SD-WAN: Laying the foundation for 5G success

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The race to implement 5G is on.  Countries across the world – United States, China, South Korea – are leading 5G trials and already planning their commercial launch plans. In the US, Accenture has predicted that the next-generation network will ultimately add as much as $500 billion to the economy. In the UK, Vodafonehas launched its first holographic video call powered by 5G and EE has already switched on its first live 5G trial in the busy London business district of Canary Wharf.

5G is predicted to operate up to 100 times faster than 4G, meeting rising consumer and business demands for speedy video and data sharing and streaming.

The promise of 5G is enormous and customer loyalty will depend greatly on the network performance. Many 5G discussions revolve around speeds and availability, but we should firstly focus on the integration of the required infrastructure. As the delivery of prime-time roll-out nears, suppliers and operators must understand how to provide the right solutions in dense areas that need reliable and fast connectivity.

Public events and hotspots in huge cities where you have a sudden fluctuation of tourists leads to a massive increase in demand. Take a festival for instance. There could be 50,000 people attending, who want to share their experience with others by communicating seamlessly during the event. This places a heavy responsibility on the network which, for the other 362 days a year, probably does not need to cater for anywhere near as many people.

A blanket of small cells

To handle this increase, 5G networks will be powered by small cells – mini base stations that are installed every few hundred feet where the demand for data is particular high. An area blanketed with the antenna units will provide mobile 5G customers with reliable data services and seamless data handoff.

Small cells are critical for 5G deployment due to the fact that they utilise millimetre-wave spectrum, which lacks the signal range of the lower frequencies used by LTE services. Hence, to fulfil the needs of next-generation services like smart cities, remote medicine and the Internet of Things (IoT), it is important to ensure that small cells are installed across a sufficient density. This then adds crucial capacity to the specific cell site which can carry more data traffic, bringing many financial and bandwidth benefits.

Their small size makes the cells easy to install on street-level infrastructure such as lamp posts, kiosks, billboards, and on the sides of buildings in an unobtrusive and inoffensive manner. In some regions, getting the necessary zoning approval for their placement has been challenging, but progress is being made. For example, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently approved an order to streamline 5G infrastructure rollout.

SD-WAN considerations

The high density of small cell networks – which can require anywhere from five to 20 times more cells than LTE – will raise challenges in terms of how they can be continually optimised to deliver the best possible network performance. Automation technologies like SON (self-optimising networks) will be important – even more so when the mass-scale adoption of IoT hugely increases the number and variety of network elements.

Alongside artificial intelligence and real-time analytics, SD-WAN will be integral in deriving the most value from small cell-powered 5G networks. With the next-gen network, operators need to go beyond the hybrid wide area network (WAN) when upgrading infrastructure and commoditise bandwidth, pushing communication service providers to invest heavily in SD-WAN. By covering end-to-end migration for seamless transformation from legacy WAN to real-time, software-controlled WAN, SD-WAN streamlines the implementation and integrates with the already existing network infrastructure.

Compatible with any WAN architecture, SD-WAN solutions can enhance software-defined infrastructure with no disruption, and bring improved support for wireless technology, such as IoT through faster, policy-based provisioning of WAN services to support device connectivity. Ultimately, it offers businesses a lower cost to enhance their growth as they implement small cells.

SD-WAN allows for a more flexible, efficient allocation of network services to satisfy users’ varying quality-of-service (QoS) demands. Also known as network slicing, it will be key to make the small cells, and, ultimately, 5G roll-out a success.

Virtualisation of small cell networks will allow network operators to provide and control large numbers of access points more efficiently. In this scenario, dense clusters of cells in a high-traffic area could share a centralised controller that allows network resources to be allocated flexibly in accordance with traffic patterns. As 5G continues to evolve, the ability to remotely upgrade whole clusters of small cells will be invaluable.

SD-WAN solutions can also make remote branch offices (RBO) easier to support. When combined with 5G, end users will experience greatly enhanced performance in applications such as video-conferencing, cloud computing and remote access.

The flexibility of small cells

The potential that small cells will contribute to next-generation infrastructure is endless. The radically different types of wireless networks will play a critical role in offloading traffic from existing network towers. It can also allow Communication Service Providers (CSPs) to achieve more targeted and efficient use of spectrum. For example, the short broadcast range of 5G means that the same frequencies used by one small cell to connect with customer devices can be reused in a different area to serve other customers.

Another benefit for CSPs of small cells is time. They can take as short as 30 minutes to install, making it easy for CSPs to meet growing data traffic demand with greater speed and cost-effectiveness. The high density of a small cell network also allows network planners to more intelligently target usage hotspots based on a variety of parameters such as capacity and coverage requirements, high-value users, and customer churn propensity.

We must ensure that we accommodate for the massive data expansion with no issues, so that operators can cater for expanding capacity needs without the end-user feeling the burden – only the benefits. The next generation phenomenon that will see our love and livelihood of speedy internet increase even more needs to be fully tested and inspected with a fine-tooth comb to ensure that when it is finally deployed, we can reap the benefits of the technology that has been brewing for years.

While they do require SD-WAN investment and dedication – and a sharp learning curve from previous generations of wireless networks – small cells will be a cornerstone of future 5G deployment, and essential to delivering fast, reliable and efficient 5G services.

Faisal Usmani, Business Development and Strategy Lead, Communications Business Unit, Cyient Europe
Image Credit: Supparsorn / Shutterstock