EXFO/Heavy Reading Survey: Nearly half of all mobile network operators plan to deploy 5G SA within 1 year

EXFO worked with Heavy Reading to conduct a survey of Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) across North America and Europe to understand their approach to 5G SA core network and the revenue opportunity it presents. 49% of MNOs are planning to deploy 5G SA within the next year, while a further 39% will deploy 5G SA within one to two years. The main drivers for deploying 5G SA are to support enhanced consumer offerings such as virtual reality, augmented reality and mobile gaming; accelerate time to market for new services; and offer network slice-based services.

While 76% of MNOs believe service assurance will be necessary to sell advanced 5G services and meet stringent service level agreements (SLAs), operations teams don’t have real-time visibility into how outages and degradations impact customers—whether they are humans or “machines” (critical, latency-sensitive applications and devices like emergency services or factory floor robots). 65% of MNOs say that this lack of actionable insight is preventing them from automating networks and fault resolution, which are essential to meeting demanding performance expectations in enterprise applications.

Specifically, most MNOs said they need a range of new tools and capabilities to generate revenues from 5G services:

  • 86% say they need real-time network, service and quality of experience intelligence
  • 85% say they need to be able to monitor per-service and per-device performance.
  • 81% say they need AI-driven anomaly and fault detection, as well as root cause analysis.
  • 82% say they need monitoring of end-to-end network slices.

“The opportunity to generate revenues from 5G SA lies in automated networks, which means service providers must deliver on enterprise service level agreements. This survey with Heavy Reading reinforces what we hear regularly from our customers: mobile network operators want greater service assurance and analytics to deliver actionable insights into network performance and user experience,” said Philippe Morin, CEO at EXFO. “This is where EXFO’s unique, adaptive approach to service assurance comes into play. By taking a source-agnostic approach to data collection and analytics, combined with a fully cloud-native architecture, our service assurance platform integrates with legacy and new 5G systems to provide a unified, end-to-end view of customer experience, device and network performance.”

                             5G NSA (LTE & EPC)                             5G SA (NR connected to 5G core)

Benefits of 5G SA core network:

  • MNOs can launch new enterprise 5G services such as smart cities, and smart factories
  • It is fully virtualized, cloud-native architecture (CNA), which introduces new ways to develop, deploy and manage services
  • The architecture enables end to end slicing to logically separate services
  • Automation drives up efficiencies while driving down the cost of operating the networks.
  • By standardizing on a cloud-native approach, MNOs can also rely on best of breed innovation from both vendors and the open-source communities

“When you look at the number of RFPs that are out there and the dialog we’re having, I think we’re now starting to see the need [to move]from what I would call studying or doing assessment, to potentially now looking at deploying [5G SA],” Morin said. He pointed out that there have been numerous announcements by carriers around 5G private networks and enterprise-based services, which he says are the initial drivers for 5G SA deployment — and are also driving the need for enhanced service assurance capabilities.

“When you’re talking about more business-focused use cases, service-level agreements become even more important and that’s why [there is a]need for service assurance,” Morin said. In contrast to previous network generations, where service assurance was often considered only after a variety of other decisions were made, the expectations of serving enterprise use cases are making service assurance a higher priority. “It’s pretty clear, as you deploy 5G SA, especially in the context of … [having]machines connected to this, IoT devices and so on, and more of an enterprise focus, that service assurance requirements are much more front and center than what we’ve seen in the previous protocols.”

Morin sites two key 5G SA capabilities that offer value:

  1. The ability to support billions of connections (massive machine-to-machine communications.
  2. Network slicing to enable differentiated services at scale.

With those opportunities, comes the requirement for MNOs to ensure that they can provide the levels of service and scalability that slicing and massive IoT demand — and that’s where operators will need better monitoring tools, visibility and insights, Morin says, and their acknowledgement of that need is reflected in the survey. EXFO’s joint survey found that 76% of the surveyed MNOs believe that service assurance will be necessary for deploying 5G SA. “I’m pretty sure we would not have the same stats, if you would’ve asked the same questions around 3G and 4G,” Morin added.

“If you’re going to have business use cases that machines are going to be relying on to be able to execute that application, machines won’t be as tolerant as humans, because the service won’t be able to operate. So what this means is that the network operators need a better view of insights on the network performance, that in the past, because it was for humans, maybe was not as required. But clearly, now, for 5G SA and 5G revenues that are going to be driven out of this, getting better visibility on what is happening that is down to the device level– not just the customer; the device, the service and the network — and end-to-end visibility will be really, really critical.”

There’s also the changing nature of service assurance and visibility strategy and tools to consider. As enterprises moved into making use of big data, their strategies and architectures often involved pouring network data into a massive data lake and then retrieving information from there as needed.

“With 5G, and 5G Standalone in particular, we absolutely believe that’s not going to be the architecture of choice. … You cannot wait for the issue to come up, and go into a data lake to try to figure out what happened in the last 15 minutes.  We believe that it’s got to be real-time, it’s got to be adaptive — because you can’t start getting information from all the devices and all the IoT. This would have a big impact on your overall cost structure.”

Morin said that 5G SA core network’s cloud-based, orchestrated and automated nature enables the company to support machine-learning and generate insights only when an anomaly or service issue/problem is detected. AI will then determine whether data is needed from the device, service or network layer in order to resolve the issue(s).

“If you’re going to really make 5G SA a success, it will require a higher level of automation, and I do believe that service assurance will be what I would call an automation enabler.  If you don’t have that capability to monitor and in an automated way, provide actionable insights to [a specifics]use case and to [a specific]SLA, I think it will be very difficult to go into a high-volume deployment with 5G SA.”


Author’s Note:

Despite the optimistic results of this 5G SA core network survey, just 13 network operators had launched commercial public 5G SA networks as of the middle of August 2021. Some 45 other operators are planning or deploying 5G SA for public networks, and 23 operators are involved in tests or trials.  That’s out of a total of 176 commercial 5G networks launched worldwide (163 of them are 5G NSA networks)!

Note also that there are no ITU standards or 3GPP specifications for how to implement a 5G SA Core network.  There are many choices which will lead to different, incompatible implementations of the 5G Core network