As telecom CIOs learn the ins and outs of virtualizing environments for 5G automation, they mustn't lose sight of the importance of coverage, says John Delaney, associate vice president for mobility at IDC Europe.
Nascent "smart" services and applications like IoT (Internet of Things) and IoV (Internet of Vehicles) are driving 5G and network slicing because of their particularized, automation-reliant demands. At the same time, cautioned Delaney in this Q&A with Telco Transformation (lightly edited for length and clarity), these very same factors that have telco CIOs looking toward the future also make basics like expanded coverage all the more important.
Telco Transformation: What are telco CIOs presently focusing on as they transition to 5G?
John Delaney: From the CIO's point of view, the strategy is to carry on delivering [mobile broadband] connectivity in a way that is less cost-intensive and a lot more flexible in terms of being able to provision custom-tailored services -- which is much less costly and happens a lot more quickly. For probably the next decade, one of the main tools at the CIO's disposal for achieving that objective is virtualization of the network -- in other words, decomposing the software that controls the network from the fabric of the network itself. This is something that is actually well underway in many telcos: Telefonica, for example, has not finished but is well on the way towards finishing virtualization of its core in its European markets. Of course, it's a lot more complicated an undertaking to implement virtualization in the access network because of the nature of the access network… it involves a lot more points of presence and contact. Telcos right now are learning how to virtualize their networks; essentially what they're doing is applying a technology -- a concept -- that was designed for enterprise networking, and they're doing it at carrier scale and carrier liability. That in itself takes quite a lot of understanding and learning how to do. So I think that the virtualization of the core network is partly an end in itself, but it's also being used by telco CIOs as a way of learning how and how not to do virtualization at a telco scale.
TT: Would it be fair to say that 5G, automation and virtualization are inextricably, inexorably linked?
JD: I think in the long term, certainly.
TT: To what extent do they beget each other?
JD: They'll be closely associated with each other because they feed each other's needs, if you like. The more expensive NFV and SDN become, the more acute becomes the need for a more automated approach. The more mature 5G deployment becomes, the more important it becomes to deploy network slices to support new types of customers and new types of applications. They become very closely associated because of the way that the industry is developing and because of the needs that they fulfill.
TT: What should telco CIOs focus on additionally before 5G truly arrives?
JD: Let's go back to basics. When you ask telco customers what they are least satisfied with about their service from their operator, consistently, two things come up as the most important things. One of them is price, and the other one is coverage.
When measured in population terms, we've seen telcos with 4G coverage in the 90%-plus range. That still means, in practice, that people are without 4G coverage for quite a lot of the time because one of the trends that we're seeing is that, because 4G enables a much better mobile broadband experience, they've decided to use it on the move a lot more -- so in the backs of cars, or in trains, and that kind of scenario.
That also means that there's a lot of geography that we didn't cover; in particular, there's quite a lot of road and rail infrastructure that is not covered right now by a mobile network. Moreover, in 5G, a lot of the applications that are being talked about are for vehicles, and vehicles go on roads; they don't live in houses.
They also need to start working on densifying their network because some of the new spectrum that is going to become available for 5G is in higher frequencies than has been typically been available. In Europe the most important new spectrum band is going to be 3.5GHz. Right now, the highest frequency that is used for mobile networks in Europe is 2.6GHz. The higher the frequency you've got on the spectrum, the less distance the signals propagate over.
For these reasons, operators should be working on increasing the density of their infrastructure in order to increase coverage. Firstly, because their customers want it; secondly, because new applications are going to demand it; and thirdly, as the new spectrum bands go up through the frequency range, they are going to also require a more dense network of cell sites.
— Joe Stanganelli, Contributing Writer, Telco Transformation