To support all this data, network topologies such as Cloud-RAN will be complemented or replaced by virtualized RAN (vRAN) along with edge computing and integrated AI. C-RAN splits a base station in two, with the baseband unit performing processing (and soon analytics), and the remote radio heads delivering the RF portion of the system. In contrast, vRAN realizes baseband functions “virtually” in software, which makes allocation of resources more flexible so that resource allocation can be made in near real time. 5G’s expansion of cellular technology to include IoT requires these resources to be controlled at a local level to reduce latency and improve the performance of the systems it supports, a task that the vRAN is designed to serve.
Another resource in the carrier toolbox is network slicing that, among other things, can make more “granular” use of AI. Network slicing allows multiple networks to run on top of a single shared physical network, providing an end-to-end virtual network and letting carriers partition their resources to allow multiple “tenants” to multiplex their signals over a single physical infrastructure. So, for example, traditional high-speed cellular service, low-power IoT, and low-latency applications could be served by a single network, in slices. The resources allocated to these three very different applications can be adjusted in near real time.
The benefits delivered by network slicing appear like those from VPNs, network function virtualization, and other approaches. However, network slicing has one benefit the others can’t provide: the ability to generate additional revenue. By leasing slices on a long-or short-term basis, carriers can create an entirely new market sector tailored to the needs of customers whose needs differ. As part of the package, various levels of intelligence and other data-centric resources such as computational horsepower and storage can be offered to these customers, as needed.
A decade or more from now, everyone having anything to do with the development of 5G will look back to 2019 as the year when the massive amounts of time, money, and sweat began to reveal themselves in actual deployed systems. By that time, small cells, AI, and dozens of other technological breakthroughs will have advanced dramatically, and hopefully, millimeter-wave frequencies will have proven themselves useful. Precisely when it will be safe to reminisce remains to be seen, as 5G is evolutionary as well as revolutionary, so there may not even be a need for something called 6G.