DENVER — Rural carriers need to be more aggressive in updating their networks to 5G specifications to take advantage of greater network efficiency and serve new, rural-based business models. Or at least that’s what a trio of vendor representatives said during a keynote panel at the recent Competitive Carriers Association’s Mobile Carriers Show 2019.
Those arguments were made by representatives from Ericsson, Nokia, and Cisco, all of which, obviously, would benefit from such aggression. However, Eric Woody, CTO and COO at Wyoming-based rural carrier Union Wireless, said onstage what most similar-sized operators in the audience were probably thinking: “5G appears to be the biggest hit on my checkbook.”
“It’s not just the 5G equipment, but really the infrastructure to get the low latency and backhaul necessary in rural America,” Woody explained.
Craig Sparks, chief innovation officer at Mississippi-based C Spire, took a more pragmatic approach, noting that while the move toward 5G is a large step, it will be necessary.
“The core architecture side has been the most disruptive on the move to 5G,” Sparks said of his carrier’s work so far in rolling out 5G equipment. But, he added that, “what it enables is profound. Ten years from now it’s a different world. It will be highly automated in 10 years.”
Sparks explained that 5G will require operators to completely change how they view their networks. “From a carrier perspective, if we use old models, I can’t wrap my head around how we do this,” he said. “I don’t have these guarantees that I am used to, but with orchestration automation tools that collect live data, these can give me the SLAs [service level agreements].”
As for the cost concerns brought up by his colleague at Union Wireless, Sparks said that “the only way to make the best of our 5G investments is to look to all of the things under the umbrella of virtualization. These automation tools all need to come together for us to monetize the best of our 5G investments. I can’t stick to yesterday’s models.”
Need to Invest
The vendors, of course, piled onto that notion that 5G investments were necessary.
Bob Everson, global director for mobility and 5G at Cisco, said that operators can move toward the new 5G network architecture to add more agility and lower the operating costs of their networks. “One of the key things to invest in now that will get you to what you need in the future,” Everson said. “They need to invest in programmable networks. Invest in more virtualization to get more of their core into the cloud.”
Paul Challoner, vice president of network product solutions at Ericsson, also cited the need to invest more into software to support 5G deployments. “5G is more software defined than any other generation,” he said, adding that automation platforms that can create closed-loop solutions are key to 5G. “It’s a new approach to the network.”
Challoner cited the ONAP project as an example of this push, stating that it provides a foundation for the building of applications that can control the network. He also highlighted the growing use of open radio access network interfaces as part of this software push, noting they allow for greater customization, though at the expense of creating some complexity.
However, rural carriers remain fixated on the overall costs, which is likely to remain the biggest barrier to a more aggressive 5G deployment plan.
“The engineer in me loves the functionality and the spectrum efficiency,” Woody said of what 5G can bring. “And it really helps in our network. Not in the entire network today, but in the areas where I have really concentrated population centers and then miles of nothing. But how do I monetize that. The industries in our region really do have to find the use cases where it provides them value so I can provide them the network to make them more efficient.”