A multi-vendor ecosystem to prepare for the 5G of tomorrow

5G, which has begun to be rolled out in recent months, is worlds apart from the previous generation of networks. It is the arrival of the so-called Standalone 5G (SA 5G) that heralds this network of the future. The foundation of a virtualised, on-demand SA 5G network is being built and tested in an Orange laboratory, as part of experiments involving several key ecosystem players.

“An interoperable and authenticated first SA 5G call, resulting from multi-stakeholder collaboration”

Progress for the here and now, and a revolution by 2022/2023: this is how 5G’s planned rise to power can be described. While the leap from 4G is already apparent with the gradual deployment of the first commercial networks, it will take a few years for the new generation of mobile networks to reach its full potential.

SA 5G under construction

From so-called Non-Standalone 5G, which still relies in part on the existing 4G infrastructure, we will move to the era of Standalone 5G, which is fully autonomous, more flexible, more efficient and more resilient. And this is now being structured and refined, thanks to close cooperation among key ecosystem players. Efforts are being made in this regard in Lannion, France, at one of the Orange sites, where a major milestone was reached at the beginning of October with the completion of the first SA 5G call. While this watershed moment is not unprecedented in the industry, the experiment undertaken in Lannion stands out in that it involves a multitude of partner suppliers, thus illustrating the interoperability between different technological building blocks. The initiative brings together players from all walks of life, with varying degrees of maturity on new networks. Some are established, recognised and indispensable, such as Nokia and Ericsson for radio and core network components.

The “big players” vs the newcomers

Others take the role of challengers and have less market visibility. They are no less relevant however in playing a leading role in the development of these future pure 5G networks. In this regard, US company Casa Systems, in particular, is providing its IT and cable/fibre access management expertise as core network protocols move to the web/Cloud sphere with SA 5G. HPE is also one of the project partners, as well as Openet for aspects related to the relaxation of quality of service rules for Data and Voice sessions. With regard to handsets, two of the world’s leading manufacturers, Qualcomm and Mediatek, have proposed prototypes, including Oppo’s smartphones. “The establishment of this multi-stakeholder environment, and the resulting demonstration, have helped to explain the maturity of interoperability”, says Philippe Hémon, 5G Experimentation Project Manager at Orange. On this occasion, we were able to explore topics such as replacing a network feature from partner X with one from partner Y. This study will become a reality in the very near future, in the form of an operational SA 5G network, with the option to fluidly select the best application from the best partner via a catalogue and via the Cloud, according to parameters adapted to the use case: ease of instantiation, speed of execution, resilience etc.”

Bringing the automated and “on-demand” network to life

Earlier this year, the experimental network deployed in Lannion gave rise to an initial experiment that highlighted some of 5G’s innovative traits: slicing and automation. “With the first generations of networks, we had a unified infrastructure to serve all customers, with a unique commitment to quality of service”, resumes Philippe Hémon. Then we began to deploy more specific or targeted networks, to support business needs and uses, for example. With SA 5G and all the possibilities opened up by Cloud technologies, edge computing and automation, we are moving towards a flexible, customisable and on-demand network. The demonstration conducted with Casa Systems and HPE implemented a mini-robot connected to a SA 5G network. This robot was capable of recognising a deterioration in quality of service and of escalating an alert to the orchestrator in real time to create a new, specific slice of the network dedicated to the robot on demand. And what may have taken several hours with the first generation of virtualisation can now be accomplished, with Cloud-based technologies implemented in the core of the network—Kubernetes, containers and so on—in less than a minute. This means optimal resilience, which is essential for critical applications that are highly sensitive in terms of latency”.

Ongoing research work

Following on from these major steps, the Lannion laboratory is planning on other subjects of study. This kind of test is essential to master this new generation of networks and to share this experience with all countries where Orange is a carrier. It also provides the ability to reference the world’s best suppliers.

In the longer term, research projects are being initiated in collaboration with Technopôle Anticipa, the Images et Réseaux hub and the municipality of Lannion Trégor to explore 5G-related use cases such as drones and port and nautical activities in the region.

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