Fastmode Predictions 2022: Time to Converge and Deliver

Feb 22, 2022 | Editorials

Convergence and delivery are key themes that are going to drive the telecoms industry in 2022. Convergence is underway, across multiple sectors, as we head towards a single, unified cloud architecture for service delivery. Delivery, too, is accelerating, as operators finally begin to deploy 5G Standalone networks at scale – and consider investments in O-RAN to complement or replace legacy RAN technologies. But these trends are interrelated – and are supported by a host of innovations.

For example, cloud native and dynamic 5G Standalone demands new levels of automation, so the growing adoption of automation solutions and the integration of these with legacy assets is inevitable. As we look to the rest of 2022, let’s consider how these headline themes are supported by other factors. Read on for the Elisa Polystar predictions for 2022.

5G switches focus

The success of 5G networks and deployments is now so well-known as to be unremarkable. Yet nothing should diminish the quite startling rates at which 5G services have been deployed and adopted. However, that was all based on 5G Non-standalone (NSA). 2022 brings the next phase: full 5G Standalone (SA) is coming. According to the GSA - the Global Mobile Suppliers Association - at the time of writing, nearly 100 operators were actively engaged in 5G SA trials.

In 2022, we will see these operators launch 5G SA networks at scale and begin to experiment with new commercial models to monetise these investments. Finally, with 5G SA, operators get access to network slicing, a key enabler to unlock new B2B revenues.

5G SA isn´t simply restricted to operators. With private networks growing fast, we can also expect to see new market entrants, either running specialist networks for their own business purposes, or on behalf of others.

What this means is that operators (and other network providers) must deliver new B2B capabilities – with services tailored to the needs of specific verticals. So, 5G will switch focus – so we can expect to see the beginnings of a flood of new differentiated service offers, optimised for different industrial players.

Cloud becomes mainstream as 5G SA is born cloud-native

Cloudification has been an ongoing phenomenon for several years with network function virtualisation (NFV) paving the way to the virtual EPC, in which network functions were moved from proprietary to commercial of the shelf (COTS) hardware platforms. Until now, these networks have been based on regular virtualisation techniques.

In contrast, 5G SA comes with a true cloud-native approach, forcing operators to adapt operational and assurance processes. As a result, to fully benefit from 5G, operators will accelerate the pace of their cloud journey, launching transformation programmes, while vendors must also deliver solutions compatible with this new environment.

To some extent, this transition explains why 5G SA has taken so much longer than 5G NSA to materialise. Put simply, you could deliver 5G services with NSA by reusing the existing EPC. Some operators had already moved this to a cloud environment, while others are in the process of doing so. Today, operators must be ready with a full telco cloud.

As cloud become mainstream, operators will begin to experiment. For example, some early adopters have already implemented multi-access edge computing (MEC), moving application and workloads closer to the subscribers to reduce latency and improve customer experience. MEC will add new opportunities for services, but at the same time add further complexity that must be thought of when defining the operational processes.

With 5G SA and cloud adoption accelerating, we can expect to see many announcements regarding dynamic service generation and orchestration – and, finally, the birth of commercial services based on network slicing that have been proven in labs.

IoT

Let’s face it, IoT has been the next big thing for so long that it seems hardly to merit a mention. It’s already huge – but it’s set for a step-change. There are two reasons why. Once again, we need to consider the impact of 5G SA. So, first, while there are millions, perhaps billions of IoT devices today, most of these do pretty humdrum things. They collect data, send it somewhere and, some, respond to instructions received from remote servers.

However, they don’t – typically – service applications with low latency performance requirements. 5G SA brings the ability to support a new level of latency which, in turn, will usher in a new wave of more demanding and differentiated IoT services. We anticipate that operators will take steps to launch propositions for such services this year, in tandem with 5G SA rollouts – after all, it is these capabilities that have been the key drivers behind evolution to SA.

Second, we can also expect to see operators adapting to the needs of different verticals. They won’t be able to embrace every opportunity but will start to position propositions for a selection of sectors. Early offers will be targeted towards verticals that have already participated in trial projects and PoCs – so we can expect healthcare, broadcast, and ports to be among the early adopters.

A key question, of course, is: how will operators support and assure such high-value services with bespoke SLAs and performance requirements that will be completely different from their standard service portfolios, with a new set of KPIs?

O-RAN – multi-vendor, hybrid networks

O-RAN has become a strategic requirement for many operators, alongside their transformation to the cloud and growing adoption of open architectures. They are keen to diversify their supply chains and to capitalise on promised lower costs. This is particularly attractive for extending 5G to remote or less populated areas – so that coverage targets can be reached, faster – a key requirement from some national regulators.

But diversification obviously means that operators will start to shift to multi-vendor networks – which will add new complexities. Operators must therefore ensure that their assurance and monitoring systems can extend to new O-RAN based solutions and that they can seamlessly incorporate new infrastructure elements into their operational processes. This is yet another trigger point for many to re-evaluate their assurance strategies and we expect considerable activity here as operators move from field trials of O-RAN to live deployments.

At the same time (back to 5G SA), to fully benefit from cloud-native operations, automation is essential, so O-RAN investments must be aligned with the overall automation timeline. This is a challenge, as O-RAN deployment also has implications for the cloudification strategy.

AI-driven Automation will become pervasive

We’ve already noted how 5G SA, cloud and O-RAN bring a host of changes that have repercussions for other systems and processes. At the same time, as part of operator digitalisation journeys, many are seeking ways in which they can improve their operational efficiency, maximise utilisation from existing network investments, and improve subscriber experience by introducing an increased degree of automated, closed loop actions.

Future networks will be dynamic, multi-layered, and primarily implemented in the cloud. The volume and variety of data that must be processed to either correct or prevent issues that negatively impact customer experience will require AI-assisted analysis, as human oversight and manual processes will be too difficult.

It’s clear that automation will become pervasive – and as we see more operational processes being automated, we will also see a growing number of operators transforming existing network operation centers (NOC) into virtual (Dark) NoCs.

Humans, however, remain critical for the operation of the future network. Instead of monitoring alarms, they will focus on supervising automated actions taken, and why they were initiated. In addition to this key role of oversight, humans will continue to seek improvements to existing automation algorithms, develop new algorithms and correct issues that still require human intervention.

In conclusion, the Dark NoC is about to become central to the realisation of future 5G operational and monetisation goals – because only machine-driven processes can keep pace with the growing data flood.

Sustainability – coming soon to an RFx near you

Sustainability has been all the rage in CSR teams for some time, but it’s now a C-level concern and a strategic consideration for all operators. This is filtering down to operational requirements – with clear targets and KPIs that organisations must meet by addressing relevant operational areas.

One such is energy consumption – reducing the carbon footprint by managing energy consumption is an obvious winner. Happily, this also aligns with other strategic objectives, such as cost reduction. As a result, we anticipate that sustainability goals will become mapped into KPIs and that, in turn, these will become key elements of all RFxs and vendor partnership arrangements.

Conclusion

The key breakthrough in 2022 will be the arrival of mainstream, live 5G SA networks – which will be accompanied by investment in automation and the inclusion of cloud and new edge solutions. This will be genuinely transformative – requiring successful delivery but also convergence of several supporting factors involving review of operational processes, new targets for sustainability and much more.

The interesting thing is the inter-relatedness of these factors. Operators have many challenges ahead. 2022 is the year for true convergence – and delivery on the promise of 5G.

This article was originally published in FastMode