Here's how 5G ended up in the cloud - a primer

The standalone (SA) core network is the key to unleashing cloud-native 5G onto a willing world. But how did we get here and why?

Most analysts agree that the move to a cloud-based infrastructure started with Rakuten Mobile.  

“The first end-to-end cloud-native [mobile network operator] is likely Rakuten Mobile, which took a very different approach to building their greenfield network,” said Roy Chua, principal at AvidThink. “Dish is doing the same in terms of laying a cloud-native foundation across their network build as well, so they would be the second,” he added. 

Why go virtual? 

"Virtualization of cellular networks can be seen as a way to significantly reduce the complexity of processes, required nowadays to provide reliable cellular networks," according to IEEE.

It can also allow MNOs to choose from more vendors and even create their own base stations. This is because operators can choose from commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) server providers such as Dell and HPE, as well as using server silicon from the likes of Intel and AMD

Aside from the physical radios themselves, nearly every aspect of the radio access network (RAN) and core can be virtualized today. This has even led to some MNOs being surrounded by virtual shoals of vendors. 

Core values 

“The 5G Core is the key to monetizing the 5G SA network bringing MNOs into the modern cloud era, allowing the MNO to offer new services quickly with cloud-native network functions, add network slices on demand for mobile private networks, and address latency-sensitive applications with [mobile edge computing],” Dell’Oro’s Dave Bolan wrote in his December 2022 report on the 5G core.  

He continued: “These new opportunities cannot be addressed by 4G or 5G NSA [non-standalone] networks, and the sooner an MNO embraces 5G SA networking, the closer it will be to reaping new revenue streams.” 

Dell’Oro currently counts 43 live 5G SA networks as of the first quarter, 2023. 

Already we’ve seen innovative ways to deploy cores from one or two cloud-friendly MNOs like NTT DoCoMo and Dish. Mostly, however, it has been quiet on the 5G core front. 

As AvidThink’s Chua notes, moving to 5G SA is just one aspect of the cellular cloud journey. Moving to 5G SA, “doesn't mean that the entirety of the operator's development, network operations are cloud native,” he said. “There's plenty of physical network functions, virtual network functions in VMs with more traditional management workflows. And plenty of back office OSS, BSS that are non-cloud native.” 

“In terms of the largest 5G network on a cloud-native 5G SA core out there, it's likely China Mobile right now, and possibly Jio if they meet their targets in H2 2023,” Chua added. 

Uses, not 5G excuses 

Cloud native and standalone 5G can offer more capabilities than the standard tethered to 4G non-standalone version. 

“5G SA and a cloud-native core has lower-latency, can offer network slicing, and may offer API access to the network,” Chua said. “The MNOs still need to know how to expose those, manage those, and find a way to charge for that access. I think the programmability and visibility of specific telemetry on a per subscriber/organization basis can bring value to cloud gaming and other enterprise applications.” 

So really, we’ve just started on our way down the yellow brick road to cloud-native 5G land. 

Do you want to learn more about the cloud-native 5G market? Sign up to attend our virtual Cloud-Native 5G Summit today.