To prosper in the 5G era, wireless operators must build cost-efficient, flexible, and agile networks to deliver innovative services and grow the top and bottom lines. The new model for wireless network economics is founded on dramatic savings in capital and operating expenditures through the deployment of distributed cloud-native architectures that foster new service models, standard open interfaces and rapid innovation – each of which is imminently achievable. The technology shift marks a distinct departure from a traditional telco mindset to web-scale deployments and speeds, including fundamental changes in how operators engage with suppliers as they adopt new and innovative software licensing models.
While RAN virtualization is leading to centralized approaches in the radio network, virtualization in the wireless core allows key functions to be distributed toward the network edge. Together, virtualized RAN and virtualized Packet Cores (4G vEPC & 5GC) provide unparalleled flexibility for operators to deploy network intelligence more effectively to not only improve network performance and customer experience but also create new revenue-generating services and applications that were previously not possible with traditional network architectures.
A key feature of a natively designed 4G vEPC that enables new business models is Control and User Plane Separation (CUPS). As the name suggests, the control and user planes are separated to allow the different functions to scale independently, which gives operators more flexible deployment options and better tools for coping with increasing volume and dynamic variations of network traffic. With CUPS inherently designed into the vEPC, operators have more granular scalability across different functions, which avoids overprovisioning and allows operators to increase capacity in lockstep with demand across consumer mobile broadband services and IoT device connectivity.
Component disaggregation in the wireless core is not only a lever for optimizing networks today but also a fundamental principle of the 5G network architecture. Since the user plane functions can be distributed to the network edge closer to users, the architecture greatly reduces round trip time so that it’s possible to support low-latency services, as envisioned by 5G ultra-reliable, low latency requirements. Initiatives such as ETSI’s Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) have developed a variety of use cases enabled by distributed edge intelligence – including augmented reality, IoT or video caching - creating new business models for wireless operators.
vEPC with CUPS
By disaggregating the core network functions, the vEPC also supports another key 5G principle, network slicing. vEPC instances distributed across the network can be subdivided into multiple network slices. Each slice can be dedicated to a specific service, user or quality of service (QoS) by assigning different parameters to each slice. Network slicing is the foundation for a wealth of new pricing and service models.
vEPC with CUPS also enables mobile operators to serve sectors that have previously been cost prohibitive to serve, such as the enterprise market. The vEPC can scale up or down to support networks of any size as well as a variety of use cases, including private LTE networks, public safety LTE, or dedicated core network for NB-IoT deployments.
With the availability of new shared spectrum, such as the 3.5GHz Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the U.S., and new technologies that leverage unlicensed spectrum coupled with a small-scale vEPC that can be deployed on premises, any enterprise can operate its own LTE network. The vEPC and vBBU combined with indoor small remote radio heads connected over Ethernet cabling, enable enterprise private LTE networks that are more cost-effective than current Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS). According to Mobile Experts, on-premise CBRS small cell networks enable a 68% cost reduction compared to DAS networks.
As the private LTE use case shows, vEPC with CUPS offers a more cost-effective way to provide enterprise compute services and allows new players to enter the market. Now, mobile operators have an opportunity to devise new ways to serve enterprise customers. The combination of vRAN and vEPC is not exclusively a 5G opportunity. Both will be critical to enabling operators to derive the benefits of 5G but they also have applications in the 4G era. An example of this is Media Breakout, which enables video traffic to be offloaded from the core.
The scale of the challenge facing operators is demonstrated by the enormous increase in projected network consumption. Research firm iGR has reported that the mean bandwidth for each macrocell in the US in 2018 is just over 428 Mbps and, by 2022, it estimates this figure will grow to 763 Mbps, an increase of 78%. To keep up with this demand, mobile operators have to add more capacity to the macrocell itself, the backhaul and to the evolved packet core (EPC).
iGR estimates that approximately 80% of mobile data traffic today is video. If, for example, 32% of the total traffic (as 40% is encrypted of the 80%) was broken out, the load on the backhaul and EPC can be reduced by that amount. A mobile operator is not going to remove current capacity from the network because of this potential saving but instead will be able to extend the time before additional capacity needs to be added. This means that local breakout will extend the current macrocell backhaul and EPC capacity by 25.6 months.