The technologies being deployed in 5G New Radio mean that radio sites are significantly more complex than they were in previous generations of technology. It means, for example, up to 64×64 multiple-input-multiple-output (MIMO) and active antenna systems being installed, which require additional fiber installation at the cell site and a familiarity with new connection types, such as multi-push-on (MPO) fiber connectors and breakout cables that lead to multiple quad small form-factor pluggables, or QSFPs, according to Kashif Hussain, director of solutions marketing for Viavi Solutions. That complexity is leading to issues with site installation, he said.
“We are already seeing, in the mmWave band, that service providers are running into problems,” Hussain added. After installation teams leave the site and commissioning teams come out, he said, they might find that the radio doesn’t come on-air – and it’s usually due to an improper installation that wasn’t properly validated, not because something is wrong with the radio equipment itself. “All these things are causing delays in the deployment process, which means you have to send somebody out there again and in North America there is a significant cost involved,” he said. While operators may be protected from those costs, someone has to cover them – so the pressure to be both fast and accurate is high.
Meanwhile, the scaling up of 5G equipment density means that the need for efficiency is at a premium.
“The sheer number of network elements needed to run a 5G network – small cells, picocells, mini-macro base stations, complex antenna arrays, etc. will require an automated eye to deploy efficiently, keep things running. Repairing and maintaining all those systems is going to be a challenge, to say the least,” wrote Ofir Zemer, CEO of RAN automatino and orchestration company Cellwize, earlier this year. “The efficient deployment is the first challenge that needs to be addressed. … In an automated deployment scenario all or most of the heavy pre-planning manual work needs to be eliminated.”
Network equipment vendors are already trying to push the envelope on this, as seen in Nokia’s recent announcement that it has digitalized 100% of its 5G deployments, tying in machine learning and automation with digital project orchestration and data inventories. Nokia says that the digitalization and automation of its deployment processes means a 30% reduction in site visits, 30% improvement in installation quality and a 25% improvement in cycle times compared to the patchwork of paper-based and digital documentation that have typically supported network deployment.
To address the higher level of site complexity and make deployment simpler and faster, test equipment vendors are also stepping up the capabilities of their field equipment. Cloud-based reporting, for instance, is now a much more common feature, so that a network tester can connect to the cloud via Wi-Fi on a technician’s phone to upload documentation to a central location. Hussain said that to ensure that uniform testing procedures are accurately and simply transmitted to the field, Viavi came up with a system it calls test process automation, which enables a Method of Procedure (MOP) from a particular carrier for installation and testing procedures to be distributed to instruments in the field, so that each test can be assigned to a specific site and contractor, and then the instrument walks the tech through the testing that needs to be conducted and close-out reports can be uploaded to the cloud at the end of the process.
Hussain said that fiber inspection, antenna alignment and timing and synchronization are particularly ripe for automated test support, because all have become more important in 5G site deployment. There is more fiber than ever at sites to support complex radios, alignment is critical for 5G beamforming to work properly, and the timing and synchronization demands of complex 5G MIMO antennas, especially in TDD spectrum bands, are important to ensure proper relative timing for MIMO elements as well as to mitigate cell-edge interference between devices.
Overall, Hussain said, telecom companies are seeking to speed up deployments to support the scaling of 5G, and automation can help deal with the fact that there are more, and more complex, tests to conduct. With automation of test processes, “You are actually simplifying the whole test process for that individual so that they don’t make mistakes and a consistent test method is executed in the field,” Hussain said. “The idea is get in, get out, get paid fast. At the same time, do it accurately and do it consistently.”
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