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RAN automation is central to the 5G case – but is it a distant dream?

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By Caroline Gabriel, RAN Research

Plans to implement advanced machine-learning-based automation in 5G networks are grinding to a halt, with operators slowing investment and shrinking their ambitions. This comes from a report from Rethink Technology Research in its RAN Research service called “RAN automation is central to the 5G case – but is it a distant dream? Automation and SON deployments, trends to 2025″.

Failure to properly see through the full automation of 5G will mean much of the business case for installing it in the first place will be lost.

Operators surveyed for the report are now less ambitious in planning automation, and yet in 5G it is not an option – the network is so complex that it can no longer be properly managed by people and it needs automation.  “Delay automation and SON and you delay 5G,” states the report.

Automation targets for completion have now fallen back into the mid-2020s, and without it 5G will not deliver the huge reductions in operating costs that it needs to.

Most of the issues holding operators back relate to fear of organisational upheaval, immaturity of the technology, and an overall lack of urgency from operators.

Some operators, notably in the US and parts of Asia, are making good progress, but others are only making limited investment in automation and their timescales to adopt it at scale have already lengthened since last year.

“If operators fail to automate fully, their business case for 5G in the period to 2024 will be severely compromised – resulting in higher costs, less network flexibility, lower ROI on 5G RAN and on virtualisation,” concludes the report.

Operators are taking a cautious approach in the near term. When asked what percentage of their RAN planning, deployment, management and optimisation processes they expected to automate at various time points up to 2025 most plans had gone backwards. Globally, only 18% expect to have more than 40% of functions automated by the end of this year.

Last year, 21% of the same operators said they would have more than 60% of processes automated by the end of 2020. Those hitting this 60% mark fell to 14% in this year’s study, suggesting respondents had been over-optimistic previously or that projects are snagged, or harder than they seemed.

Operational benefits

There are three key operational benefits of running 5G which change the economics of the network, but which make RAN automation more critical to the mobile business case.

Those three are, densification; use of complex antenna arrays, including Massive MIMO to place 5G in high-frequency spectrum; and virtualisation of the packet core and gateways.

But these trends all introduce a vast complexity in the network with a huge number of new elements. This means modern networks are becoming hard for humans to understand, predict or manage and hence need machine learning driven automation. Although operators acknowledge this, they are now sliding backwards on previous plans.

Failure to prepare automation will result in lower OPEX reductions than predicted, and could potentially completely derail 5G.

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