Alongside 5G new radio (NR), 5G Core will be a fundamental cornerstone of standalone 5G networks. It will be the foundation of the “real” 5G networks that support numerous new advanced use cases for industries and consumers. 5G standalone networks will also be simpler to operate, have higher operational efficiency and a lower total cost of ownership (TCO). Eventually, almost all service providers will deploy 5G Core, and during 2020, we’ll start to see the first commercial 5G Core deployments from leading service providers around the world.
There’s no real 5G without 5G Core
As many people know, 5G comes with the promise of new use cases that have not previously been possible with 3G and 4G networks - including industrial automation, mission critical IoT, and advanced consumer services like virtual reality, augmented reality and gaming. These new use cases will unlock new revenue streams, better user experiences and create OPEX (operational expenditure) savings. A common denominator here is a very short roundtrip latency – below 10 milliseconds. There are two main deployment options for new 5G networks: either as an add-on to 4G – non-standalone (NSA) – or as 5G only i.e. standalone (SA). This applies for both 5G Core and 5G NR.
Almost all of the current 5G launches have been done using 5G NSA and were largely driven by the competition to be early with 5G to capture market share. However, there are several limitations in the 5G NSA capabilities. Let’s take a closer look at the different alternatives:
Non-standalone 5G Core
In this case, the new radio base stations are connected via the 4G network. An LTE anchor is required for control plane communication and mobility management. The 4G evolved packet core (EPC) is enhanced for this purpose. At Ericsson, we call this 5G EPC. The benefits are a short time to market with 5G services, and a faster and more efficient mobile broadband with Gigabit speeds and more radio capacity. New services like fixed wireless access (FWA) can also be introduced.
Fig 1: 5G Core - key enabler for 5G. The Ericsson Dual mode 5G Core will support the transition from 4G EPC to 5G Core.
Standalone 5G Core
With standalone 5G Core, the new radio and 3GPP standardized 5G Core is independent of the 4G network. Voice services will also be supported and there will be a handover between 5G and 2G/3G/4G for both voice and data. With 5G SA, several benefits unfold:
Enhanced end user experiences - 5G new radio standalone (5G NR SA) provides a drastic simplification of the RAN and devices. Without an LTE anchor (like in new radio non-standalone), 5G NR SA has lower control plane latency enabling ultra-fast time to connection, improving end-user experience. It will also allow higher bit rates compared to previous technologies.
Simplified operations and service agility - The 5G Core is standardized with a new Service Based Architecture (SBA). The expectation is that this will allow new services to be created faster and increased extensibility, leveraging the service-based interfaces. For example, it enables innovative new use cases around analytics or exposure. It is built on cloud native technology and uses orchestration of workflows that will significantly simplify network operations such as software upgrades, scale in/out and reduce OPEX.
Improved network capabilities - The main advantages of 5G Core and NR SA lie in the areas of end-to-end network slicing, enhanced QoS handling, improved security and edge computing. These will be key enablers for business innovation and new revenue streams.
Future-proof network architecture - The focus on the 5G Core and NR SA will scale the ecosystem and enable new service innovation with application developers and industry partners. The new network capabilities will allow multiple industry verticals to be addressed with speed and efficiency.
To summarize: 5G SA offers several benefits over NSA, but the main ones are the greater number of services for enterprises and efficiency gains in simplification and operational efficiency. Powerful features like network slicing and edge computing will not be well supported without SA.
Fig 2. Benefits of the 5G Core
5G non-standalone or standalone?
In most cases, it’s not either or but a journey starting with NSA followed by a migration to SA when coverage increases. At Ericsson, our cloud native dual-mode 5G Core solution supports all of the alternatives, including EPC, 5G EPC (NSA) and 5G Core (SA).
Why prepare for 5G standalone now?
We know from the NFV transformation, which is still far from finished, that this is a multi-year journey and organizations will need time to adapt to working with a cloud native telecom infrastructure. We know from 4G that there is a first mover advantage, and this is accelerating in 5G with an adoption rate that is 3 times faster compared to 4G.
In some markets, enterprises are already starting to build their own dedicated networks based on 5G SA and several of them will also be connected to the service providers’ network to connect to wider application ecosystems and edge computing.
What is required to deploy 5G Core?
This depends on where the service providers are starting from.
A business strategy
As 5G creates a paradigm shift and opens up for new services for primarily enterprises but also consumers, this will likely drive the need for an updated business strategy. The digital service provider (DSP) is now commonly used instead of the communication service provider (CSP). To what extent shall industries and enterprises be targeted? What enterprise relations can be leveraged? Should you focus on a particular industry segment, such as automotive, healthcare or manufacturing? What role should you take in the value chain? All of that comes down to what features will be needed from the new 5G network.
A cloud native NFVi
The first requirement is to have an NFVi platform that’s ready for cloud native network applications (also known as CNFs). The majority have transformed to NFV, with either a horizontal telecom cloud with an NFVI based on open stack for multiple VNFs (virtual network functions) or either deployed single VNFs on dedicated smaller NFVi stacks - sometimes from different suppliers. The support of CNFs can be done either by deploying containers in VMs (virtual machines) and run them on the existing NFVI or deploy a new bare-metal cloud infrastructure.
Fig 3. The 5G Core requires a cloud infrastructure for cloud native applications. CaaS,(Container as a service), VIM (Virtual infrastructure manager)
To summarize, almost all service providers will transform to 5G Core to support the new use cases and achieve cost and efficiency benefits. Just like the YouTube made 4G a must-have in 2010, we will likely see that users will expect new low-latency services – and they require 5G Core.
See what Folke Anger, Head of Packet core solutions at Ericsson, has to say about.5G core evolution in the Telecom TV interview.
There is also an interesting panel with Ericsson, British Telecom,BT and Ciena regarding evolution to 5G core.
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