Small Cell Forum: a refuge from 5G wars and fragmentation

Small Cell Forum CEO, Sue Monahan comments on the latest industry announcements on 5G.

Though 5G is moving out of the labs and into operators’ planning process, confusion about the next generation of mobile networks is rising. Every week brings a new industry partnership or a new plan to deploy ‘pre-standard’ 5G. While this may be a good profile raiser for a few large players, it raises the spectre of fragmentation, which would be a disaster for the commercial viability of 5G and its stakeholders.

The vast majority of operators and other 5G stakeholders do not have the resources to take part in the R&D programs and early trials. However, they may have just as strong an interest in deploying next generation networks to support new services or enhance their economics. Fragmentation of the platform is one of the outcomes they fear the most, because it can delay the availability of affordable equipment or send them down technological blind alleys.

Some are assuming that, once the 3GPP publishes its standards from 2017, all this risk will go away and unity will prevail. But while the 3GPP specifications will be important, they are not enough on their own to remove the fragmentation risk. In 3G and 4G, there were industry splits – three incompatible 3G standards, for instance – as well as pre-standard deployments which later had to be migrated expensively to the common platform.

So it is essential to achieve harmonization even before the 3GPP publishes its specs, so that common requirements are fed into its deliberation process. And in a world which is moving towards virtualized networks and dense HetNets, the air interface is only a small, if vital, part of the picture. The best route to protect operators from fragmentation is to achieve harmony in the higher layers of the network, with common specs and APIs to enable unified network management, orchestration, security and applications – whatever the underlying access network.

That is the role of the Small Cell Forum’s HetNet program, which is defining this common multilayer architecture to embrace current and future networks (even those which are as-yet undefined); licensed and unlicensed spectrum; physical and virtual infrastructure, and so on.

This has made the Forum essential to all mobile stakeholders and everyone affected by the 5G process. It provides the most convincing platform to rise above industry politics and air interface wars, because its architecture is all-embracing and open, and because it is defined directly by the commercial requirements of its service provider members.

At the Forum’s plenary meeting in Rome, we will share full details of the work programs which will make this HetNet/5G roadmap a deployable reality. The huge amount of work done so far by the Forum’s wide base of members, and a rich set of projects for 2016-17, will be consolidated in two over-arching programs – Deploying Hyperdense Networks, and Enabling Digitized Enterprise.

These reflect the community’s key commercial interests in 5G – the ability to meet capacity demands and support new services with densification; and a platform for enterprises to use mobile networks to drive their own digital transformations.

These are real world interests in 5G – not air interface standards or access network debates, but how a new generation of mobile networks can transform business, for every kind of service provider and enterprise. For these goals to be achieved, fragmentation must be avoided at all costs, and the agendas of a few players must not be allowed to derail a common platform that is deployable by all. Join us in Rome on September 13-15 to be part of the industry’s most important 5G roadmap.