By Carsten Brinkschulte, CEO, Core Network Dynamics
When it comes to making forecasts, the Toasteroid – a new kitchen Internet of Things (IoT) gadget that syncs with your smartphone to print the weather forecast on your breakfast toast – is just the start of it. Analysts’ growth forecasts for IoT and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) range from Gartner’s 25 billion connected devices to Cisco’s 50 billion by the end of this decade.
Whichever prediction is right, I think it is safe to expect that unprecedented numbers of connected devices will flood the networks, challenging network operators at their core competency; providing connectivity.
Building on 4G LTE’s shoulders
Addressing these challenges, 5G will build on the foundation created by 4G LTE but the standardisation process is still not completed. 5G has the ingredients needed to cope with the explosion of connected devices requiring a mobile internet connection and providing ultra-low latency for the IIoT with real time applications such as the control of robots over a mobile network.
But there’s a 800Ib gorilla in the room; today’s centralised core network architecture is not designed to cope with billions of IoT endpoints. In order to avoid core network meltdown and help mobile players benefit fully from the upcoming IoT boom, we need to reduce the pressure on the central core, address backhaul congestion and fundamentally rethink how networks are designed.
Ye ta complete overhaul is not only economically untenable, but also not ideal from a techno-centric point of view. My view is that carriers should take an evolutionary approach to implementing 5G and take advantage of mobile edge computing (MEC) today, evolving and extending their LTE networks towards a 5G architecture. MEC is a new concept, which basically provides an IT service environment and cloud-computing capabilities at the edge of the network, close to or even right at the base station or small cell.
Radio congestion and backhaul strain
Today’s LTE networks are based on a star topology with a centralised evolved packet core (EPC) for handling authentication, signalling and network traffic. The average base station today typically handles signalling for up to 1,000 to 1,500 devices. However, as future IoT applications emerge, a base station might have to manage hundreds of thousands of sensors and actuators, each one sending signals and transmitting data.
Besides the radio congestion issues, which could be addressed with smaller cells and radio planning, this surge of devices will likely put significant strain on backhaul traffic, which will become a critical bottleneck as devices communicate back to centralised core networks. Handling authentication, signalling and traffic for billions of devices could also overload the centralised EPC, resulting in degradation of service quality for smartphones and triggering large investment requirements for carriers struggling to handle the load.
NFV, SDN, MEC, LTE….
Using new network technologies like network function virtualisation (NFV) and software defined networks (SDN), telcos have already started out on their journey to bring more internet technology to the mobile networks. I expect to see the first significant deployments of NFV and SDN at the edge of the mobile network using MEC. Addressing key challenges of 5G, MEC enables decentralised core networks providing mobile connectivity and computing at the edge, running applications and the EPC closer to the devices.
When considering the IIOT, ultra-fast communication between devices is paramount for real time applications. Take the example of a car manufacturer’s production line in which all the wireline network infrastructure would be replaced with wireless networking. In this case, real time applications such as controlling robots are essential, but today’s centralised core network architecture simply won’t cut it because network latency in centraliced LTE networks can be as high as 100 milliseconds, which means that robots would not be able to react quickly enough to information provided by external sensors.
By bringing the EPC to the edge with MEC, we could avoid much of the backhaul altogether, handle signalling locally and keep local traffic local by having the factory robots communicating in real time over a local mobile network. This means network latency can be radically reduced – a key requirement of 5G – to a much more acceptable latency of 5ms or less.
Significant market opportunity
From a business perspective, the combination of 5G and a distributed core network deployed at the customer site represents a significant market opportunity for mobile operators. It will enable them to offer secure and dedicated spectrum to industrial customers for operating a local and customer-specific mobile network.
The licensed spectrum owned by mobile operators can be a key differentiator and a valuable asset when deploying mission-critical mobile infrastructure in the industry and replacing wired networks.
In summary, I believe that keeping local traffic local and offloading signalling to the edge will become vital to IIOT as well as IoT in general. When it comes to making core networks fit for the IoT era, MEC – with a distributed core EPC as a critical component – is a key milestone on the road to 5G.
Core Network Dynamics develops and markets OpenEPC, a complete mobile network infrastructure in software.