5G networks introduce important technological discontinuities that enable new business models, fostering innovation and economic growth. This is a revolution that goes through the digital transformation of the entire infrastructure layer, extending to the periphery of the network and then on up to radio sites
5G represents a revolutionary discontinuity in the world of networks, because it was born with the ambitious goal of being truly “multi-service” and therefore being able to differentiate bandwidth, latency and business continuity, depending on the type of application to be served. The same network used by smartphones can be used, with very different performance, for so-called mission critical applications, such as the control of a production line, but also for the collection of data transmitted, for example, by sensors for monitoring city traffic and air quality.
Succeeding in this challenge means being able to support a wide variety of applications and use cases, whilst also enabling so-called “long tail services”, which are very vertical applications that in other times would have required investment on private networks, which are difficult to monetize. And it is precisely for this reason that we must look at 5G as an extraordinary driver of innovation and economic growth.
The concept that is now familiar in the industry community and known as slicing, evoking the image of a common resource that can be divided into “slices”, is precisely what makes the network “multi-service”, but it is also the same feature that makes it “multi-tenant” and therefore natively wholesale, thus laying the groundwork for an increasingly efficient use of the investments that will be required to make 5G pervasive and usable in all production contexts.
The are many challenges, from the usual ones involving the inclusion of new sites, to more recent ones related to the need to virtualize and, where possible, bring protocols and functionality to the cloud, turning hardware into software all the way to the edge of the network and then all the way out to radio sites. All network operators are committed to this transformation, as its implementation becomes a necessary precondition for truly putting the slice concept into practice in terms of dynamic allocation and control of resources intended for such differentiated applications.
No one will be able to change everything in one fell swoop, for obvious reasons of sustainability and business continuity, and we therefore expect that for a long time it will be necessary to find the best way to manage legacy layers together with new digital layers and doing so, amongst other things, in an increasingly differentiated context in terms of suppliers and actors involved. The challenge will therefore extend to management systems, OSS (Operations Support Systems) and BSS (Business Support Systems), which will have to deal with an increasingly articulated network and increasingly dynamic processes.
The ingredients of digital transformation for 5G
In our opinion, the technological issues that need to be addressed, starting from real use cases, are centred on the following main topics: edge computing solutions, the role of indoors, automation over the entire network life-cycle and the disruptive impact of Open RAN transformation
We believe that the test on the proper development of digital transformation for 5G must start from actual use cases that you want to offer on the market, and it is from this analysis that Italtel offers solutions.
Network management scenarios should also be considered which, with some simplification, can be divided into the three cases of: (a) direct management by the network operator; (b) management partially shared between different operators through a third party, the neutral host, such as a tower company, and finally the case (c) in which part of the resources, starting from radio coverage, are dedicated and optimized to serve specific users and environments, such as an industrial hubs, meeting the need to have a private network. This market demand is becoming increasingly clear, so much so that in many countries it has been deemed appropriate to allocate some frequencies for direct use by private parties for their applications.
The solutions to be deployed in the various use cases, although based on the same 5G standard, reflect different architectural models where the role played by the edge emerges more and more decisively, where the need to move part of the network resources close to those who use them can be dictated by the requirement of low latency for mission critical applications or by security needs and therefore data control.
Another central hub is indoors, which not only reflects the fact that normal data access takes place primarily in the home and office, but with 5G we expect this access to be extended to all production and service contexts, from factories to hospitals, where in addition to smartphones and PCs all production and operational aids will be networked.
5G transformation fully utilizes all the results of digital innovation, from those related to virtualization and the cloud, to the new frontiers of automation that see artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) as the solution to be able to manage increasingly complex platforms through the entire life-cycle, from planning to operational management. This transformation therefore also affects support domains, such as OSS and BSS.
We believe that it is important, in this increasingly complex and dynamic technological sector, to ensure openness and therefore the standardization of all interfaces, from the antenna to management systems, but also interfaces between hardware and software, thus making it possible to fully exploit the innovative drive of digital and the pervasiveness of the cloud. These are the prerequisites and the goals of another great revolution called Open RAN, where the perimeter of competition that concerns access is extended towards a frontier of innovation closer to the IT world, removing positioning yields and Lock-Ins by a historically limited number of players in the radio field. The prevailing technological junction in this phase focuses on the interoperability between a Radio Unit (RU) that supports physical layer protocols close to the antennas, and network elements that implement higher protocol level functions in standard and virtual ways, with Distributed Units (DU) and Centralized Units (CU), that can be aggregated across several radio sites and implemented using a distributed Cloud logic on generic hardware. Standardization bodies, such as the Open RAN Alliance and TIP (Telecom Infra Project), are supporting this important upgrade.
Interoperability between remote network elements on radio sites (the RUs), which can be potentially implemented by any supplier adopting the Open RAN standard, and those that can be deployed on the edge (the DUs) or centralized in operators’ server farms (the CUs), can also enable new management scenarios, for example allowing tower companies to include in their perimeter not only passive elements, such as pylons, equipment allocation spaces, antennas (as in the case of DAS covers) and power supply, but also the active functions of a radio network located on site.
Italtel solutions and positioning on 5G
In the path towards 5G, thanks to the transverse nature of our offering on networks and software, an offer which was enhanced in recent years by the skills of a radio engineering team, we are your partners along the entire life-cycle on this path. Our role as an end-to-end Integrator starts from the scenario analysis phase, which is vital for identifying a specific solution, and includes all the services supporting the development and interoperability checking stages, network development and operational management.
Italtel operates as an end-to-end System Integrator over the entire 5G transformation life-cycle, starting from an advisory role on the technical solution to be identified based on application requirements, up to after-sales support with a view to continuous improvements in service offered to clients.
Our catalogue includes solutions and professional services, including application use cases that can enhance the value of infrastructure investments, and using the state of the art in all technological areas connected with digital transformation, from cyber security to IoT, from human-machine collaboration to blockchain and Artificial Intelligence, including a specific solution for MEC – Multi Access Edge Computing, designed as a functional element of 5G architecture.
Our professional services include the complete management of network planning, including: development of a radio plan for mobile and FWA networks, electromagnetic impact assessment, requesting and obtaining permits and drafting of a full civil and plant engineering project.
Aware of the growing importance of the indoors in 5G networks, we have developed a skills centre focused on special coverage projects, such as airports, factories, hospitals and university campuses, where the solution we design takes into account not only application but also management requirements, responding to a demand that comes mainly from the world of industrial production, for specific solutions for private networks. Here the concept of network slice, even if it is native to 5G, should be reinforced by physical and not only virtual availability of a part of network resources, such as radio coverage and local servers, which need to be permanently dedicated to clients.
We strongly believe in the Open RAN transformation, as congenial terrain for our role as Systems Integrator, especially in this stage where interoperability between different vendors in various sections of an access network has not yet reached the stability that can only come from the adoption of a standard by a sufficient critical mass of industrial players from both the world of radio engineering and the cloud. Our team of radio solutions architects, supported by Italtel’s consolidated expertise in NFV and CNF (Network Function Virtualization and Container Network Function) technologies and IP communication infrastructures, represents the ideal work-site where network engineering and IT culture are increasingly integrated to support our clients in their Open RAN transformation.
Our vision, which is increasingly “software-centric”, also sees us committed to the other great challenge of 5G, which is putting more and more automation into networks, so as to be able to govern their complexity, from planning to operations, and thence in the digital transformation of OSS and orchestration systems. Here, in particular, we ensure that there is an ability to integrate not only solutions but also our services into client internal processes and back-end systems.