Verizon this week announced the early phases of its standards-based mobile 5G network with the first two cities, Chicago and Minneapolis, going live on April 11. The nation’s largest network operator says the service will be available in “select areas” in those markets, and it plans to bring an additional 30 markets online later this year.
This also marks the first time Verizon will use the global 5G New Radio (NR) standard developed by 3GPP. The carrier used proprietary technology from the Verizon 5G Technology Forum to launch fixed 5G broadband in four markets in October 2018, and now says all 5G services going forward will use the 5G NR standard.
AT&T late last year was the first U.S. carrier to launch a standards-based mobile 5G network with service in a dozen cities, but Verizon is now positioned to be second, launching a little less than four months behind its largest competitor.
Behind the scenes, Verizon engineers have been preparing for 5G by migrating network core and edge processing functions from the physical world to the virtual world for about three years now, said Adam Koeppe, SVP of network planning at Verizon.
Virtualizing the 5G Network Core
“Today, in the 5G network that we’ve already launched in our four 5G Home markets, those software functions that are used for the core of the 5G network are 100 percent virtual. Unlike LTE where you had to start physical and move to virtual, they’re native 5G network functions, those all start as virtual,” said Koeppe.
Similar to other carriers’ 5G roadmaps, Verizon’s initial 5G deployments are based on non-standalone architecture, and it’s using parts of the 4G network core with a 5G radio access network. “All those functions in that path for 5G are virtual regardless of whether they’re 4G core that you’re using to support 5G or native to 5G functions,” Koeppe said.
“We’re trying to get the processing capabilities required on a network session as close to the consumer as possible, and the reason for that is one of the promises and realities of 5G is that you have the ability to have much lower network latency,” he said. Multi-access edge compute equipment (MEC) and network slicing are key components of that effort. “You have to make fundamental architectural changes to how your core works if you want to provide very low-latency services.”
Verizon recently tested MEC equipment and platform software on a live 5G network in Houston that resulted in latency being cut in half, and it has initiated several tests beyond that as well, according to Koeppe. The operator plans to share more details about its path for MEC throughout 2019.
While mobile 5G deployments and MEC can run on separate tracks, both efforts will “run in parallel throughout 2019” with MEC infrastructure being installed at locations that Verizon already owns and operates, Koeppe said.
Blending Hardware With Software
Wireless networks power dozens of use cases today, but that is going to get amplified with distinct use cases that are only possible on 5G when paired with MEC, including network slicing and other software-related efforts, according to Koeppe. Even smart meters, which require very little networking for example, can generate a tremendous amount of data demand when tens of millions are running on the same network as smartphones, virtual reality headsets, and other IoT devices, he said.
Verizon primarily manages those issues today manually by identifying the class of each device running on its network. Network slicing and virtualization changes that significantly, and software plays a critical role, Koeppe said. “All the network functions that are providing that service need to be virtualized because I can’t autonomously spin up physical capacity. That has to be done by a person. But if it’s virtual capacity I can spin that up from a machine through orchestration and machine learning.”
Once that’s multiplied by a magnitude of 15 or 20 different use cases “you have a very sophisticated network that is all virtualized and all programmable. Some of that you physically just can’t do with LTE today. Much of those 5G use cases will rely on that type of programmability of your network and you can’t do that without having a virtualized network function,” Koeppe said.
Verizon wants to put the capabilities of its 5G network and the MEC network into the hands of innovators who can drive use cases beyond what’s possible with 4G today, according to Koeppe. “These are radically different network capabilities, a lot goes in to ensuring that the hardware and the software works well together. And that’s the phase we’re in right now with our deployment.”