Ericsson makes advanced radio network software available as 5G Plug-Ins

Ericsson's 5G Plug-Ins the latest terminology to be applied to advanced 4G network features.

Ericsson has today launched five radio access network software feature upgrades that it is, very cleverly and astutely, marketing as 5G Plug-Ins.

If you wanted to be unkindly prescriptive you could assert that these software upgrades are neither 5G nor Plug-Ins, but who wants to be unkind? Instead, perhaps give a nod to Ericsson for some very astute positioning and marketing – and also acknowledge that a couple of the software packages available could, indeed, be termed as 5G.

So, first to the basics. Ericsson has announced five software packages that will be commercially available in 2017. All of these are upgrades that can be applied to its Radio System radio units. These are:

A single user MIMO + beamforming capability that Ericsson is terming Massive MIMO.
A multi user MIMO feature that uses spatial multiplexing to extend MIMO to multiple users.
A RAN virtualisation capability that offers certain network functions as VNFs.
An Intelligent Connectivity capability that ties access network selection to application requirement.
A latency reduction feature that introduces a new (shorter) frame structure to cut down on the time it takes to establish a connection on the network.
5g plugins

Although all of these features are undoubtedly at the cutting edge of radio network technology, you could argue that rather than being 5G per-se, these are really feature enhancements that are in line with LTE-A progress. In fact, they de facto are LTE technologies, as they are being offered as enhancements to LTE networks. Introducing vertical dimension beam forming into MIMO, for example, is part of R13 specifications. Virtualising functions so that they can be hosted on dynamically scaleable resources is also not specifically a 5G technology – in that it is not something that will be used solely to enable 5G use cases.

The final feature, the shorter frame structure, is something that has been worked on in labs for a while now, and shorter TTI studies are being done as part of 3GPP’s LTE-A PRO (the releases beyond R13) work.

Of course, that’s not to say that such features will not also form part of 5G network technology. Ericsson says that all these features have been used within field trials of of its 5G radio prototype. Arun Bansal, Senior VP and Head of Business Unit Ratio, Ericsson, said that  although 5G will “impact the entire ecosystem from device, to RAN, to core, to cloud”, operators will still need to keep investing in LTE for some years to come. So how will they do this, and also transition to be able to support 5G’s diverse list of use cases and network requirements?

The answer is to plug in bits of 5G enabling technology as and when required. A spot of MIMO here, a little bit of Virtualisation there. In that sense these are “Plug-Ins” as described, although when it comes to Radio Network virtualisation, which really relies on an architectural shift in the network, it may be a stretch to describe enabling a piece of that as a Plug-In.

“Plug-Ins are software innovations focussed on capabilities that operators can leverage within current networks to enable the move to 5G.”

Whatever, semantics aside, it’s clear that these are really LTE+ technologies that will also underpin some 5G capabilities.

Bansal says: “So while operators continue to invest in LTE how do we think they should prepare for future 5G networks? Most effectively by plugging 5G technology concepts into today’s networks as and where this makes sense for their business.”

“Plug-Ins are software innovations focussed on capabilities that operators can leverage within current networks to enable the move to 5G.”

Ericsson has been down this route before, describing its Lean Carrier features as the application of 5G-enabling technology to 4G networks. It doesn’t really matter. Huawei calls its LTE-A feature path 4.5G – and it too has made Massive MIMO and the Cloud (virtual) RAN part of this positioning. ZTE calls its similar efforts pre-5G.  And Nokia uses the term 5G-ready for its AirScale radio.

5G Plug-In is a cute enough term to describe the application of a technology that will be deployed within 5G networks, but will also be available sooner.