Six operational challenges for 5G

Carriers face a number of operational challenges as 5G continues to evolve and mature, both in terms of deploying and running new 5G networks as well as in managing the relationship of those new networks to existing 4G networks. In a Test and Measurement Forum session, three industry experts laid out some of the primary operational challenges for 5G networks. These include:

Scale. Dean Brauer, VP of network and field operations for Verizon, said that one of the biggest challenges for network operators is that as 5G is being deployed, the number and types of network nodes are “growing exponentially,” so the ability to both deploy and to manage that network at-scale is crucial.

Speed of deployment. Not only is 5G being deployed on a broad scale, but it’s being deployed on an aggressive timeline; those represent operational challenges on their own, but they also compound each other. “Service providers really want to deploy a lot of the network very, very fast—so that’s definitely a huge challenge,” says Sophie Legault, director for the transport and datacom businessof test company EXFO.

Integration. This ties directly to deployment, Brauer notes, in terms of how operators make sure that 5G networks work well with existing 4G networks—which is particularly important because 5G NonStandalone networks depend directly upon LTE as an anchor to carry control plane traffic.

Testing and support of new 5G technologies. Brauer considers testing to be its own operational challenge in terms of how operators make sure that they can meet the requirements that customers want to see in various 5G services. “We have to be able to measure and monitor the network very well, real-time, at a scale that we haven’t seen before,” he says. Legault frames this in terms of not only new services and related demands, but also new spectrum bands and technological implementations, such as synchronization and high-speed transport.

Workforce skills. This ties to the new service and technology demands of 5G, but also to the current workforce environment in which 5G is being deployed—a tight labor market, which is also dealing with supply chain issues and where heightened attention and federal/state funding to connectivity services during the global Covid-19 pandemic has meant an influx of dollars that must be spent within a certain time period, so that network operators, system integrators and sub-contractors are competing heatedly for a limited workforce, while also seeking to keep deployment costs down. More is being asked of site technicians: Not just experience with RF testing, but also the ability to test fiber and validate services as well. Sandeep Sharma, VP and global head of Tech Mahindra’s 5G/RAN/ORAN portfolio, also points out that the workforce challenges extend well beyond site deployment. With the increase in virtualization and cloud as well as the emerging role of edge computing in 5G, that changes the set of software skills and familiarity that is needed across the telco industry, Sharma said.

Network complexity. Sharma went on to add that managing network complexity is one of the most significant operational challenges in 5G. This is compounded by the relatively rapid shift not just from 4G to 5G, but from 5G NonStandalone to Standalone. While the move to 5G SA provides some end-to-end simplification for network management, it doesn’t solve everything—Sharma pointed out that if you look at telco network based on their end-users, the type of 5G devices available, which bands they support, and 5G device penetration still represent issues. There is likely to be a continued lack of continuity across devices, even if there is more continuity across the network. In addition, he said, just as in LTE, the enabling of voice services over the new network (in this case, VoNR) is lagging the support for data services.

Brauer also sees both simplification and increased complexity at work in the move to 5G SA. 5G Standalone, Brauer explains, “will simplify network operation because when you get to a Standalone environment, you no longer have to anchor to your 4G network. So from a performance perspective, and an operational perspective, you get some simplification in how you can operate your network. But the complication comes in because as you introduce 5G, we’re not just introducing a new frequency band … and with Standalone, you can start to slice your network. So the complexity in the operations of the network and the maintenance of the network, and meeting SLAs for various customers goes up exponentially from what we’re used to in our 4G and our 3G networks.”

Legault added, “The network is more dynamic now … and more scalable. So from an operations perspective, you have to be able to understand that and adapt with that change.”