The Rise of 5G: The Malaysian Way (Part 2): A shift in the telco landscape

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By Azizul Rahman Bin Mohd Basir

A tech enthusiast, Azizul is a leader in a Malaysian telecommunication company. He is a regular telecommunication industrial speaker in universities and events. He shares his thoughts in newspapers and IT blogs too.

IMAGINE playing Beat Saber, COD, PUBG or the sensational co-op RPG Genshin Impact on a VR headset with zero lag, on the fly, through your phone while commuting in your self-driving car running at 100km/h, conveniently arriving at your destination before you know it, worry and stress-free.

Fasten your seatbelt, ladies and gents, because the future of everything is about to change forever.

Some people may think that 5G is just another mobile network generation that will force them to upgrade to a super-expensive smartphone so that they can enjoy a bit faster connection with a bit more reliability. Some people may also think that like the previous mobile generation, the beginning is just for the rich or for those who can afford.

5G is a massive breakthrough that is going to revolutionise how devices connect to the Internet, and more importantly, to each other. In Part 1, I discussed briefly how the real value of 5G lies in the massive latency reduction and dense connections that enables real-time mission-critical applications and smart applications that require massive number of data points or sensors connected to the network at the same time, in addition to the ultra high speed.

Think of all the robotic devices that can now be controlled remotely and in real time. In 2019, the first remote brain surgery was performed in China over 5G – thanks to the ultra reliable low latency communication feature. This will save lives in situations where time and distance separates life and death. Warehouses and factories of the not-too-distant-future will be staffed by robots that can communicate their tasks and positions to each other, allowing them to do things more efficiently over 5G network. The dense connections made possible by 5G allows millions of devices or sensors to be connected simultaneously, enabling the Internet of Things (IoT) and powering smart solutions.

The sky isn’t always blue

Despite all the good things possible with 5G, it is far from perfect. Ironically, a major drawback has to do with its very benefit – the super high bandwidth. The sexiest band in town right now is the millimeter wave (mmWave), which as mentioned in Part 1, doesn’t go very far. While signals can travel as far as 10km radius on 4G, the 5G mmWave can only cover a maximum 300m radius. Even worse, it cannot go through wall, or even rain! Talk about a gift and a curse!

A short signal distance means we need more transmitters or radio network equipment, for instance, every 200-300m on every direction. In addition, an in-building solution is needed per building as the signals cannot penetrate walls. The 5G in-building solution extends 5G coverage from a hub to distributed antennas inside a building, enabling users to enjoy seamless 5G connectivity indoors.

Mobile operators will need to fork up a huge investment building many base station sites in order to provide a seamless mobile 5G public network. They may then want to explore a more cost-effective solution, leading to synergy among mobile operators through infrastructure sharing models. Not only because of financial factors, but also because the technology allows the operators to do so. Operators can consider sharing both passive (e.g. tower, power systems) and active (e.g. antenna, transceivers) infrastructures to cost-effectively achieve seamless 5G mobile network.

For this reason, in March 2021 the Malaysian government has established a Single Wholesale Network (SWN) company called Digital Nasional Berhad (DNB), a special purpose vehicle to build, own and operate Malaysia 5G’s infrastructure. DNB then shall play a pure neutral party that provides 5G network to all mobile operators for them to offer 5G enabled services and solutions to consumers and enterprises.

Sharing is the new owning

Passive infra sharing is pretty straight forward and has been in practice for years. With 5G, we will see more active infra sharing, leveraging on Software-Defined Network (SDN) and Network Function Virtualisation (NFV). SDN and NFV enable operators to use physical hardware and virtualize all network entities to become logical entities. Furthermore, SDN and NFV enable network slicing i.e. slicing one physical network into a number of virtual networks. Each virtual network possesses different qualities of service (QoS) and topologies. Simply put, it allows different operators to deploy multiple virtual networks with different set of requirements on a single physical infrastructure, depending on each product, sales and marketing strategy.

However, such sharing of virtual networks among different operators has its limitations. Its functions are limited to the scope of the slice pre-defined based on the requirement. If there are too many slices, the network may need to “politely” reject some of the requests due to limited capacity. This is not practical for industries that require high-priority network service, especially for organisations using the network for mission-critical applications. Therefore, for enterprise space, private 5G is then the best solution as it offers a dedicated network specially designed to serve the needs of enterprises. Furthermore, enterprises can also quickly reap the benefits of 5G, not having to wait for a public 5G network to be available in their areas. To date, apart from the 4IR Policy launched early this month, we are yet to see tangible plan and focus on this important segment when it comes to 5G. Advanced countries like Korea, Japan, USA and Germany have provided dedicated 5G spectrum for enterprises and it has shown proven results in gaining significant traction. Watch this space as I shall elaborate more on Private 5G solution in the next Part.

Because of the limitations of network slicing for network sharing, there are other forms of active infrastructure sharing. At present, operators globally are operating active infra sharing using Multi-Operator Core Network (MOCN), Multi-Operator Radio Access Network (MORAN) or Core Network sharing (CN).

MOCN is a network sharing standard that allows mobile operators with different core networks to share Radio Access Network (RAN) using the same radio frequencies. In other words, SWN like DNB can allow mobile operators to use its RAN to serve mobile operators’ respective customers while managing their own core network. Operators then can save CAPEX as well as operating cost on RAN.

However, MOCN has several limitations. Sharing RAN together with radio frequencies prevents operators from controlling their network at the cell level e.g. optimization parameters, power control, managing cell range and interference. MORAN, on the other hand, allows RAN sharing while having dedicated radio frequencies assigned to each mobile operator. In this manner, mobile operators have greater liberty to set their own requirement at the cell level. As to CN, SWN owns everything from core network to radio network and allow operators to commercialise mobile services via wholesale arrangement. This chart from GSM Association (GSMA) below shall help you to visualize this active infra sharing.

Whether it is MOCN, MORAN or CN, these active infrastructure sharing models are revolutionising the way telcos collaborate and operate. The models not only help operators significantly reduce deployment and operation costs, they avoid unnecessary infrastructure multiplicity, reduce energy consumption and may help to speed up network rollout. I foresee the challenge to arise on arrangement and agreement between operators and DNB, complexity of operation e.g. setting different expectations i.e. managing different QoS for each operators, defining different roles and responsibility between DNB and multiple operators, and continuous regulatory framework improvements on carrier collaboration. This revolutionary 5G mobile network is not only going to change the landscape of consumer experience and industrial outlook enabling IR4.0, it will also change the traditional regulatory framework as the business ownership may vary too due to wide collaboration opportunities among players.

In the meantime, everyone – let’s wake up and smell the coffee!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of TVS.

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