How network virtualisation and densification will shape up at MWC 2018


With 5G set to be a focal point at MWC 2018, industry chatter is increasingly turning to immediate and longer-term predictions in this space. The question on everyone’s lips?  What needs to happen for the industry to deliver upon its 5G promises? At Arqiva we see two key trends emerging that are likely to lead this conversation. 

Virtualisation of the network

In the mobile sector to date hardware and software have typically been provided via a standards-based integrated vendor offering – affording significant benefits in standardisation and ubiquity of service provision. This approach, however, requires a high level of coordination between industry participants, and results in major releases every few years (i.e. 3G, 4G, 4G+, 5G etc.).

In other sectors innovation occurs more rapidly, without requiring such complex coordination – sub-groups can form and disband but deliver ‘discontinuous’ change.

This process is beginning to emerge in the mobile sector – notably providing the opportunity for hardware and software evolution paths to split. Not only will the separation of these elements bring new entrants into the mobile network provision arena, but it will also allow networks to be loaded onto standard IT hardware, meaning the industry can harness ongoing improvements in computing performance more easily.

Additionally, by removing the constraint of also having to provide hardware, this shift will provide software companies with the freedom to enter the market and thanks to their agile ‘trial, fail, fix fast’ approach new network features could be developed faster than ever before. While standards will still have a role to play in terms of ensuring base-level interoperability, continuous feature development could become more common.

For now, virtualisation of this kind will likely focus on core network elements, but it could quickly expand to the entire network. Indeed, you only have to look at the impact Google had on the mobile operating system market with Android to appreciate how software companies could radically change our approach – and the wider ecosystem.

Densification of the network

Despite the technological change that 5G will bring, the other raw ingredients of a mobile network will remain the same: spectrum, sites, backhaul and technology. However, as 5G evolves, the number of publicly accessible access nodes in the network is set to change dramatically – especially in the UK.

While 4G saw the industry largely add new technology to existing nodes and locations, 5G is likely to require at least a tenfold increase in the nodes themselves. Network densification of this scale will bring numerous technical and coordination challenges – but from an infrastructure perspective specifically, three key things are likely to change:

Firstly, greater asset diversity. Today’s street furniture (i.e. lampposts, CCTV columns) has telecoms equipment installed on it to extend its use. In the future, the primary function of such assets may flip – instead, functioning as dedicated telecoms assets that happen to provide street lighting and other services, for example.

Secondly, ubiquitous access to dark fibre (on an economic basis) to provide MNOs with the ability to deploy the architecture required for 5G. With plenty of infrastructure already in place (i.e. ducts), this is doable – however, the industry will need to move beyond passing assets by, and begin proactively connecting them.

And thirdly, simpler deployment. Through a review of the entire deployment value chain and associated processes, we can achieve uniformity and apply learnings from other industries who deploy at scale at street level already, simplifying the process for the better.

If we get these things right we can deliver the infrastructure required to realise 5G vision and impact, which is critical to our country’s economic development.

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