5G Network Deployment
Breakthrough technologies that are integral to 5G, such as Massive MIMO, network slicing, beamforming and network function virtualization (NFV) require phased approaches to new 5G network deployment. They also require significant investment, with telecom operators expected to spend upwards of $300 billion on new 5G core network deployment over the next decade. This new monumental task lends itself to a wide variety of strategies and options, each with inherent benefits and drawbacks surrounding 5G network technology and access to faster speeds.
The promise of new 5G deployment has transitioned from the drawing board to reality. The next generation of wireless technology, planned and developed for nearly a decade now, has begun limited service. 5G signal will ultimately bring faster speeds per second, reduced latency, and service improvements. The fundamental architectural transformation that makes this deployment possible is a complex and multi-layered endeavor. This can only be accomplished by public and private networks and spectrum sectors in aggregate across the globe.
5G Deployment Options
Throughout the first new 5G development cycle, operators and industry insiders studied the emerging trends. This led to a collective realization that expedited 5G network deployment service and standardization was necessary. As a result, 45 major players in the LTE wireless industry convened in March of 2017 to create a 5G deployment plan entitled, “Way Forward on the overall 5G-NR eMBB workplan”.
Release of the 3GPP new radio (NR) non-standalone specification followed several months later. The non-standalone concept was developed as a means of introducing the first 5G coverage functionality on top of current 4G/LTE network infrastructure. This innovative option has led to an even broader variety of potential 5G deployment scenarios.
The choice of standalone or non-standalone connectivity is just one of the variables to be considered when creating a 5G deployment plan. Integration of virtualization elements and edge computing, fronthaul and backhaul network configurations are additional considerations. Small cell placement strategies, MIMO application, and spectrum allocation make each 5G NR installation unique. This new level of customization requires scalable, accurate and efficient test solutions to support the disparate network deployment models.
Five Keys to Successful 5G Deployment
The keys to successful 5G network deployment adapt traditional best practices to the new technological breakthroughs that have set 5G apart. These principles cut across all facets of 5G network architecture, technology, and performance.
- Certify all fiber connections and validate orientation/alignment of antenna:
The importance of good fiber hygiene has been magnified by the manifold increase in antenna connections inherent to 5G Massive MIMO. The commitment to high-quality connection and validation must also extend to coax installation for the FR1 band. Exceeding the link budget can lead directly to performance degradation and delayed turn-on. Antenna alignment, including both orientation and tilt verification, provides a valuable baseline for optimized 5G cell site performance and coverage.
- Verify carrier and SSB spacing frequency, and subcarrier spacing:
The synchronization signaling block (SSB), which is the 5G equivalent of the LTE reference signal, is used to identify and synchronize a cell with specific user equipment (UE). Each SSB can be identified by a unique number known as the SSB index. A UE will latch onto a specific beam, based on the SSB index with the highest observed signal strength. Verifying SSB functionality is critical during 5G network deployment and commissioning. The performance and spacing of each subcarrier should also be tested.
- Verify all carriers are present and PCI of each carrier:
A robust 5G network deployment plan should include signal verification for each carrier and their respective physical cell ID (PCI). Carrier aggregation is a technique used to increase the data rate per user by assigning multiple frequency blocks or component carriers to each. Improved utilization through carrier aggregation is an important enabler of 5G bandwidth and use case diversity.
- Verify beam IDs for each carrier:
In an LTE deployment, coverage can be blanketly characterized by sector. Using 5G NR technology, each individual beam behaves much like a separate coverage area all its own. The “beam-centric” philosophy of 5G underscores the importance of dedicated beam index analysis as part of 5G network deployment.
- Verify 5G site coverage:
Verifying the cell coverage output designed into the 5G network requires accurate 5G coverage mapping to determine beam index, power, and signal-to-noise ratio for a given area. This 5G deployment best practice can be difficult to achieve reliably, particularly for combined 5G and LTE coverage areas. Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) enables 5G and LTE to operate in tandem for seamless coverage and rapid 5G deployment. The best 5G coverage mapping tools are now provisioned for concurrent LTE and 5G coverage assessment.
5G Deployment Challenges
With so many options to choose from, simply deciding which fifth generation approach to take is the first of many inherent deployment challenges. Breakthrough 5G wireless technology platforms are pushing the envelope of design, manufacturing, and testing capabilities. Network Function Virtualization (NFV) is a prerequisite for core network slicing, intelligence at the edge, and other essential 5G signal features. These technologies power the delivery of IoT and AI-based services. Standardization, security, and the requisite CPU horsepower to drive virtual functions are some of the many obstacles being tackled by NFV developers.
The millimeter wave is another essential fifth generation ingredient that can present technological and logistical challenges. Due to the limited range and inability to transmit through solid objects, the sheer volume of antennae required introduces hurdles that can only be addressed through methodical, incremental deployment. Spectral efficiency, measured in (bit/s)/Hz, is currently gated by the Shannon Limit which defines the maximum rate that data can be sent over any medium with zero error.
This theoretical ceiling is much less than what is expected and required for 5G deployment. Only Massive MIMO and beamforming, utilizing large antenna arrays, enables 5G to effectively circumvent this natural limit of faster speeds.
5G Network Deployment
Unlike past historical transitions in wireless architecture, 5G represents an ongoing evolution of existing networks rather than the wholesale replacement or “forklift” approach to deployment. For LTE deployment, the wholesale approach limited financial payback for many operators. Incremental 5G network deployment, with 5G elements layered on top of legacy architecture, is commonly viewed as a prudent way to reduce CapEx spending and minimize financial risk.
The service-based 5G architecture, along with core network slicing technology, facilitate a diversity of new offerings that can enhance existing use cases while enabling new ones. 5G network deployment options are dependent on the business needs and preferences of the operator.
Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) is expected to be the biggest global 5G use case in the short term. Operators intending to leverage the exponential increase in massive machine type communications (mMTC) or ultra-low latency communication (URLLC) are adapting their 5G deployment strategies accordingly. The deployment model depends on the densification and coverage required for targeted use cases and the allocated spectrum for each network.
5G Commercial Deployment
The number of commercially deployed 5G networks is expected to reach at least 206 globally by the end of 2020. Over 100 commercial 5G devices will also be available. New rollouts continue to ramp up around the world, along with the percentage of all mobile connections made over 5G. This figure should exceed 30% in North America by 2023. This year-over-year increase is a clear sign of strong competition developing between commercial operators as they strive to enter the 5G marketplace. The completion of Release 16 of the 3GPP 5G specification is expected to accelerate this pace.
Much like the industry-wide collaboration that occurred to standardize 5G architecture, continued cooperation between operators, chipset, and infrastructure manufacturers, device makers and regulators is imperative for successful 5G commercial deployment. With the broad 5G service use case portfolio, additional industries such as automotive (including self-driving cars), medical device, agriculture and aerospace technology are now becoming part of the expanding coalition of stakeholders.
5G Deployment and Fiber
Wireless technology gets most of the attention when 5G is discussed, but fiber deserves equal consideration. By 2023, approximately two thirds of all backhaul connections will be fiber-based. Connections between the next generation core (NGC) and NR active antennae are also completed using a fiber pathway.
With the high volume of connections required for 5G fronthaul and midhaul applications, PON architecture is has proven to be a useful option. PON can be easily scaled to meet increased throughput demands. Validation of all fiber and PON connections must be completed, making advanced 5G fiber optic test solutions essential for fiber hygiene during 5G deployment.
Just one dust particle as small as 1 micron can lead to a network installation failure. The radio may not obtain an adequate signal. Other preventable and common installation issues include loose connections, radio fallout, and rolled “fibers” (TX and RX reversed at installation). Each of these minor issues can lead to “holes” in coverage, poor throughput, and ultimately, dissatisfied customers.
A visual fault locator (VFL) can readily identify trouble spots when signal continuity is lost. Thorough validation of power levels and detailed loss testing using an OTDR can keep 5G cell cite integration on track by addressing and resolving 5G fiber installation issues quickly.
5G Deployment Tools
5G has transformed the equation for all elements of wireless network infrastructure. This includes fiber, RAN, transport, and asset management. Each discrete phase of 5G NR deployment now requires a specialized tool kit to support implementation. Operators have developed their own individual Method of Procedure (MOP). The more comprehensive approach to fiber testing, OTA verification, beam analysis, coverage, and throughput testing is often the more successful; just a single underperforming cell site can delay the launch of an entire large-scale deployment.
During the 5G verification and validation phase, test equipment capable of simulating real-world user behavior can help to establish quality of service prior to activation of 5G signals. The TM500 network tester can assess the complete 5G network user experience. This includes simulated interactions with other users and typical real-world device behavior such as emailing and streaming in the mobile world. The TM500 also supports a high number of UE’s per cell or carrier to evaluate capacity.
During the technology deployment, activation and scaling phase, the spectrum and interference of 5G signals in the millimeter wave requires accurate and reliable RF characterization and conformance testing. The portable CellAdvisor 5G combines real-time spectrum analysis and 5G beam analysis capabilities. This makes it an optimal solution for massive MIMO and antenna beam validation. The CellAdvisor also includes built-in fiber test and inspection capabilities for added 5G deployment versatility.
The importance of testing continues throughout the assurance, optimization, and monetization phase. In this phase, Quality of Experience (QoE) becomes a primary concern for fully operational networks. Advanced applications such as the IoT and autonomous vehicles have created enticing monetization opportunities with very low margin for error. This makes real-time intelligence platforms such as NITRO Mobile essential for capturing, locating, and analyzing mobile events for exceptional user experience insights.
Some have deemed the first 5G deployment to be a hallmark of the “sixth technological revolution”. Historically, this puts 5G evolution technology on a level of importance equivalent to steam power, the assembly line, or the dawn of the computer age.
This historic distinction bestowed upon 5G adoption has spearheaded a massive infrastructure evolution and paradigm shift. Key players in this transformation have included many of the best engineers and scientists in the world. Infrastructure experts have realized that the broad array of new use cases require both standardization and flexibility. These equally important factors are often less than complementary. Adherence to emerging infrastructure specifications along with functional versatility make the very best 5G test tools essential components of the 5G deployment landscape.