In modern communications networks the demand for more speed and more capacity to drive ever more advanced services has been at the heart of network development – especially in the mobile space. Even the generational numbers hint at the increases – 3G, 4G, 5G - every change indicating an increase, every change indicating something that is somehow bigger and better.
And, of course, the impression created is largely correct. Every successive generation has raised the bar in terms of speed and capacity. But maybe it is only the latest 5G generation that has the potential to be truly something infinitely better, not just simply bigger and faster.
Demand for more capacity is coming from all directions. The increasing trend to work from home has significantly increased the requirement for more bandwidth and indeed for more symmetric bandwidth capacity. In the enterprise space, the demand for capacity to support cloud applications in the most secure way continues to grow. Additionally, the transition to 5G mobile networks can be expected to add further to the demands for greater core and transport network capacity.
The consumer promotion of 5G networks has concentrated on faster downloads and an improved streaming experience for the Netflix and gaming generation, as well as a rise in work from home and remote learning in the COVID-19 era. However, the 5G promise to the enterprise community has centered around different types of services for diverse business-related enterprise applications.
True 5G networks don’t just want to be all things to all people, they also want to be different things to different people and organizations, all at the same time. It is about offering a guaranteed end-to-end low latency connection covered by a tight service level agreement with one organization, while offering high capacity, superfast bursts of data to another one at the same location. True 5G networks insulates these diverse use cases to minimize any impact between them.
This capability is delivered via 5G radio’s network slicing capability, but it has to be supported by upgrades to the core and transport network, otherwise the guarantees of the different network slices cannot be supported.
Most network service providers regard their network as their most valuable asset and are investing in the deployment of more fiber as a core part of the strategy – including owning their own dedicated fiber resources wherever practical.
Naturally, as adding fiber capacity is expensive, solutions that help optimize the use of the current network are much desired. So, in addition to adding fiber capacity, we are seeing a very conscious effort to design fiber transport networks in a much more flexible manner – so that they are all able to adequately support these different types of services instead of dedicating network links to one specialized service.
Alongside speed and capacity, modern networks will need intelligence and flexibility to assure a stronger commitment to 5G service quality characteristics. Old-school network practices such as ‘contention’ will need to be consigned to the past, because the traditional practice of over-subscribed network services relying on contention and best-effort architectures are not compatible with the guaranteed service level agreements inherent to unlock the 5G enterprise market.
Networks that can react to demand and flex ‘on the fly’ to ensure they deliver the services required are the way forward, and automation is critical to this flexibility. It starts with a multi-service aggregation level that can onboard the different types of traffic – both legacy services and new ones – to the transport network. There will also be a focus on standard compliant open networking interfaces to encourage multi-vendor solutions and reduce operator reliance on a small number of large vendors.
Software defined metro and backbone layers of the network will provide the connectivity needed to guarantee performance on a service-by-service basis, with intelligent orchestration autonomously selecting the right technology and optimizing it across the various transport paths – whether IP, optical or isolated ethernet links.
Ultimately, it will be this new generation of automation and orchestration capabilities that will provide the flexibility to plan, engineer and optimize traffic flows across the optical and IP layers of the multi-vendor network in order to ensure that guaranteed levels of service within each slice can be delivered in the most economical way.
When designing and building the transport networks to support the 5G world and meet the demand for more specialist services, rather than just faster services across bigger pipes, there is no doubt that intelligence and flexibility need to become the key tools in the operator’s hands. Building bigger networks may be one requirement; but building bigger, better, more flexible and more intelligent networks is the real goal.