It has been a long time since I attended an ‘academic’ conference, focusing instead on industry and finance events. But this week, I had the chance to drop by at IEEE VTC Fall, one of the leading conferences on mobile technology to get the pulse on the state of R&D and keep tab on latest developments from the best researchers in this field. I also moderated a panel on the ‘backnets,’ where an open discussion ensued on the evolution of the RAN and transport networks. From all perspectives, 5G dominated the topics. Here, I like to summarize some of the highlights.
Current approaches won’t work
There is wide recognition that we are close to the limit in terms of traditional solutions to the eternal quest for capacity. Refreshingly, network densification was shattered as wasteful and inefficient, and a call emerged for smarter ways to architect and deploy networks. Researchers factored-in cost considerations and applied simple supply-demand analysis to point out a fact that the industry ignored for years in the chase after the small cell market that did not materialize.
New ways of thinking
There is high emphasis on ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking for novel solutions. The use of AI for example had strong presence. Other topics and techniques included capacity exchanges and spectrum trading. The use of drones may seem very futuristic, but there was good analysis of some real applications. Millimeter wave had its share of discussion amid debates on commercial viability. Finally, one cannot ignore network slicing that dominated many sessions.
Where is the money?
5G dominated the industry tracks. The key theme that emerges is that we as an industry are still in search for the killer app for 5G. Simply put, no one knows “what to sell and to whom.” Or in other words, which 5G applications should one focus on and who will subscribe to those services.
Latency is the new focus instead of capacity. But what latency is really needed? Who needs sub 1 msec latency? Not the automotive industry! For instance, Toyota sees in-car sensors as primary for safety applications. DSRC is sufficient for network connectivity. Acknowledgment emerges that we can do without the overhyped low latency issue.
The fronthaul revolution
The transformation of fronthaul from serial to packet-based transport will require operators to rethink the design of their transport networks. A few key issues emerge:
1- Operators are siloed around RAN and Backhaul. However, this does not match the evolution of the network. Fronthaul transcends the RAN to become an integral part of the transport network. This blurs the boundaries between RAN and transport and between fronthaul and backhaul.
2- Dominance of fiber which will be the fundamental technology for networks of the future [if not already so].
3- There are many standards and protocols for fronthaul; and many organizations involved in standards activities (3GPP RAN3, CPRI, IEEE, xRAN, etc.).
4- The biggest challenge in fronthaul: the prospect for interoperability among different vendors’ subsystems.
5- A re-design of transport networks is in order if to achieve the latency requirements of 5G. What is the cost and what are the practical implications?
Two final comments
1- It is hard and risky to bluff in an academic conference where there’s a high level of competence. Consequently, discussions were refreshingly honest.
2- “Optimization” beats out the omnipresent “novel” that’s characteristic of so many paper titles. I think this is an apt comparison to the advent of 5G technology!