Senior Director of 5G Architecture Cisco

Why operators’ 5G decisions today will have long-term implications for networks

Transforming the wireless network from 4G to 5G is a big move for mobile operators. Because this is such a major transformation for the network, Cisco is encouraging service providers to look beyond short-term decisions and invest for the long-term in solutions that will add agility to the network. Mobile World Live talks to Bob Everson, Senior Director of 5G architecture at Cisco.


Where do you think operators should be focusing 5G today?


Operators have a lot on their plates right now. 5G brings a complex set of technologies to integrate, and now they are faced with other factors like the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time, operators are pushed by market and competitive pressure to get 5G radio systems deployed. That’s good for the short term but as they are doing this, it is important they look forward three to five years. Evaluating today’s decisions with the end in mind will allow them to optimize those investments for longer term gains.

There is a tendency to build on what is already there. While that makes sense for initial NSA (Non StandAlone) deployments, we are cautious about building even more inertia into legacy architectures.


How can operators make their networks more agile and why is that important?


5G is the first opportunity for operators to transform the network architecture since 2.5G. This means that prior generations are an evolution of an architecture that was established over two decades ago – when data speeds were measured in kilobits per second and there was no such thing as a smartphone.

Service providers are looking at their existing network and asking: “Is this the architecture that will get me to where I need to be in the future?” Will it provide the flexibility and programmability required for the next generation of services, and will it allow me to be cost-competitive in the future?

We know that enterprise services will be the major revenue growth area for service providers. And while we have a good idea of what enterprises are looking for, it is impossible to clearly define all of the services that will drive revenue in the 2023-2025 timeframe.

5G, and related technologies, will allow operators to optimise the network for those new services but it’s not a given. Take agility, for instance. Mobile networks have traditionally not been very agile. Virtualisation in the core is helping but it all starts with the radio access network (RAN). Now that open virtualised RAN (Open vRAN) is becoming a reality, we see more operators doing trials with this technology.

Even if a mobile operator is not going to deploy open vRAN right away, they need to be prepared so it’s an option down the road. To do that, operators should pursue trials and be open to a broader radio ecosystem.

There are investments they can make today, in and around their existing RAN architecture that will give them more optionality and agility down the road.

Two key areas are the transport network and telco cloud. Now is the time to rethink the transport architecture – traffic profiles will change over time and require greater flexibility. Transport networks should be built to support converged services, any-to-any connectivity, and programmability. The great thing is that they can build toward that now, while they are expanding capacity. Likewise, on the telco cloud strategy they should evaluate both the network applications and services with an eye to how those applications will be consumed and deployed in the next three to five years.


There’s a lot of discussion about opening up the RAN. What do operators need to do now to make open RAN a success?


There are two key aspects to this – one is to evaluate how it fits into their network plans, and the other is by encouraging existing vendors to adopt open interfaces. There is great momentum - operators of all types are engaging with Cisco and others in this ecosystem to understand the architecture and capabilities and how it will fit into their network. There are many insertion points – in some cases it’s an overlay of new 5G spectrum, generally midband or millimeter Wave. In other cases, it’s small cell densification or rural deployments.

The operator demand is important because it drives progress and holds the industry accountable. There is still some vendor resistance to opening up key interfaces, which ultimately slows down operators, but I feel like most of those will be resolved over the next year or two with pressure from customers.


What is your thinking on non-standalone 5G and standalone 5G?


Non-standalone is a good first step to deploy 5G New Radio as soon as possible, but it doesn’t allow for the full benefit of 5G. The 5G Standalone (SA) core is where new services will be delivered. There are a couple of different approaches. Some customers are saying they want to approach their consumer and enterprise businesses together on a common core from the start. Others are going to separate them initially. It can work either way, but if you want to do a lot of innovation around the enterprise segment, it may be easier to separate somewhat. You have to approach it with a mind to how they come together to provide unified services, but this approach can open up flexibility to innovate while keeping up the momentum on consumer mobile broadband.


What do you think enterprises are looking for from 5G?


There is a lot of buzz and many attractive service categories. We are seeing strong interest across sectors such as manufacturing, healthcare, and hospitality, and many more.

But what enterprises are really saying, is that before you go too far down this 5G path, you need to make it easy for us to integrate into our existing systems. Return on investment plummets if this becomes too complicated and difficult to deploy. Enterprises want operators to make sure that 5G works with their existing policy and security profiles and that their applications work seamlessly in a heterogeneous environment that includes 5G.

To do this, service providers need more APIs and fewer consoles. They need to provide enterprises with an integrated view of the network. Ultimately, enterprises do not want to think about radio technology, they just want their services delivered in the most effective way.


What is Cisco doing to help operators overcome some of these challenges?


The foundation our focus is helping operators make money, save money and build a trusted infrastructure. We know they have some tricky transformations to go through and see a big part of our role as ensuring they can break the inertia of the past and transform gracefully.

A few years ago we established a vision for what a software-defined network will look like. We set the vision but we also knew we had to make it real. That meant working every aspect of that architecture and building an end-to-end blueprint to make it real. Now we are taking this blueprint and working with customers to implement it across their network. That’s how you drive transformation – it’s nice to set high level visions but you have to roll up your sleeves and do the work.

When we say end-to-end, we mean it. It starts with the RAN where we’ve been innovating with Open vRAN since 2017. Now we have engagements around the world where we are helping customers prove out and deploy this architecture. The second key aspect is the transport network where our converged SDN transport solution is market leading. The final major category is the 5G subscriber experience where we are delivering on both scale and service richness. Scale is evidenced by our groundbreaking work with T-Mobile to deploy the first 5G standalone core, while our innovation with enterprises and SPs to build and trial 5G solutions is delivering a new service experience.

Ultimately this is all focused on accelerating the transformation with our customers so they can maximise their success in the new 5G enabled world.