5G might not be the panacea for all things connected
Is it 30, 41 or 50? Those are the just some of the predictions – in billions – from analysts and businesses forecasting the number of connected devices that will be in existence by 2020. Despite the varying estimates, one thing is clear. The number of connected devices coming online will be in the tens of billions.
From connected cars and homes to smart cities, previously dumb or mute objects such as vacuum cleaners and street lights are getting a new lease of life thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT).
Ever seen a light switch kiddo?
Just in the past couple of months, Mercedes Benz unveiled its own brand of electric vehicles and promised to have new ten models hitting the roads soon – taking aim at Tesla. Google unveiled a ‘family of hardware’ including the company’s answer to the Amazon Echo. Apple is rumored to be building showroom homes full of automated gadgets. Soon, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and voice-controlled devices could be the new norm. The humble switch may be consigned to the museums, says Sameh Yamany, CTO of Viavi Solutions.
There’s one key element some in the IoT ecosystem fail to mention. Connectivity. After all, what is “smart” about a gadget if there is no network connection? The unenviable task of delivering connectivity to the billions of devices falls to the telecommunications operators. So, carriers will not only have to maintain Quality of Experience (QoE) for their subscribers’ mobile internet, media and calls – they also need to deliver reliable connectivity to hundreds of devices that come online each day using the same infrastructure.
This has far reaching implications for operators, their system integrators and their OSS/BSS partners. And things are about to get complex.
5G + IoT: It is complicated
The connected objects and devices have different and in many cases paradoxical needs. For example, connected cars require ultra-low latency to transmit information about traffic conditions, potential hazards or an accident in real-time. This data needs to be conveyed at lightning-fast speeds so other cars can avoid the hazard in time and emergency services can be alerted.
Conversely video-intensive applications on a tablet or a display screen that run 4K videos will have demanding bandwidth requirements. The buffering nature of media means videos could have a two or three second delay and a slight lag on a Westworld or a The Walking Dead episode isn’t a life or death situation!
Carriers have a delicate balancing act to perform. To walk this tightrope, many operators are eagerly awaiting the arrival of 5G. It can’t come soon enough for many. However, standards are yet to be agreed and the industry isn’t there yet. The forward-looking operators have adopted strategies to meet these bandwidth needs.
Some have invested in Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN), especially for IoT connectivity. TNS uses time synchronisation and a schedule to extend the functionality of Ethernet to deliver data over different network components more reliably.
Additionally, operators have turned to virtualisation and are deploying Software Defined Networking (SDN) and network slicing to be agile and flexible to meet different business and bandwidth needs. A number of operators have also turned to new radio access and transport technologies that enable the concept of Self Organising Networks (SON).
SON has been in the limelight recently owing to a few high profile acquisitions. A number of tier 1 – 3 operators across the world have already deployed it. And as the industry waits for 5G to get standardised, as a halfway house, some operators have adopted LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) to maximise capacity and to deliver a better QoE to subscribers.
Best thing since sliced bread
As 5G comes closer to fruition, mobile operators, system integrators and their OSS/BSS partners will need to pay attention to NFV/SDN and network slicing. This is the concept where multiple cloud-based network functions, individually known as a network slice, can be automated and programmed starting from the Radio Access Network (RAN) to meet different use cases and requirements.
5G’s dual-connectivity – for voice, data and IoT – would change the very definition of the word “cell” which traditionally has been about delivering voice. With 5G, operators would need to optimise and manage the RAN to deliver data, IoT services and voice all running parallel to each other on the cell site.
As such, it is not only about delivering an outstanding QoE to subscribers, but also programming and defining the network to maintain connectivity across multiple technologies, bands and protocols. Think of 5G as a cloud inside another cloud – and you guessed it, inside another cloud. That’s why robust NFV/SDN infrastructure will play a pivotal 5G role.
Service providers and their partners will require solutions that are virtualised from one end of the network to the other and have automated and correlated intelligence across each network slice for monitoring, optimisation and service assurance.
It might sound clichéd, but there’s never been a more pressing time for operators to adapt a strategy to tackle today’s bandwidth requirements and be ready for a 5G future. Some mobile operators are already struggling to meet the demanding bandwidth requirements on their networks. And to think that back in 2012, IBM forecast that there would be 1 trillion connected devices by 2015. Many carriers are probably breathing a sigh of relief that some IoT predictions were way off!
The author of this blog is Sameh Yamany, CTO of Viavi Solutions
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