By Nishita Hathi, Product Director, TEOCO
The Fast Mode

As 2023 gets underway, operators around the world are either in the process of rolling out their 5G infrastructure, or on the cusp of doing so. Such roll outs provide the opportunity to explore digital twin technology as a means to manage certain high-stakes projects, and also understand how it can assist with large transformation programmes and the introduction of new services. In fact, the highly complex nature of 5G networks is making the industry increasingly more amenable to the concept of digital twin technology in support of 5G network deployments.

According to analyst firm Gartner, a digital twin is “a digital representation of a real-world entity or system”. Within the telecom’s environment, this real-world entity most often encompasses a service provider’s network and its broader environment including terrain, buildings, vegetation, subscribers, devices and so on. A digital twin can replicate the live network environment so that it can be used to quickly and cost-effectively simulate various interactions and instances to determine what will happen in different scenarios, using different 5G features and capabilities.

Today’s networks are so expansive and complex that making the necessary changes and updates to the infrastructure is both a protracted and costly process. As a result, innovation in this type of environment represents a real risk for operators. Even relatively minor mistakes can have an outsized, unforeseen impact in different areas of the network, creating network failures and resulting in lost revenue. As 5G roll out gathers pace over the next five years, operators will be looking to integrate nearly 15 million new 5G sites into their existing networks. That’s about 50 percent faster than with 4G. By modelling network changes and updates in the digital domain, this approach will allow operators to meet their ambitious site integration targets. With digital twin technology, operators can test an infinite array of new parameters and capabilities much more efficiently and cost-effectively, making informed decisions with a high degree of accuracy in relation to network design and roll out in just a fraction of the time.

The network design challenges that lie behind 5G

When it comes to designing and rolling out 5G networks, operators today face a number of unique and unprecedented challenges. The first issue they have to contend with is scale: typically, each new cell site that’s introduced into the network has hundreds of parameters. When this is multiplied by the number of new cell sites the enormity of the task for 5G network designers is quickly revealed. For 5G in particular, the number of cells required to provide coverage and capacity will increase compared to previous technologies due to the frequency band at which 5G operates.

The second issue is that network designers are also required to factor in all the equipment and systems from multiple vendors with various technology configurations. This is especially true in the context of 5G. Each cell site requires time-consuming, careful planning so that it’s optimised for its environment. A team of network designers with decades of experience take on the responsibility for this, but with the sheer number of new 5G sites needed, there simply aren’t enough specialists or hours in the day to meet this challenge. Compounding this issue is the fact that network engineering teams already devote a significant part of their time to repetitive tasks. To overcome this issue, they need the right tools that will help free them up to focus on other higher value tasks which demand their extensive expertise.

Fortunately for network designers, advancements in digital twin technology is building at a time when the case for automated 5G network design has never been more compelling.

Building an accurate model with a digital twin

With the use of a digital twin, entire physical environments can be modelled for the radio access network (RAN) alongside its resources. Other features such as outdoor physical hardware, vegetation and buildings are also typically included to build a 360 degree view picture. Operators can also enrich their models with other sources of information including performance management (PM) statistics, geo-located measurement reports and even crowdsourced data. For the purposes of RAN network planning a digital twin is a valuable resource: building an accurate model of the network is fundamental as it provides operators with a complete awareness of network behaviour and reduces the need for costly field testing. During planning phases several hypotheses can be assessed in the simulated environment provided by the digital twin, all of which would be financially unfeasible and disruptive to existing services in the real network.

Reconciling the model

Accurate network planning requires keeping the digital twin model up to date, including all the changes that take place in the network. A large network may have over one million cells with each cell being defined by approximately one hundred parameters. Maintaining alignments with the digital twin model means that mass updates are required to ensure that the state of digital representation accurately aligns with the existing state of the network. When an engineer needs to introduce changes to the network, simply changing the properties of a cell or a collection of cells may compromise the operation of the network and negatively impact quality of the service. To avoid this scenario, network engineers must ensure that consistency is maintained in the course of planning changes. These consistency checks are automated within the digital twin application addressing the need for speed of execution and meeting the ‘right first time’ principle.

Digital twins: reflecting new opportunities for telcos

There is little doubt that digital twins have the power to enable operators to improve network design and planning, particularly as the technology allows them to deliver a better quality of service at reduced operational costs. This better quality of service comes from the ability to plan using an accurate representation of the network and its environment, from the ability to validate its planned consistency before introducing changes, and from automating – and thereby expediting – the roll out of changes so that the network is holistically maintained in consistent state. Reduced operational costs derive from automated data acquisition processes which feed into the digital twin representation, automated consistency validation, and the automated generation of data transcripts for network change implementations. Taking all of these benefits into account, digital twins are an invaluable asset to the operations of mobile network providers.