A new hope for the 5G transition

December 10, 2018 - Aleks

This October, North American operator Verizon launched the first 5G fixed wireless access service, making it very clear that 5G is closer than you think. 5G is set to promise speed, greater network efficiency, reduced latency and above all, an enhanced user experience. But these promises won’t become in one fell swoop and operators need to ensure that during the transition from 4G to 5G, user experience doesn’t take a nose dive.

With operators likely to face ‘teething issues’ during the transition, how can they continue to maintain subscriber experience while trying to meet the promises of 5G?

Use the force

The reality is that 5G will not be here at the flick of a switch. Rather, it will be deployed gradually – in fact, the GSMA has forecasted that 5G will only reach 14% of the global market by 2025. This means that CSPs will still need to rely on their existing networks for quite some time, and in particular their 4G networks. While this may seem like an inconvenient alternative, leveraging 4G networks during the transition could prove to be very beneficial for operators – in fact, it is probably their only real option if they are to ensure Quality of Experience (QoE).

The deployment cost of 5G is high – and this cost is likely to be operators’ biggest preoccupation for some time yet. If operators are to monetise 5G effectively, they’ll need to ensure they can continue to acquire new subscribers, keep churn down and monetise as many additional digital services as possible. Operators will only be able to do this by optimising their existing networks in a way that meets increasing subscriber demands for more data and more bandwidth. Indeed, optimised 4G networks could be the key to answering subscribers’ insatiable thirst for more video content. With video expected to account for over 75% of all mobile traffic by 2020, the strain on networks will only intensify if operators simply sit and wait for 5G to come.

What’s more, with the industry still far from deploying 5G-ready devices, many users will continue to run on 4G devices for quite some time, especially as the shift towards SIM-only contracts intensifies and subscribers become less willing to upgrade their devices. Subscribers on 4G networks will continue to expect optimal 4G QoE – after all, no subscriber will accept feeling as though they have been left behind by their operator with the arrival of a new network.

The return of Wi-Fi

Operators wanting to optimise 4G assets, in a way that enhances capacity and bandwidth and reduces the strain placed on the network, may find their salvation in Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi can be relied upon as an alternative asset for operators – in fact, today, over 60-70% of data traffic is currently consumed over Wi-Fi instead of cellular.

Wi-Fi isn’t new, of course. Free, public Wi-Fi in all locations from cafes to bus stations has been available to consumers for some time. This free Wi-Fi however, has raised questions regarding the quality and security of the service – Wi-Fi’s unmanaged nature means that it’s essentially a “free for all” when it comes to its use, making Wi-Fi connectivity unreliable and unsecure. As a result, Wi-Fi’s reputation has taken a beating, and has become somewhat undesirable, particularly with the advent of “all you can eat” data bundles. But in the transition from 4G to 5G, Wi-Fi’s reputation could be set to change.

In light of growing consumer reliance on smartphones, demand for more connectivity can often exceed the available network capacity, particularly during peak times. This is exactly where Wi-Fi can make a difference.  Where existing fixed line or mobile networks exist, Wi-Fi supported by carrier-grade control can be deployed in days or even hours, ensuring that the bandwidth needs of subscribers are met. What’s more, evidence suggests that an effective Wi-Fi offload, using network congestion tools, can increase Net Promoter Scoring (NPS) by 30 points and reduce churn by 20%.

A new hope

But leveraging Wi-Fi as a 4G alternative can only happen if network congestion tools can be deployed by the operator. Adding a layer of intelligent decision making ensures that customers are always being connected to the most appropriate access network – be it Wi-Fi or cellular. These decisions can be based on device type, location, subscription type, traffic type, available access networks and a host of other information. The decision to move traffic from one network to another is not just about signal strength – that is just one of the criteria. The ability to deliver zero touch, seamless connection delivers the best customer experience.

By using congestion tools, hotspots can be prioritised or blacklisted in real-time depending on how they are performing, and individual users can be prioritised depending on their bundle. This can make up for holes in cellular coverage, such as in-building coverage and in remote locations, as well as provide an effective off-load solution for capacity management to maintain QoE. Such tools are already being used in the market by operators such as Sprint who have been leaders in fine-tuning Radio Congestion Awareness Function (RCAF) implementations.

May the 4G be with you

Ultimately, customers don’t care which network they use – as long as they can use their device in a way that meets their needs. For the foreseeable future therefore, previous generations of networks will need to co-exist with the newer ones. With 5G likely to be deployed piecemeal, it is only by implementing the correct tools that operators will find their ‘secret sauce’ for an enhanced digital experience for subscribers during this transition. Failure to do could see subscriber experience significantly affected, leaving subscribers disenchanted and more likely to churn. After all, if operators are to make a return on the massive capital investment that is 5G, it all starts with ensuring subscribers are happy and willing to stick around for as long as possible.

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