For 5G to succeed telcos must adopt a software mindset

Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Paul Rhodes Paul Rhodes, OpenRAN and 5G Principal Consultant at World Wide Technology, explores how operators need to adapt to make the most of 5G.

Over the next 15 years, it is estimated that 5G will grow global GDP by 10.8%. According to Qualcomm it will be the “unified connectivity fabric connecting people to everything.” It has the potential to unlock new technologies across every sector, from AR/VR-enabled healthcare, Intelligent Transport Systems and connected agriculture to real-time, remote controlled, smart factories and cities.

That 5G will bring wider cultural change to society that 5G is commonly accepted. However, this evolution needs to be matched by an internal paradigm shift within the telcos themselves – they must look to adopt a ‘software mindset’. This means leaving their comfort zones behind and addressing the cultural changes required to deliver to the standard their customers will expect in the 5G-era. These customers will increasingly be enterprises rather than individuals, with diverse and complex expectations. To achieve success, internal alignment and coordination of people, processes and technology will be critical.

Building a team of teams

Ongoing success for service providers will come down to fully embracing a new architecture model. This means assessing and scaling up or down in response to customer demand – moving away from large but periodic updates to a process of continual iteration. Agility must now be baked into a network’s DNA.

Service providers’ ability to run open, software-based services will rely on embracing a digital mindset and working processes. Traditionally networks have operated to an engineering model; honing, polishing and perfecting solutions before they launch. The 5G-era will require networks to distribute solutions faster to customers, continuously evolving them in real-time once they are in-field.

This means the service provider skillset in the 5G era will not look like that of previous generations. The new challenges will require staff with a knowledge of data-analytics, software engineering and IT security. Hiring a broad blend of engineers, technologists, architects, big data specialists, network security professionals and product experts will be crucial to making the jump. Meanwhile, existing staff should be nurtured and upskilled. Managing the pressure that will come from retraining and recruitment should be alleviated by external support as initial gaps in skills with be inevitable. Fostering a diverse partner ecosystem – a ‘team of teams’ – will be invaluable.

The importance of ‘cloudification’

There is an estimated £3.35 trillion in value to be unlocked across enterprise use-cases over the next five years, across finance, manufacturing and retail, to name but a few. The ‘cloudification’ of networks will play a key role for telcos looking to access these new revenue streams. ‘Cloudification’, or the ‘telco cloud’, is defined as “a software-defined, highly resilient cloud infrastructure that allows telcos to add services more quickly, respond faster to changes in demand, and centrally manage their resources more efficiently.” The telco cloud means a shift from providing network functions, to providing a platform that enterprises can build and innovate on.

As the needs of a diverse range of customers rapidly evolve, so too must the telcos themselves – deploying software at a matching pace. The cloudification of the network is helping to make the scalability of applications easier, opening the door to new services and helping deliver innovation to enterprise customers at the rate they now expect.

However, it’s important to remember that real cloudification is about far more than simply transferring network functions from proprietary hardware to software running on commercial, off-the-shelf, hardware in the same locations. It is about opening the network architecture to facilitate diversity, from network-in-a-box to networks running entirely in the public cloud – and every combination in between. The advantages of an open approach are vast, and the momentum behind merging telco and IT operations is growing.

Opening the RAN

Open RAN will also play an important role in unlocking the full economic potential of 5G. It will enable networks to organise and automate several parts of their infrastructure from multiple vendors, orchestrated across an interoperable cloud-based network. An open infrastructure is the key to delivering the low-latency and high speeds required by complex use cases in various fields. In Open RAN, the best-of-breed ethos encourages vendors to do one thing and do it well, whereas single vendor RAN solutions can hamper innovation and reduce features to the lowest common denominator defined by vendors.

The benefits will be a reduction in operating costs and encouraged competition; accelerated innovation and increased efficiency will follow. Open RAN promises the chance to do new and exciting things rather than an invitation to do the same old things using new equipment. As a result, traditional network thinking and planning is no longer fit for purpose – next generation thinking is needed. Providing services to industries as diverse as smart cities, private enterprise networks and 4K broadcasting can only be delivered on open, cloud-enabled networks with end-to-end automation. A software-defined network requires a software mindset of open collaboration with faster cycles of regeneration.

Service providers have traditionally been used to taking a linear approach, making one change at a time, but today we live in a world where they need to look in many directions at once. To achieve this, they must embrace a true internal culture-shift. They must recognise that making 5G work for them will require an evolution from the traditional telco role, as they need to adopt a software mindset.

 

Paul Rhodes is a senior technical sales leader with 28 years’ experience spanning strategy, radio and fixed networks, building small cell networks, sales and negotiating contracts. Paul leads WWT’s OpenRAN EMEA engagement. Previous to this role, Paul held senior commercial and technology positions with Ericsson, Samsung and Nokia, working with all the UK MNOs, European Operator groups and Canadian Carriers. Paul has also consulted on FWA and Fixed-Mobile convergence, and has delivered advanced mobile solutions across Europe, North America and Asia. 

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