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Technologies that make 5G happen

Franz Kasparec

Global Offerings Manager Telecom, Media, Technology Industry, Atos

Technologies that make 5G happen

As 5G – the fifth generation of cellular networking – is rolled out all over the world and legacy 3G networks are switched off, enthusiasm is growing about what it might bring. With 5G, everything connects with everything: IT can leave the confines of the data center, and digital transformation can become ubiquitous. But what are the technologies behind this revolution?

Let’s take a closer look at six of them.

Telco Cloud

The era of specialized telecom appliances is nearing its end. The trend called Network Function Virtualization (NFV) – to achieve with software what specialized appliances did previously – started many years ago for centralized components of telecom network systems. Modern network function software runs in the form of virtual machines or Kubernetes containers, just like IT software runs in the cloud.

The ‘Telco Cloud’ infrastructure needed for this resides mainly in the telecom operator’s data center today: in other words, it is implemented as a private cloud. However, moves to outsource part of it to cloud providers are on the way. Moreover, virtualization does not stop at the central components. With 5G Radio Access Networks (RAN), components in cell towers, and other roadside ‘edge’ locations, are also virtualized.

Private 5G networks

In the past, private cellular networks were a prerogative of emergency organizations like the police and the military. The availability of software-based, virtualized network functions running on standard server hardware forming a ‘private cloud’ changed the picture fundamentally. Today, private 5G and campus 5G networks are mushrooming.

Increasingly, private network functions are outsourced to public cloud providers like Amazon, Azure, or Google, who have long since recognized a booming future market and started to sell private 5G solutions. So have telecom operators, who offer private 5G network services to their enterprise customers.

Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC)

Few of the private 5G networks established today are used for voice communication. Most carry data traffic.

Data communication is the lifeblood of ubiquitous, distributed digital transformation. It facilitates secure and efficient computer connections between branch offices and the central data center and connectivity to the internet and the public cloud. Data communication also makes edge computing possible across all areas like self-driving forklifts on manufacturing sites, drones that fly through warehouses, over fields and take stock of the inventory, crops with cameras and automated image processing, or the ‘connected patient’ in mobile intensive care and medical emergencies.

The integration of edge computing and public or private networks is called Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC). “Cloud storage and computing are built into the network,” as Atos telecom partner Verizon calls it. 5G networks are a key driver of MEC.

5G networks support so-called network slices, which are ‘sub-networks’ independent of others on the same network. This ensures that congestion of a public voice network – people calling each other in panic during a public safety crisis – will not jeopardize emergency response services. 5G slices can be specialized for a purpose, such as high-bandwidth video transmission and other enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), or low-bandwidth massive Machine Type Communication (mMTC) as is typical of the Internet of Things, or Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC) in telemedicine.

MEC calls for MEC applications. With the acquisition of Ipsotek in 2021, Atos has developed capabilities in automated image processing, especially in edge-level video analytics and other computer vision technologies.

Small cells

In 5G, traditional cell towers increasingly give way to dense networks of so-called micro-, nano- and femtocells, especially in urban deployments. The reward is a significant reduction in broadcasting power per cell and finer signal distribution. More than that, the absence of electromagnetic radiation hotspots, as traditional cell towers have been, avoids concerns about potential health risks that people associate with cellular networks.

In private 5G, small cell technology facilitates the cost-efficient construction of indoor systems. Many expect that 5G, with its slicing features and outstanding network quality management, will eventually replace wireless LAN (WLAN). Indeed, a 5G femtocell device today looks much like a WLAN hotspot box.

Technologies like Multi-Operator Radio Access Network (MORAN) allow for the same radio infrastructure to be shared by multiple telecom operators and service providers.

Automation

5G networks need to run robustly without human intervention. Autonomous operation includes novel features such as the automatic shutdown of parts of the equipment to save energy in times of low load and automatic restart when load ramps up again.

Artificial intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are massively used for this purpose. Self-Organized Networks (SON) technology is more and more often deployed for 5G.

Security

Unlike earlier cellular network generations, network security is a key factor in 5G. Security provisions range from telco Cloud Security Posture Management (CSPM) through encryption of distance network lines and highly secure certificate management and sophisticated automated incident response systems that employ AI and ML. That provides a secure and reliable platform for all the MEC applications running on top of 5G.

So, does all this progress stop here? Certainly not! While public and private 5G networks are being rolled out, research for and development of 6G products and technologies is already well underway.

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