Facing the Growing Complexity of 5G RAN

Service providers need to do more with less.

Radio Tower lite up at night with centered 5G in the middle of image.

While 5G has clearly demonstrated the fastest generational rollout, that fact belies the reality that 5G RAN is far more complex than its predecessors.

The challenges of managing a cloudified 5G RAN demand visibility more than ever.

5G deployment continues at a blistering pace. A report from last year found that approximately 70 countries had 5G networks—up from 38 in 2020. As of the end of 2022, the number of 5G users surpassed 1 billion; that number is expected to reach 1.5 billion this year and grow to 2 billion by 2025. This growth is all the more impressive given that 5G reached 1 million users in only 3.5 years, as compared to 4G, which took four years, and 3G, which took 12 years.

Although 5G has clearly demonstrated the fastest generational rollout, that fact belies the reality that 5G radio access network (RAN) is far more complex than its predecessors. This complexity comes from a dramatic increase in cells that enable an order-of-magnitude increase in the amount of traffic and number of devices supported.

The disaggregation of the RAN also adds to the complexity. This disaggregation comes in two flavors: the virtualized RAN (vRAN) and Open RAN (O-RAN). O-RAN specifies industry-standard architecture and interfaces for each disaggregated component of the RAN. This standardization enables service providers to use nonproprietary subcomponents from a variety of vendors.

Ultimately, the virtualization and cloudification of containerized and disaggregated network functions leaves vendors with a lot on their plates to deal with.

Doing More with Less

While service providers are faced with the many challenges of 5G complexity, they are also dealing with constraints on OPEX, because mobile operators’ operations and engineering teams are forced to do more with the same or less staff.

As the sheer number of devices and services running on RAN resources continues to expand rapidly, so too does the potential for service issues. Adding to that burden, operations and engineering teams must move network functions to the cloud, and then manage them once migrated. This requires having properly trained staff ready to take on the responsibility. Although moving to the cloud also implies the use of orchestration to turn up and down compute resources in the cloud in response to traffic demands, there will likely not be a flash cut to automation, so operations and engineering teams will still be managing network resources as they learn to implement and trust automation.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that there’s a myriad of infrastructure vendors for the respective disaggregated network functions, which in turn inevitably creates endless finger-pointing when service issues emerge. The key for service providers is to get out ahead of these problems.

New Challenges Necessitate Scalable Cloud Implementation Solutions

Although teams can expect certain service issues with the transition to 5G RAN—much as was seen before in the transition from 3G to 4G, including propagation changes with the new (millimeter) radio waves and optimization of new radios, handovers between cells, authentication, and registration issues—there are compelling new challenges that necessitate scalable cloud implementation solutions. At a base product level, next-gen RAN monitoring solutions must provide insights to disaggregated network elements and cell performance, subscribers and devices operating in the RAN, and cell neighbor relations and carrier aggregation.

Given the many challenges operations and engineering teams face, the million-dollar question is, what can mobile operators do to improve their ability to do more with less? 

It all starts with visibility. These professionals need deep visibility into the RAN (with multivendor, multicloud, and multitechnology support) with continuous monitoring and real-time session records that provide actionable insights for the 5G RAN lifecycle, including closed-loop feeds for the orchestration layer. Furthermore, mobile operators need an assurance solution with a low total cost of ownership (TCO) to keep CAPEX and OPEX down and a minimal hardware footprint to reach their sustainability goals. The good news is that doing more with less is possible with the right 5G RAN visibility solution.

Learn more about 5G RAN solutions from NETSCOUT.