CIOs should recognize the role that 5G can play as an enabling technology that can make a real difference in mission-critical processes, according to Ron Marquardt, Sprint's vice president of technology, innovation and architecture.
Once 5G is deployed in full, it will be able to transform business processes in ways we may not have yet envisioned, though we can catch glimpses of that future now in the implementation of cloud robotics. As 5G looms on the horizon, service providers are taking different pathways en route to arriving at full deployments.
At Sprint, the road to 5G does not call for pushing for complete virtualization at all costs. Instead, Sprint has adopted a "cap and grow" approach. The company has mapped out a path based on an holistic view of the goals of the company and a plan that includes team education, as well as an integrative approach that maximizes efficiency en route to a more virtualized future. (See Sprint Beefs up Virtualization with NFV.)
Telco Transformation: At the Mobile World Congress Americas this past September, you said: "We need to understand and control the infrastructure requirements to support 5G," according to a story by SDxCentral. To what extent does cloud play a role in those infrastructure requirements?
Ron Marquardt: Cloud will play an increasingly important role in 5G, but today we only have a few network functions that are virtualized, so true cloud-native deployments will come as we reach a greater mass of server-based deployments. As we move to 5G, we expect it to be a requirement and all core functions will be cloud-native.
TT: How is Sprint educating its employees in regards to sharpening their focus on NFV?
RM: We conduct town halls, classes and workshops, and we provide self-study programs to employees. We use a combination of formal and informal settings, as well as mandatory and voluntary educational opportunities to get the message effectively into the hearts and minds of our most important asset, especially in the midst of such a transformation -- our employees.
TT: While some telcos have set specific goals in regards to the percentage of virtualization in their networks by a certain year, Sprint has not done so. Instead it describes its approach to virtualization as a "cap and grow." Can you explain what that means for managing legacy core network hardware and virtualized platforms?
RM: Over the past two years, we've virtualized our messaging platforms and have started migrating multimedia messaging service [MMS] and short message service [SMS] functions over to an NFV platform. As of today, 100% of IP short message [IPSM] traffic has been virtualized. In addition, we expect SMS to be fully virtualized by the end of this year, and we plan to deploy the MMS VNF onto the virtual platform during the first half of 2018.
In some ways though, quoting percentages is artificial. In the end, we are going to do what is most cost-effective for the company. We have worked out how to make our legacy architectures work efficiently and match them up with the virtualized components as we progress to a virtualized environment.
Going forward, we plan to cap our expansion on legacy core network hardware while growing new functionality and capacity on our virtualized platform. We've spent tens of millions of dollars on existing equipment, and we will continue to maximize this legacy equipment by augmenting it with virtualization. And over time, as equipment reaches the end of its lifecycle, it will be replaced with virtualized capabilities. However, some capabilities will be virtualized from day one. For example, we have been building out a virtual IMS core, so as to replace the existing standalone systems used for circuit-switched voice with a virtualized voice core when we launch VoLTE-based services.
TT: At what point do you expect the network will be ready to support the 5G requirements? Would the rollouts happen incrementally or all at once?
RM: We’re working with all of our vendors to jointly develop technologies for 5G. We recently announced partnerships with Qualcomm Technologies and SoftBank for 5G NR-based devices in our 2.5GHz spectrum. We are likewise working with all of our infrastructure vendors on eNB radios that provide Massive MIMO capacity boosts for LTE when deployed next year, which will be software-upgradable to include 5G NR shortly thereafter. With such an approach, Sprint can leverage its greatest spectrum asset, our 2.5GHz spectrum, in a manner that will allow for cost-effective, wide-area coverage with 5G NR for commercial launch in late 2019.
I expect that, initially, 5G for most companies will be non-standalone -- meaning 5G sites will be connected into essentially a shared LTE EPC with some 5G-specific features included, and then will progress to a standalone core over time. In 2019 we will add some 5G features on the base LTE EPC, giving us 5G service over a comparably broad area, given our use of relatively low frequency spectrum, and very broad when compared to what is plausible for mobility in the mmWave bands. As time goes on, we will augment the core with more 5G capabilities that LTE cannot support, and we will adjust our service offerings as the market develops.
TT: To what extent do you think that 5G emerging in a cloud environment changes the game for businesses?
RM: There are a few disruptive technology trends that a CIO has to be aware of -- like digitizing their business -- because they serve as big enablers of the future. Likewise, IoT will grow more important to businesses as the number of connected devices that can capture data from warehouses, stores, factories, etc., grow exponentially. IoT at very large scale is part of the advancement 5G promises to bring, although we are already rapidly scaling in IoT over LTE technologies. Over time, CIOs will have to look at 5G as an enabling technology in the same way as these others, and recognize how it will drive their businesses as costs decrease and capabilities mature.
It is early days yet, so this could still sound like hype, but I believe that we will see 5G evolve in the same way Ethernet evolved in local area networks to wired and wireless technology. The difference with 5G is that it is a wide-area technology and can use both licensed and unlicensed spectrum, which will have a significant impact. We will see that 5G will really drive a whole new set of use cases beyond the smartphone that have not been possible before. For example, in the case of cloud robotics the intelligence of the robot is located in the cloud, while the body of the robot carrying the mechanical functionality can be somewhere else. They would be linked together by 5G-based wireless connectivity.
TT: Can you offer more illustrative examples of how cloud robotics can transform operations?
RM: 5G comes into play in addressing what I hear is one of the biggest problems manufacturers have to deal with on the factory floor; the repair and maintenance from cables that are used to control robots. Those cables are very heavy and subject to wear and tear as they move. Being able to eliminate those cables by shifting to wireless communication to control the robot sounds like a trivial thing, but it makes a significant difference on the factory floor to be able to eliminate cables and the delays caused by their repair and maintenance. The factory setting fits what we typically think of as a robot, but cloud robotics also makes a huge difference for what we may not normally think of as a robot -- like a connected car.
In the extreme, connected cars are really a specific use case for cloud robotics, although earlier implementations presently house most of the intelligence locally. A car that relies on a smart driving system has to process all its sensory data into within about 20 milliseconds if it is to prevent an accident and drive effectively. In that situation, the control of the car cannot depend on the upload to a data center in the middle of the country because it relies on a very quick turnaround to direct the car's reaction as close to real time as possible. To achieve that, you have to push the computation closer to the edge. While it will initially be more expensive to distribute such computation to the edge of the mobile network, the extremely low latency it enables will be mission-critical for many use cases.
The connected car is one example of cloud robotics on the road. We are finding all sorts of new ways 5G can make a difference in businesses. It will open up entirely new ways of operating, and we will see the use cases explode. That is why CIOs really need to be aware of 5G and the new ways it will apply to their business that were not possible before.
TT: The 5G network slicing technology virtualizes one network into multiple ones to be used in different vertical scenarios and also brings exponential growth of network bandwidth, capable of supporting more industry scenarios. What should CIOs be thinking about in terms of taking advantage of the possibilities of the technology and the fact that it presents an opportunity to "control" network slicing?
RM: The cloud environment's impact on the CIO's job is something they have been dealing with for years. What is changing now is that connectivity is not just about buying mobile phones or specific IoT devices; it now is becoming something that is much more mission-critical.
Network slicing presents an opportunity for CIOs to virtualize their network. That means they could gain a view of Sprint's network, or a slice of our network, as if it is their own. This seamless, holistic view would appear as if it is all of their own infrastructure, and they would have controls, within reason. As it is set up on the basis of virtualization, they would not have to worry about deploying the network as the mobile operator does. They also would not be compelled to manage the network, and they would still reap the cost-saving benefits of outsourcing. With network slicing, CIOs will be able to gain valuable visibility and control over that slice that is critical to their business.
How much access CIOs will want will depend on their business -- the cost of slicing and how critical the function is. What's important is that 5G gives them the option to exercise an entirely new level of control if they want it. This level of flexibility and opportunity is very limited over wireless today and 5G will dramatically change this.
— Ariella Brown, Contributing Writer, Telco Transformation