enabled factory floors, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), mixed reality (MR) experiences over 5G, and so on. This provides operators with new revenue streams to exploit, but in order to protect these revenues QoS must be maintained with the right tools to monitor, analyse, and optimize the network in order to reduce subscriber churn, CAPEX and OPEX. Failure to rise to this 5G network planning challenge will see operators unable to deliver on the promise of many 5G services, and ultimately, miss out on those significant revenue opportunities.
Automation: a cornerstone of 5G RAN planning
For network operators, time to market is critical. As a result, automation holds the key to saving both time and money while simultaneously allowing operators to deliver a significantly improved service to its customers. In this context, the right automatic cell planning (ACP) tool can be the key differentiator enabling network engineers to launch new 5G cell sites efficiently and securely. Additionally, it can also be part of the ecosystem that helps to maintain network integrity and quality of service. When it comes to mass 5G site rollouts, where speed and quality matter more than ever before, the opportunity to accelerate this time consuming and resource intensive process is a welcome development for operators as they embark on their 5G journey. While the idea of ‘conceptualization to implementation through automation’ remains a work in progress, the value of automation in the 5G RAN planning environment is becoming more widely acknowledged.
Optimizing RAN planning through AI
Artificial intelligence (AI) has a role to play in terms of optimizing the process and lowering costs of 5G planning. Traditionally, engineers have approached RAN planning by employing a combination of empirical and ray tracing propagation models to simulate the different environments needed to plan the network. This enabled the delivery of adequate performance levels, capacity and QoS. While such methods are reasonably effective and have been relied upon for years, in the absence of AI algorithms they are notably time-consuming. This is because these methods require manual and repetitive calibration and parameter manipulation that allow simulated scenarios to be matched with the propagation reality on the ground to reduce discrepancies. Compounding this protracted approach further, the errors that do occur during this initial phase are not normally identified until deployment, resulting in the need to correct these mistakes via involved re-planning and re-optimization activities.
To counter these specific challenges, AI-enabled planning tools automate the collaboration process to streamline and simplify the RAN planning process, thereby lowering the barriers to deployment. Here the use of data is critical: the feeding of data into AI/ML processes delivers the insight that empowers engineers to forgo a lot of the manual processes related to calibration and parameter manipulation. As a result, an automated approach emerges that delivers the speed and accuracy essential for the task of RAN planning.
5G network planning evolution
The planning and optimization of future 5G networks will be foundational to ensuring that the infrastructure meets the coverage, capacity and QoS requirements that 5G demands and promises. Not only this, it is the simplest way to enable operators to monetize 5G and make the most of the enterprise opportunity. Operators should not underestimate the task of network planning in 5G given that it requires more involved and sophisticated processes to ensure that complex services are successfully rolled out in the most efficient manner possible. Underestimating the evolution of 5G network planning will prevent operators from capitalizing on the profitable 5G services that the enterprise market requires, both today and in the future.