Why Is Managing the New 5G RAN So Hard?

More cells, new frequencies, and the move to cloud are among the challenges. Cloud-based AI tools are among the solutions.

Cell tower lite up in the night with 5G in the middle

The 5G radio access network (RAN) rollout currently underway promises to deliver dramatically improved connectivity, lower latency, increased device density per cell, and greater bandwidth, which will open the door to significant new business opportunities for mobile operators, whether catering to enterprises or consumers. While the potential of 5G RAN is great, the challenges in managing the new 5G RAN also are great.

The Hurdles of an Evolving RAN

Some mobile operators have taken a phased approach to 5G rollout. They have started with an interim step of implementing 5G non-standalone (NSA), deploying 5G cells alongside 4G cells. Other operators are moving from NSA to 5G standalone (SA) or skipping the NSA stage altogether and going directly to 5G SA.

One of the biggest hurdles mobile operators face is that 5G RAN involves a thousand times more cells, new frequencies (5G new radio [NR]), and the need to support two new frequency ranges: FR1 from 410 MHz to 7125 MHz, and FR2 from 24.45 GHz to 52.6 GHz. The FR1 range also referred to as “Sub-6,” generally overlaps LTE cellular frequencies. These new 5G radios each come with new bandwidth and propagation characteristics. New propagation modeling is required to properly understand how they operate in urban settings, in buildings, in cars and trains, and in different suburban and rural topologies. Given the massive number of cells with 5G, drive testing is not a cost-effective method for planning and optimization.

Transition to Cloud Adds to the Challenge

The transition to 5G NR and 5G SA is more challenging because of the move to the cloud. Moving to the cloud brings the disaggregation of the RAN into subcomponents (Centralized Unit [CU], Distributed Unit [DU], RAN Intelligent Controller [RIC]) that may be cobbled together from different vendors in a best-of-breed solution. The move to the cloud means the (Kubernetes) containerization of these disaggregated RAN functions. Along with the transformation of mobile infrastructure service assurance tools, the RAN must also adapt and transition to cloud implementations in order to be viable.

Aging RAN Monitoring Solutions Won’t Get the Job Done

The same old tools in the tool kit simply won’t get the job done. The RAN monitoring tools put in place for 3G and 4G will no longer work with the 5G RAN because the 5G RAN disaggregates and virtualizes the RAN along with the massive scale in the number of cells and devices supported with a given cell. There is no easy upgrade path for RAN monitoring tools because they must move from physical to software and containerized implementations. This virtualization and cloudification of the 5G RAN demand a highly scalable, cloud-optimized software solution. But the overall RAN service assurance solution must still support the remaining 3G and 4G RAN because having multiple tools will complicate and add work to RAN teams.

Deep Visibility Into the RAN Is Key

Managing the complexity of the 5G rollout will require deep visibility into the RAN (including multivendor, multicloud, and multitechnology) with continuous monitoring and real-time session records that provide actionable insights for the 5G RAN lifecycle. This level of visibility will necessitate cloud-based AI tools that allow mobile operators to better understand the root cause of problems, enabling engineering teams to stop those problems from proliferating.

Assuring service for next-generation networks will be necessary to support service level agreements (SLAs) and business-critical services, as well as emerging applications. Highly scalable monitoring solutions that have been designed for the cloud will be instrumental for successfully delivering actionable insights into the reliability and latency of today’s evolving 5G RAN.

Learn more about 5G RAN solutions from NETSCOUT.