The long and winding road to 5G begins with 4G optimisation
The close of 2018 saw the UK operator O2 leave its customers without access to 3G or 4G data connectivity for more than 24 hours. The ensuing uproar underlined the critical importance of mobile broadband to all UK consumers, writes Tony Gillick, the vice president of solutions management at Openet.
With 5G on the horizon, this reliance is only going to intensify, especially as mobile operators launch more data-rich services to enrich our daily lives. But while 5G is fast approaching UK shores – EE is hoping to turn on 5G in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester by mid-2019 – true ubiquitous 5G mobile data access will take longer to go mainstream. This is not only true of the UK, but in many other countries around the world.
All operators in all countries know that there will need to be a period of transition between 4G and 5G, before true 5G mobility can be realised. This is to ensure an acceptable network quality of experience (QoE). To make this possible, operators will need to take several steps to optimise their 4G networks to ensure they meet anticipated 5G demand.
A necessary alternative
While 4G capabilities may be satisfactory for some consumers, our ever-expanding demands for everything, anywhere, means networks are beginning to feel the strain. As data traffic continues to grow on mature 4G networks, 5G roll-out will be a necessity to not only meet increasing consumer demands for speed and data, but also prepare the UK for its digital future. Ultimately, 5G could be responsible for delivering IoT-enabled homes, connected vehicles and even remote surgery.
Looking to the near future, however, it is clear that 5G will have some way to go before it reaches full maturity, and with only 14% of global cellular connections expected to be running on 5G by 2025, it is evident that reinforcing existing 4G networks will be extremely important in continuing to guarantee QoE and quality of service (QoS).
The optimisation of 4G networks should therefore form a key part of operators’ 5G evolution. The high deployment cost of 5G means operators will need to monetise it effectively if they are to make a return on their investment. Doing so will need to ensure they can keep subscriber acquisition high, keep churn low and monetise as many new, additional digital services as possible. Notably, optimising 4G networks could see them meet consumers’ insatiable thirst for more video content, with video is expected to account for over 75% of all mobile traffic by 2020. 4G could therefore be an easy solution to a difficult problem as operators wait for 5G to arrive.
Optimising existing networks
So how do operators go about this optimisation? The solution can be found in Wi-Fi. While over 60-70% of data traffic is currently consumed over Wi-Fi, the wireless technology has somewhat of a bad rep, with problems surrounding reliability, security and data congestion. By and large, it has become an undesirable option, particularly in the face of cellular all you can eat bundles.
However, by applying operator-grade control tools, Wi-Fi has the potential to become the preferred alternative to cellular networks. While Wi-Fi’s unmanaged nature means that it is essentially a free for all when it comes to its use, network congestion tools add a layer of intelligent decision-making ensuring that customers are always connected to the most appropriate access network – be it Wi-Fi or cellular. These decisions can be based on device type, location, subscription type, traffic type, available access networks and a host of other information. The decision to move traffic from one network to another is not just about signal strength – in fact, evidence suggests that an effective Wi-Fi offload using network congestion tools can increase Net Promoter Scoring (NPS) by 30 points and reduce churn by 20%.
Wi-Fi hotspots can be prioritised or blacklisted in real-time depending on how they are performing, and individual users can be prioritised depending on their bundle. It is these network tools that will make up for holes in cellular coverage, such as in-building coverage and remote location coverage, as well as provide an effective off-load solution for capacity management to maintain QoE.
Optimisation: it’s now or never
The transition period between 4G and 5G is just as important as the arrival of true 5G mobility. With the adoption of 5G likely to happen gradually, failure to optimise existing assets will see operators struggle to maintain QoE. Utilising new technologies such as AI-based congestion tools to leverage Wi-Fi access as an alternative will significantly serve to maintain network efficiency as data-consumption increases. It is only by employing these approaches that operators will successfully meet subscriber demands for more data and relieve the strains placed on 4G.