While the advent of 2G in the 1990s made text messaging possible, the leap to 3G subsequently supported data transmission. The 4G LTE platform built upon those capabilities, with improved bandwidth, speed and reliability.
New innovations such as self-driving cars, the “Internet of Things” (IoT) and virtual reality are driving the next paradigm shift, and 5G will provide the exponential improvement in bandwidth and latency reduction to power these advancements.
With speeds up to 100 times faster than existing cellular connections and latency in the 1 millisecond range, 5G will even surpass the current capabilities of physical fiber optics. To support a successful transition, 5G test practices are being developed and refined to ensure the consistent performance that end users demand. The collective tools, software, protocols, and practices required for all 5G deployment phases form the core of the emerging 5G testing field.
Why 5G Testing Is Important
Since 5G is not simply an incremental update to existing communication standards, 5G test practices are dictated by the inherent complexity of the new technology. The expected enhancements will be the result of multiple elements performing seamlessly in tandem. Failure at any level could instantly lead to dissatisfied end users. Prediction and maintenance of this optimal performance can only be achieved through innovative and robust 5G testing practices.
Challenges in 5G Network Testing
The combination of millimeter wave utilization, MIMO, and beamforming provides the infrastructure of 5G and the pathway to incredible performance enhancements. The added complexity introduced by these innovations can also pose challenges for the 5G testing process. MIMO essentially means (many) more antennas, which represents a higher test burden to ensure that all integrated antennas are fully operational. Measurement connectors for each antenna will no longer be feasible based on the compact 5G architecture and density.
The utilization of the millimeter wave and beamforming at super-high frequencies presents additional obstacles. Since these frequencies are much more susceptible to propagation loss from environmental conditions, over-the-air (OTA) testing may be less consistent and more complex. However, since conducted mode testing cannot be performed without discrete connection points, OTA will be required more frequently.
Channel emulation becomes more complex with 5G, since the number of necessary RF channels will exponentially increase, as opposed to the linear expansion experienced with 3G and 4G releases. For 5G test equipment to be practical, the electronics technology must advance rapidly to compensate for the intricacy. Creative solutions that minimize chamber testing and other expensive test elements, without compromising test coverage and accuracy, should continue to be explored.
5G Deployment Phases
The deployment of 5G is a complex and challenging endeavor, requiring careful planning and seamless execution. Within each individual deployment phase, prudent application of an optimized 5G test toolkit is the best way to guarantee success. In many cases, these phases will be compressed and overlapping.
5G Testing Best Practices
While the 3GPP has released the preliminary standard for 5G NR, there are still many areas in need of further refinement. Non-standalone (NSA) mode has been addressed in the 2017 release, although details regarding 5G standalone (SA) mode specifications, absent the convention of LTE coverage as an anchoring technology, have yet to be established.
Standardization is ultimately the key to developing accurate 5G test models, which in turn lead to more harmonized test practices. With the LTE standard now adopted worldwide, there is every reason to anticipate a similar evolution for 5G testing best practices.
Given the enormous frequency range and high-bandwidth services inherent to 5G technology, standardization of best practices will continue to progress as the technology, tools, and applications develop.
Preparing for the 5G Revolution
The technological advancements that 5G will enable were once the stuff of science fiction. Autonomous cars, virtual reality gaming, “smart cities” and the IoT are just a few of the futuristic innovations with a long head start as they prepare for the bandwidth and latency improvements that 5G will soon deliver. As with any advancement in functional capability, the unlimited potential of 5G will spawn more creativity and a continuous stream of new applications.
Due to the high frequencies inherent to 5G, initial deployment might occur in pockets where solid obstructions can be avoided. 5G transmitters will be located closer to the ground than previous generations, meaning more hardware at the ground level to ensure data quality.
As the deployment of 5G networks propagate and the requirements for standalone mode begin to take shape, the demand for innovative and cost-effective 5G testing tools will continue unabated. These powerful yet versatile tools will tacitly support the greatest technology revolution of the 21st century.
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As networks evolve to LTE-Advanced and 5G networks, the timing and sync procedures you’ve used in the past may not be enough.