May 9, 2019

5G: The Impact of Small Cell Densification on Service Operations

Using small cells to make cellular networks more dense is becoming a must amidst the demand for quality-of-service expectations associated with 5G.

One of the fundamental changes that 5G will bring about in the radio environment is the need for cell densification in urban settings. The imperative for this change stems from the combinations of frequency bands that 5G must use to achieve its extremely high data throughput, low latency connections and ubiquitous coverage. The higher the frequency of the radio links, the higher the data transfer rates, but the propagation and achievable transmit distance also decrease. To overcome these physical challenges, 5G uses a blend of low- and high-frequency spectrum and, in areas where propagation through obstacles buildings and trees are issues, operators are densifying their cellular network with small cells.

5G small cells is a hot area for service providers worldwide, but small cell densification is not a new operational trope. However, in the past, it has been a matter of competitive advantage, allowing operators to publish higher coverage statistics than their direct rivals. In the 5G age, it is less a “nice to have” and more of an operational “must-have” in order to achieve the quality of service that consumers and enterprise customers expect.

Operators are now referring to their radio usage heat maps to see the geographical areas of high LTE usage to plan their 5G small cell strategies. Places like busy city centers, highways and train routes, airports and shopping malls are all candidates. The deployment of these small cell additions is starting to show in the sales of fiber optic cable, as many of the main suppliers of this infrastructure are posting significant upticks in fiber miles through 2018 and 2019. While it is clear that 5G networks’ radio transmission environment needs to be much more dense than LTE, what are the service-level implications of this development?

Shared or Individual Infrastructure Deployment and X-Haul?

In the age of orchestrated service-level operations over hybrid networks, we are seeing real-world examples of orchestration complexity coming to the forefront as multiple service providers interface to provide end-to-end service management beyond their own geographies and networks. In addition to this, we are seeing small cell deployment strategies comprising a mix of lone operator deployments in duopolies or shared investment in multi-operator markets.

In London, for example, regulation is tight on who can place network hardware on street furniture (lampposts, bus stops, etc.). As a result, regulators have granted licenses to infrastructure third parties to build a multi-operator fiber access network with small cells and essentially perform a small cell carrier aggregation x-haul function for the carriers to easily densify their networks in those locations.

Guaranteeing Genuine End-to-End Orchestration is a Big Deal for Operators

This level of complexity in physical and logical layers has implications in the management and orchestration layer for operators providing next-generation digital services. Being able to provide SLA characteristics all the way out to service endpoints under an orchestration paradigm is essential, especially if the operator is providing a network slice. While the radio portion of the service is often just a tiny portion of the end-to-end connectivity solution, the densification of 5G via small cells is a potential stumbling block.

Industry bodies like the Small Cell Forum are working with operators and leading telecoms software vendors to build a set of standard rules for C-RAN, V-RAN and virtualized small cell networks as a set of functional multi-vendor APIs to smooth the interoperability issues associated with chaining these different environments. As such, the 5G small cell narrative is a perfect example of the post-proof of concept, real-world complexity challenges that are facing operators running vEPC and are moving toward advanced digital service strategies.

The successful interaction of multiple orchestrators in a 5G small cell backhaul scenario—potentially with SD-WAN backhaul links—is based around meticulous API alignment with direct access to the control plane. Operators failing to ensure that this piece of the operational framework is in place risk the credibility of their whole digital services portfolio.

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