As 2016 dawns on the wireless industry and operators continue coping with the challenge of improving customer experience and reducing costs, four aiding technologies will take center stage: network functions virtualization; voice over LTE and Wi-Fi calling; self-organizing networks; and the rise of “5G” networks. While we’ve been hearing about these next-generation technologies for some time, the challenge in the next year will be ensuring they are all working to maximize business opportunity profitability. And this will require granular, end-to-end real-time visibility across all devices and parts of the network.
Today we are poised to see a real revolution in networking over the next year where network operators now have the potential to intelligently and efficiently manage the ebb and flow of traffic and exploit under-utilized resources without compromising infrastructure or the customer experience. But it will take advancements in real-time visibility to do so. As end users come to expect flawlessness from their providers, assuring service will become much more detailed than simply checking to make sure everything’s plugged in.
Network functions virtualization
NFV can significantly lower network operating costs and increase flexibility and service velocity. Today, industry guidelines are for the most part in place to allow introducing the virtualized functions themselves, but management and orchestration standards for the self-configuration required to truly enable NFV are still in their infancy.
While 2016 will see a significant increase in NFV deployments, these will primarily revolve around semi-automatic configuration – in other words, not the full-blown automation required to realize 100% of NFV’s benefit. The NFV industry is therefore likely to put a great deal of effort into developing guidelines for the management and orchestration side of NFV deployments.
The benefits of NFV will only be realized if network performance management tools can access these new, virtual network interfaces. Operators will need to invest in solutions that ensure they can satisfy quality-of-service needs, including resiliency and latency in initial virtualization deployments. This next year should show a major ramp-up in the availability of test and assurance solutions able to provide truly actionable performance insights for virtualized network environments.
Voice over LTE and Wi-Fi
The fast growth in VoLTE rollouts will continue in 2016, as it becomes the de facto voice service over the legacy voice service. But VoLTE cannot exist as an island. It needs to evolve to reflect the way people communicate today, which comprises not just voice but also data, messaging social media, video and other multimedia-rich services. This implies that assurance systems must empower more granular and flexible control over performance parameters and thresholds to meet the needs of these different applications, alongside the visibility to react in real-time to unpredictable user behaviors.
The interaction between VoLTE and VoWi-Fi will mature, characterized by soft and seamless handoffs between the access methods. Managing VoLTE end to end – meaning understanding service quality from handset to the radio access network to backhaul to core – will be a key operator goal as they ensure that their services deliver high customer quality of experience. This means deploying sophisticated assurance platforms to know in real time where VoLTE services are performing poorly and where there is a stress in the network.
Self-organizing networks are essentially the key to a connected future. By automating configuration, optimization and healing of the network, this frees up operational resources to focus on what’s truly important – better quality of experience and aligning revenue to network optimization. And, with the number of connected “things” positively exploding, managing and keeping up with the sheer number of devices requires an automated approach that also yields a new set of network-assurance challenges operators will have to deal with in 2016.
Today, many SON techniques simply baseline a network. In 2016, as the extreme non-uniformity in the network becomes more apparent, it will take a new, end-to-end approach to SON to keep these benefits coming.
The network will become more sporadic and this will manifest in several forms: time, subscriber, location and application. For example, take subscriber and location: a recent Viavi Solutions customer study found just 1% of users consume more than half of all data on a network. The study also found 50% of all data is consumed in less than 0.35% of the network area. To achieve significant performance gains via SON, operators can apply predictive approaches using analytics that reveal exactly which users are consuming how much bandwidth – and where they are located. This level of foresight is key to not only unlocking the full potential of SON in the RAN, but also to maximizing ROI for software-defined networking and NFV in the core.
2016 will be the year that at least the term “5G” proliferates, but we’re still a ways off from actual implementations. A future filled with driverless cars, drones that can deliver packages and location-based IoT products will require always-on networks with less than 1 millisecond latency – and that’s what 5G promises on paper. But 5G is imminent, and 2016 will reveal many advances toward building and delivering it to end users and their applications.
The race to 5G is bringing with it advancements in the network that inch us closer to always-on, always-fast and always improving networks. This work is pushing the industry to develop new tools and solutions that offer real-time troubleshooting and network healing, faster turn-up times and the ability to instantaneously respond to traffic spikes driven by external events. These new solutions may, at the same time, encourage new revenue streams by supporting the delivery of location- and contextually-relevant applications and services. Examples of these include mobile payment support and security as well as smart city applications for public services and emergency support.
The move to 5G is not an evolution, but a revolution – and major challenges exist across every stage of the technology deployment lifecycle and every part of the end-to-end network.
To move the needle on 5G development in 2016, operators need a partner with a wide breadth of expertise and solutions to collaborate on strategic planning and development in consideration of the significant dependencies and coordination needed for successful deployment.
Edge network configuration must change and move towards ultra-dense heterogeneous networks. Front- and backhaul transport require lower latency. These and other factors present significant challenges for commercial 5G evolution; however, the train has clearly left the station. And it will gain substantial momentum in 2016.
To 2016 and beyond
It’s exciting to watch the networking revolution – with myriad new capabilities and services surfacing thanks to evolving end-user habits and demands, the network simply cannot remain stagnant. And as new approaches – from hyped technologies like SDN/NFV or 5G – come about, operators need more sophisticated ways of ensuring it’s all working. In 2016, expect not only to see the network evolve, but also ways organizations capture and leverage analytics for assurance and optimization.
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