Moving towards network function virtualisation: what will the impact on traditional infrastructure be?

New 5G use cases – connected venues and network as-a-service

Read this article to learn:

  • Who the consumer of new network capabilities is and how this has changed
  • How physical and virtual infrastructure requirements are evolving under LTE and in anticipation of 5G
  • How network slicing and spectrum sharing is opening up the private network market
  • What are the unmet needs in consumer and corporate contexts and what is the size of the addressable market?
  • About the growth in private networks and where the current sharp end of opportunities lie

The Future Network caught up with Patrik Jakobson, Ericsson’s Head of Network as-a-Service for an update on how the company see cellular networks evolving beyond 4G. We discuss some of the emerging trends and applications for the networks of the future, including augmented reality and network virtualisation, and hear about some of the recent projects Ericsson have been involved with which have been exploring the possibilities now afforded from recent technological advancements.

The Future Network: What has changed with Ericsson since we last spoke? How are things different now, compared to a year ago?

Patrik Jakobson, Head of Network as-a-Service, Ericsson:

I think our connected venues offering is worth spending some time on because it ties in well with the development of the network infrastructure and also the digital story that is emerging, and it is interesting to look at how they drive each other. For example, we partnered with Chelsea football club to provide a connected venue through the small cell as-a-service business model, so we provide connectivity for the venue in a carrier grade Wi-Fi network, through the small cells as-a-service business model, which can be used in indoor and outdoor applications, and is also adopted by towercos. This difference in this case is that we are targeting public venues, and this represents the beginning of a partnership which we see evolving to encompass more digital services and commercial services on top of that in the same way that we are working with Wasps and the Ricoh arena in Coventry, UK.

Another thing we should discuss is our Ericsson Consumer Lab which is conducting consumer behaviour research. We have done a study on connected venues in which we have found that there are a number of unmet needs on top of the digitalisation that we’re seeing in connected venues right now. For example, safety and security, personalisation, but even more excitingly, real life experiences e.g. augmented reality and mixed reality. This might sound very futuristic, but it’s actually happening here and now, and those three areas are ones which have very low level of digitalisation today.

In other areas where there are unmet needs e.g. socialisation – obviously people are using Facebook and Instagram etcetera all the time, but the real life experience element is really interesting. Apple have just announced the launch of the new iPhone 10 which has virtual reality support, and alongside this Apple have announced a virtual reality developers kit so that they can develop apps. They are also cooperating with IKEA so that through augmented reality you can now do virtualised furnishing of your home. Ericsson are working with Mojang, the creators of Minecraft which is a very popular online game that you can now use with mixed reality for city planning, so that you’re using Minecraft technology through augmented reality through your mobile phones to design cities. Six to nine months ago nobody knew what augmented reality was, but now the components are here and we see this being an unmet need in connected venues. In order to enable augmented reality, we need 5G because you need super low latency and distributed clouds e.g mobile edge computing to be able to handle all of the processing required by these very computing heavy services when a lot of people are using the service at the same time.

That’s why the MNOs are in an excellent position to address this going forward because their proficiency is starting to get elevated due to all of these assets that they have in their portfolios to be able to provide all of these types of services. With network slicing and new core cloud capabilities which comes along with 5G, we have seen in the study that people are not loyal to a venue, they might be loyal to Chelsea FC for example, but otherwise, we talk about public venues like transportation hubs, hospitals, hotels, downtown city streets – all the areas in which large numbers of people gather (and spend a lot of money) – then we can serve that crowd through a specific network slice which supports certain sets of services and applications nationwide. This is really where the MNOs have an edge, because people are travelling and they can support these kinds of services throughout the country in a seamless way because of their national presence.

The Future Network: Could you please explain a little bit more about network slicing?

Patrik Jakobson, Head of Network as-a-Service, Ericsson:

Without going into too much technical detail, what you can do with the new networks, when you start to go into a 5G architecture, where you have the new generation virtualised cloud or core part of the network, is that you can separate out particular parts of the network. So, for example, you can make a part of the network for venues, then you allocate computing capabilities, throughput, speed, latency etcetera to that slice and you are serving a certain set of customers. So you create a kind of private, dedicated network logically within the parent network. We must remember that the network is not physical – all the software, and even hardware now is based on virtualisation, which means that you can create networks within networks that can work in different places. You simply take part of the spectrum, part of the radio base station, part of the transmission, part of the core part of the network, but of course it is not a physical part, it is virtual.

The Future Network: Who would use these networks within networks? 

Patrik Jakobson, Head of Network Sharing, Ericsson:

There are enterprise applications for this sort of service, whereby a company can have their own network which runs on top of the mobile network. You could also take particular slices of the network to service certain types of customers or applications which have a particular set of characteristics or requirements. Since everything is virtualised now, both hardware and software, you can get a totally new business proposition for both telcos and service providers towards enterprises. The sky is the limit.

The Future Network: In order to deliver these unmet needs, whether it be in connected venues, or in wider applications, what additional infrastructure is needed? 

Patrik Jakobson, Head of Network as-a-Service, Ericsson:

Firstly we need 5G with its super low latency, then we need distributed clouds and core network virtualisation so that you can utilise mobile edge computing and move the processing virtually to a place that is close to where lots of people are using it at the same time and where the applications are running, and then you need network slicing where you can logically separate the network to support these kind of services end-to-end and do that nationwide or for different geographies.

Ultimately we need connectivity so that we can access all these services regardless of where they are. If we go back to the Stamford Bridge case study, they had some connectivity in the VIP area, but in order to give the whole stadium access to the network we had to divide the arena up into ‘cones’ or sections to ensure that everyone has coverage.

The Future Network: And because it was network over Wi-Fi does that mean that it was operator agnostic? 

Patrik Jakobson, Head of Network as-a-Service, Ericsson:

Yes, and this was one of the reasons why Chelsea FC wanted Wi-Fi, because they needed an operator agnostic solution, because their audience are subscribers of each different operator. This is what we’re seeing now in the multi-operator capabilities, for example in the Ericsson Radio Dot launched a few weeks ago now has full multi-operator capabilities and you can have it licensed or unlicensed LTE (CBRS) whereby you utilise LTE but under the Wi-Fi model. Then you can offload users seamlessly between the licenced and the unlicensed when they come from outside the venue, to the inside. The customer doesn’t notice, and the operator achieves some network offload. Then you can start to get into LTE and LTE-Advanced which gives you much higher throughput, and speeds that these new services require. Then for example if you use augmented reality applications at a venue, such as a stadium, then you need to have a lot of computing power where you’re running all of these advanced services, and you need to use the distributed cloud and mobile edge computing capabilities, so you have part of the core which is actually virtually allocated and residing at the venue, together with the virtual support, so you allocate a certain amount of computing power to that venue. These are some of the main capabilities you need to move into the next generation of services like augmented reality and mixed reality, and the network-as-a-service model can be applied to this.

The Future Network: And in terms of the physical infrastructure, what do we need to make these futuristic networks materialise? And where are we now compared to where we need to be?

Patrik Jakobson, Head of Network as-a-Service, Ericsson:

In reality, the hard infrastructure situation is very different in different areas. Some areas have fibre, in other areas fibre is not possible so mm wave or microwave may be utilised instead, but the good thing about this is that from a virtual perspective it is disconnected but of course it needs to have a high bandwidth in order to serve all of these new needs, but you can separate the physical part from how we will deliver the virtual element.

The Future Network: Do you think it’s fair to say that we have come on leaps and bounds in the development of the virtual network, but that we are somewhat lagging behind in the physical infrastructure? Are we capable of running these new virtual networks over the existing infrastructure that we have?

Patrik Jakobson, Head of Network as-a-Service, Ericsson:

Yes, I think the two sides of the market seem to be moving in different directions, but it will be interesting for them when you start to get down to reality, and this is why Ericsson offer backhaul as-a-service and this is typically using microwave, partly because we have a large microwave portfolio, but also because non-incumbent operators typically don’t have the necessary rights of way in the civil infrastructure to be able to implement fibre, it’s also expensive, and capex is short for everyone. Sometimes it’s also not physically possible to deploy fibre, and sometimes there is a real world hinderance as to why parts of the physical network cannot be rolled out and these issues we are trying to address through structural efficiency at the back end through our network as-a-service portfolio, which looks at how we can organise the network in a more rational way and address elements which are not working.

The Future Network: So in the Stamford Bridge example, who paid for the small cells as-a-service service? Have you seen a change in the business model for neutral host and as-a-service offerings? 

Patrik Jakobson, Head of Network as-a-Service, Ericsson:

It was Chelsea FC who paid, but we are seeing MNOs getting more interested as a result of the new distributed cloud capabilities offered with 5G because it gives them the opportunity to reach into new areas, and also the multi-operator angle is important in this offering. So far there has been a bit of a roadblock for operators to deploy these networks themselves because the venue owners have always insisted on the need for a multi-operator platform, and the operators couldn’t agree, so that’s why the neutral host model works very well. One of the key use cases for 5G that Ericsson has identified is the improvement of mobile broadband and IoT, but it’s really starting to come together in different components, and then when you have multiple operators supporting small cells and other technologies you can really make the changes.

The Future Network: Are you effectively seeing a merging of the two business models and sides of the market? With the interest initially coming from the venues in enhancing the connectivity on their space, and then from the MNOs as they see the efficacy and utilisation of their network as a result then they become ready to invest themselves.

Patrik Jakobson, Head of Network as-a-Service, Ericsson:

Exactly. There has previously been a bit of a vacuum, with the operators not coming forward to deploy these networks, so the venues have taken the opportunity into their own hands. Or in the case of Stamford Bridge it is actually Ericsson who designs, owns, builds, and operates the network.

The Future Network: Do you think unlicensed spectrum is the only way we will get multiple operators involved in sharing network infrastructure?

Patrik Jakobson, Head of Network as-a-Service, Ericsson:

I think there is a place for both licensed and unlicensed spectrum and ultimately, I think they will complement each other. I think what is happening with unlicensed spectrum, especially in the US on 3.5 GHz is very interesting, but there is another area where this idea becomes very interesting, and that is in private LTE networks. In the UK, the government is leading the way in this. They are publishing reports on how to stimulate network usage and in order to take a step towards the licensed and unlicensed spectrum working together they are proposing that for example, large manufacturing plants should be able to use licensed spectrum within their premises as long as the the spectrum can be controlled, and the interference managed and they can ensure that there will be no effect on the outdoor radio environment. This opens up the way for a quasi-regulated environment for private LTE networks going forward. I think there will be more developments in this area.

This is another example of where we see the service model becoming very important, because in a lot of these cases the companies that will implement these private networks would not have the capability to do it themselves, they will look at buying the system, and they will not want to take the life cycle risk of the network. In some cases we will do this together with the MNOs (when it involves licensed spectrum) but in the US and others where we already now discussing going down the unlicensed route, then of course you can work with totally new players, and they don’t have to be non telco companies, it could be the fixed line operators or the cable operators that don’t have a mobile radio license but they still want to diversify into wireless.

The Future Network: These new ideas seem to be coming thick and fast now, and it’s so interesting to see this market moving so quickly 

Patrik Jakobson, Head of Network as-a-Service, Ericsson:

Yes, I agree. A few months ago if I’d talked about augmented reality, no one would have known what I was talking about, but now all of a sudden we have components there in a totally new fashion; new deployment models, new business models, new players – especially on the private network side. It is exciting for the industry, and for the first time it’s moving towards being mainstream and it’s not just the tech companies who are getting involved.

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