John Cinicolo: Mobile Technology Evolution in 2023 and Expectations in 2024

5G enhancements have been a primary focus this past year.

John Cinicolo: Mobile Technology Evolution in 2023 and Expectations in 2024
The author of this Expert Opinion is John Cinicolo, who leads Tillman Digital Cities’ Technical Operations

The year 2023 has continued to be a significant one for mobile network evolution. Mobile Network Operators  invested in 5G upgrades over the recent years and are at a point where they are reevaluating their next steps based on current return on investment.

Investments for the latest 5G infrastructure have yet to show a significant revenue increase. In fact, subscriber traffic has continued to grow while service plan pricing has remained relatively flat. MNOs realize that further network investment must focus on cost savings and new revenue streams.

Nonetheless 5G enhancements have been a primary focus this past year. New 5G radio frequency bands, like C-Band, were implemented in high traffic venues where its increased bandwidth improved performance. Yet the deployment strategy of higher mmWave frequencies varied across the MNOs. While mmWave supports high data rates and low latency, its propagation characteristics limit its coverage area which requires careful planning and consideration by MNOs.

One application where mmWave has been quite successful is for Fixed Wireless Access services as an alternative to wired broadband. With the use of advanced 5G antenna technology such as Massive MIMO, and a relatively clear line-of-site between towers and FWA users, the distance limitations can be minimized while delivering high performance broadband service. Since the last mile connection is delivered wirelessly, the cost per customer is reduced and the service price can be highly competitive.

Next-generation core network architecture

We are also seeing a ramp in the deployment of the next generation 5G core network architecture. Originally 5G was deployed in a Non-Stand-Alone architecture that allowed MNOs to deploy their 5G RAN as an overly of the existing 4G network, whereby 5G devices depend on 4G signaling and core network to establish a connection.

Moving to 5G stand alone, which is based on cloud-native principles, provides an inherent service-based architecture that supports full end-to-end 5G capabilities including advanced mobile core functionality that opens the door for new services and higher performance. While 5G SA deployment in the US started before 2023, this year has seen continual growth.

A major benefit of the 5G stand alone mobile core is the implementation of advanced functionality including network slicing, Voice over New Radio and time-critical communication. It allows MNOs to create separate network layers for customized capacity, latency, and performance to address specific applications or user requirements. This provides a platform for new edge services based on customer groups, and new revenue streams.

Another key benefit of 5G stand alone is the ability to separate and virtualize the various functions of the mobile network. For example, RAN functions can be moved to optimal locations within the network running on standardized information technology servers or in a hosted cloud.

This architecture allows MNOs to reduce hardware costs compared to traditional network infrastructure options and implement software-based RAN functionality that efficiently scales with traffic needs. The next step is leveraging 5G SA network principles along with Open RAN capabilities as we move into 2024.

Open RAN likely to accelerate in 2024

O-RAN elevates this optimization further by allowing elements from different vendors to interoperate based on the defined standards. This gives MNOs significant flexibility and cost savings through a more competitive and scalable approach.

While there are operational challenges, these challenges can be overcome with careful interoperability testing and verification. One example of this strategy is the recent announcement by AT&T to invest significantly in O-RAN implementation starting in 2024.

Indoor users also benefit from these network architectural advances. DAS solutions have begun to evolve to an O-RAN architecture that simplifies its connectivity to the MNO core network with included baseband functionality. This eliminates the need for a separate and costly BTS signal source traditionally deployed by each of the MNOs.

When an inbuilding O-RAN solution is approved for use by the MNO it can be deployed and managed by the inbuilding solution provider, thereby reducing MNO capital expenditure and operational expenditures while delivering dedicated capacity to the venue. Furthermore, this architecture supports the centralization of RAN functions that can optimize connectivity between the MNO network and multiple venues.

Finally, this architecture further simplifies the integration of neutral host and private network services where 5G SA network slicing and edge services support the ability to offer value-added custom applications to the building owners, tenants, and guests, on top of neutral host service.

While private network solutions have been deployed for quite some time, they primarily serve the internal venue users. Addressing the needs of both private and public mobile users on those solutions has been a challenge due to factors driven by MNO requirements. Fresh solutions have already emerged that solve this challenge with the O-RAN and 5G architectural advances.

These new solutions optimize the coexistence of MNO neutral host and private services on the same scalable platform with improved economics. With the network densification and cost benefits of this approach, it is expected to be an area of growth in the coming year.

John Cinicolo leads Tillman Digital Cities’ Technical Operations function including solution architecture, technology strategy, program execution and technical services. He has more than 35 years of experience building mobile technology business around the world in leadership roles with network infrastructure provides and entrepreneurial startups. He holds a Bachelor of Engineering in Electrical and Computer Engineering from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

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