Marek’s Take: Is virtualization causing fragmentation to the 5G standard?

5G
Analysts say that even if a part of a standard gets customized for one operator, that doesn’t necessarily mean the standard is fragmented. (Getty Images)
Marek's take

The competitive fervor over 5G is at an all-time high in the U.S. with AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile touting their 5G network speeds and coverage areas. But the industry still has a long way to go to realize the full potential of 5G. These early deployments that operators are currently promoting use non-standalone (NSA) 5G technology, which means that they use the existing LTE radio access network for signaling between devices and the network. It also means the networks are using an evolved packet core, which is enhanced to support NSA.

While NSA 5G provides users with a better experience than 4G, most operators are planning to migrate to standalone (SA) 5G service in the coming year. One of the big advantages of standalone 5G is that it incorporates a cloud-native core, which makes the 5G network more agile and efficient and offers new capabilities such as network slicing and multiplayer real-time gaming.

The cloud-native core also is expected to make it easier for operators to provision and integrate new network functions, scale their network capacity, and create and deploy new services.

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Sounds great, right? But making that transition to a virtualized core network is a big step for mobile operators, and isn’t being taken lightly. Not all operators will move to a cloud-native core at the same pace.

This division between operators that will migrate to a virtualized core quickly and those that will wait is creating some rumblings in the 5G community and some speculation that it might cause a fragmentation in the 5G standard after Release 17.

However, analysts say that fragmentation is unlikely and even if a part of a standard gets customized for one operator, that doesn’t necessarily mean the standard is fragmented. In fact, Michael Thelander, founder of Signals Research Group, told me that he thinks this scenario is not unusual and standards groups such as the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), which is tasked with determining the 5G specifications, is accustomed to operators working at different speeds and incorporating difference aspects of the standard.

“How that functionality gets partitioned, whether it’s virtual or not, doesn’t matter to the standard,” he said. “There may be different approaches and even customizations.”

Glen Hunt, principal analyst with GlobalData, also said that he wouldn’t characterize this as fragmentation. “I would expect that the standards will not necessarily fragment, but unique use cases may need additional capabilities not called out by the specifications. For this reason, and others, standards usually leave room for variations.”

Hunt added that one of the advantages of a virtualized core is that operators can tweak it and change it to achieve the desired result without creating a whole new system architecture.

Thelander added that there are always differences in how operators implement a standard. Vendor equipment usually has proprietary elements to it that make it different from other vendors' gear and the standards process allows for these types of distinctions.

Political division

And this same philosophy also applies when considering whether U.S. companies should work with China’s Huawei on 5G standards development. In early May Reuters reported that some U.S. companies had stopped working with Huawei on 5G standards after the U.S. Commerce Department banned U.S. companies from doing business with Huawei. The U.S. Commerce Department was reportedly coming up with new rules that would allow companies to work with the Chinese vendor on standards issues.

In this type of scenario, Hunt said that it would be possible for standards groups to push through a standard that other vendors, such as Huawei, don’t agree with and that could possibly create a split.

And there is some precedent for China having different standards from the rest of the world. Back in 2009, China Mobile deployed a technology called time division synchronous code division multiple access (TD-SCDMA) that was a 3G standard developed just for China and adopted by the 3GPP and the ITU. The technology worked a little differently from the UMTS 3G standard and was ideal for very populated areas. China Mobile phased the technology out after just five years.

Thelander added that it’s very difficult to create international standards without including companies from China or Russia because they hold intellectual property and patents that are critical to network specifications. He noted that if Huawei has ideas that get incorporated into a standard, those ideas have already been vetted to make sure they aren’t a security risk. “If there was something that is perceived to be a security threat, it would be identified before it gets accepted.”

The fundamental reason for having standards in the mobile industry is to maintain consistency and promote interoperability across networks. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any wiggle room. “The standard is like a cookbook and you can add the ingredients,” Thelander said.

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