LTE LEVELLED THE PLAYING FIELD
The greatest competitive differentiator of any service provider should be its network. Heavy investments in the network should empower the differentiated services that drive price premiums over competitors and drive cost efficiencies through economies of scale and scope. However, since the introduction of LTE technology, mobile network operators have struggled to monetize these advantages.
There are several reasons for this. First, regulations such as net neutrality have limited the extent to which operators can monetize “fast lane” type services on the consumer side, resulting in “one size fits all” service quality. Marketing campaigns have effectively convinced many subscribers that network quality is nearly level across providers, driving the basis of competition to unfavorable dimensions such as price or device subsidy. Additionally, “over the top” competitors on the consumer side enjoy the same network quality as service provider data services in most cases, further eroding any ability for the service provider to distinguish itself technically or commercially.
On the enterprise side, regulatory barriers are less constraining, and many operators support SLA based services with premium pricing. However, here too operators struggle to differentiate as the technologies underlying these services have become more homogenous. This means that most providers are offering similar SLAs and are subject to similar economic realities. In summary, since the introduction of LTE, operators have not enjoyed an opportunity to distance themselves from the pack using their network.
5G CREATES A NEW PLAYING FIELD
5G technologies are especially disruptive as they enable operators to expand their revenues and improve subscriber QoE while simultaneously controlling costs. On the revenue expansion front, 5G enables operators to design and rapidly rollout truly innovative services to unique enterprise verticals in contrast to the “one size fits all” simplistic SLAs of today. An often-touted example of this is remote surgery, where an operator must provide highly reliable, high QoE, real-time video between two potentially distant locations over a secure connection. But there are many other examples as shown in Figure 1, with the ultimate potential limited only by service provider creativity.
On the cost side, several key technologies will allow early adopters to rollout new services faster and with greater efficiency than rivals. First, while the cost saving potential of NFV/SDN is debated in the industry, its ability to make the network more elastic and agile is undeniable. This capability is also a key enabler of the other two efficiency improvements tied to 5G, which are network slicing and automation. With network slicing and NFV/SDN technologies both in place, operators can effectively utilize their network capacity to a greater degree than previously possible. Specifically, virtualized network assets can be reallocated based on priority (e.g. first responder services preempting consumer mobility), seasonal or temporal variations in demand across services and slices, or variations in application requirements (i.e. radio versus signaling intensive services). Finally, automation combines with these capabilities to maximize efficiency by automating previously laborious tasks like service changes, network reconfigurations, and capacity reallocations.
GETTING IT RIGHT THE FIRST TIME
Many operators are sitting on the 5G sidelines, waiting to learn from the experiences of others. This creates an opportunity for bold operators to take calculated risks and disrupt the status quo. However, the key word in the last sentence is calculated, as no operator wants to charge into a new technology with no mechanism to ensure that it is working at every step in its lifecycle. Complicating this challenge, 5G leverages immature NFV technology and introduces a new layer of complexity with network slicing. Figure 2 provides a sampling of key 5G functionality which must be tested and assured across the lifecycle.
FASTER TIME-TO-MARKET THROUGH DEVOPS
5G must also support radically faster service innovation which means each stage of testing and assurance must take less time and use fewer resources relative to previous generations. That’s why leading service providers are adopting DevOps and working to streamline and unify testing across key development and operations workflows such as network validation, service testing and operational assurance. Unfortunately, the migration to DevOps brings significant challenges related to entrenched differences in testing and assurance approaches across development and operations teams.
SPIRENT AS A LIFECYCLE SERVICE ASSURANCE PARTNER
Rapidly rolling out and assuring 5G platform-based services requires two significant changes to the status quo. First, a DevOps approach is required to ensure that development and operations teams leverage a unified set of metrics, methodologies and systems. Spirent is pioneering a new approach to testing and assurance based on DevOps principles called Lifecycle Service Assurance (LSA). With LSA, the same test conditions, agents, scripts and analytics are utilized throughout the lifecycle of the key functions in Figure 2. This speeds time to market and improves quality by ensuring that pre-launch testing and validation mirrors production testing and assurance.
Another key aspect of LSA is the use of sophisticated analytics to monitor, model, analyze and act on the myriad different datasets associated with the functions in Figure 2. Similar analytics are already being applied to 3G and LTE (see Figure 3); however, 5G is driving new needs including consideration of variations in customer quality requirements, support for dynamically changing hybrid physical/virtual networks and closed-loop automation.
Spirent is actively partnering with 5G innovators to apply LSA principles to early deployments and help realize the promise of 5G as a true competitive enabler.