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With Great 5G Comes Great Digital Transformation

by Andrew Colby, Head of 5G Strategy & Product at Guavus, a Thales company

In the movie Spider-Man, Uncle Ben warns the young superhero, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Known as the Peter Parker Principle, this admonition also applies to operators of 5G networks.

Why? Digital Transformation.

Digital transformation is all the rage these days, with enterprises of all stripes pursuing initiatives with the following traits:

  • Business operations driven in real-time by data analytics and AI/ML
  • Converged customer engagement via multiple communications channels
  • Workforce enablement through online collaboration tools
  • Service optimization powered by automation
  • Enterprise IoT for device and smart machine integration
  • Digitally enabled, end-to-end supply chains

Digital Transformation

Success in these initiatives requires weaving new technologies into the fabric of enterprise IT. The first step is to deploy a hybrid multi-cloud enterprise IT architecture for microservices-based applications and adopt DevOps methodologies that facilitate small, agile teams to rapidly develop and continuously deliver the new services and applications underpinning digital transformation.

Mobile network operators (MNOs) are on a parallel digital transformation journey, adopting cloud-native infrastructure and DevOps for 5G Standalone networks. MNOs also plan to utilize cloud services provided by Amazon, Google or Microsoft for hosting 5G Core functions and multi-access edge computing (MEC) applications.

Digital enterprise IT is cloud-first and service-based, with applications utilizing a plethora of SaaS, PaaS and IaaS cloud services. Enabled by the widespread adoption of SDN in both local and wide area networks, Network-as-a-Service (NaaS) is the logical next step, giving IT applications programmatic control over service activation, configuration and quality of service (QoS).

5G network slicing is ideally suited for NaaS and the 3GPP’s Service Based Architecture (SBA) specifies capabilities that will enable enterprise IT applications to directly acquire visibility into network state and control services dynamically, which is vital for the mission-critical use cases envisioned for 5G.

The Power of 5G Networks

Back to the power of 5G networks and the Peter Parker principle, 5G is not “just another G”. The bar has been set extremely high for connection throughput and latency, network reliability and radio coverage across three broad service categories:

  • eMBB – Enhanced Mobile Broadband
  • URLLC – Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications
  • mMTC – Massive Machine Type Communications

5G Diagram

This has major implications for 5G as an integral link in the digital enterprise value chain, with IT applications requiring access to northbound APIs that provide real-time network visibility and programmatic control of the underlying services.

This is 5G’s Great Responsibility

“Industry 4.0” is the term broadly applied to enterprise digital transformation for businesses with large-scale manufacturing operations. New concepts include monitoring complex machines like jet engines in real time using cyber-physical systems that incorporate a “digital twin” of the physical machine so that technicians can better detect and predict maintenance issues. The overarching goal is to automate industrial operations by leveraging the power of AI/ML to derive operational intelligence from telemetry data in real time.

Industry 4.0

5G networks will play a critical role in Industry 4.0 initiatives, providing high-speed, low-latency wireless connections for machine automation and massive-scale IoT connectivity. Industrial use cases for 5G include sensor-driven process control, robotics and AR/VR for operations and maintenance.

The Rise of Private 5G Networks

These mission-critical use cases are spurring the adoption of private 5G networks, operating in licensed spectrum. WiFi will continue to serve the needs of the masses, operating in unlicensed spectrum, but 5G is an ideal choice for digital enterprise IT applications with stringent requirements for coverage, interference, performance, reliability and security. Private 5G networks will be deployed for communications in factory operations, complex transportation hubs, large-scale remote sites, smart cities and sprawling campus environments.

Private 5G can be deployed in several ways. MNOs can deliver private services for an enterprise in a separate network slice provided by the MNO’s public network. Alternatively, enterprises can build out isolated 5G networks on premise using their own licensed spectrum or publicly available spectrum such as Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the United States. There are also hybrid approaches which involve RAN sharing with an MNO to deliver private services controlled by on premise 5G infrastructure.

Regardless of how private 5G networks are implemented, both public and private network operators will be able to provide enterprise IT applications with real-time network visibility and programmatic control. The APIs and operational models for this are spelled out in the 3GPP’s 5G SBA, which specifies how “untrusted” application functions (AFs) integrate with network functions (NFs) in the 5G Core using APIs provided by the network exposure function (NEF) and policy control function (PCF).

The 5G SBA standard even opens the door for digital enterprises to create their own private 5G services which are tailored to satisfy the unique operational requirements of specific mission-critical IT applications. 5G networks need not be constrained by the one-size-fits-all design of today’s 4G/LTE services.

Digital transformation really is a big deal and the underlying technologies are essential for enabling network operators to live up to the great responsibility of extending the power of 5G to a new generation of digital enterprises.

Peter Parker and Uncle Ben would be proud.

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Image attribution: iStock