The 5G Network Transformation

ID 672889
Updated 6/1/2018
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Internet traffic has undergone tremendous growth over the years and shows no signs of slowing down. For example, in Staying Connected in 2017: Our Predictions, AT&T* reports that the traffic on their network has grown 250,000 percent since 2007. People are adding new devices to their homes, and new data-hungry applications are being developed for work, connectivity, entertainment, gaming and more. In addition to the amount of data required, many applications are also latency-sensitive. This means networks have to handle large volumes of data faster than ever, and without added cost to the end user or subscriber.

Enter 5G

With 5G, a user will be able to download a high-definition video in under a second (a task that could take up to 10 minutes on 4G LTE). 5G networks will boost the development of other new technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, smart agriculture, remote emergency and medical services, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

conceptual representation of 5g and data economy interaction
Figure 1. 5G is critical to a new data economy.

In addition to being a dramatically better mobile broadband system, 5G is an innovation platform for services, applications, and connected devices.

Connecting the World

According to Introducing OpenCellular: An open source wireless access platform, at the end of 2015 approximately half the world's population did not have internet access. The OpenCellular Project, founded by Facebook*, is designed to support a range of communication options, from a network in a box to an access point supporting everything from 2G to LTE. Facebook plans to open-source the hardware design, along with necessary firmware and control software, to enable telecom operators, entrepreneurs, OEMs, and researchers to locally build, implement, deploy, and operate wireless infrastructure based on this platform.

This project empowers the developer community to contribute to the goal of getting to 100 percent connectivity in 5G. To be successful, new 5G technology must be designed to connect with legacy 2G, 3G, 4G LTE, Wi-Fi* and wired networks. Implementing the new generation networks in this way also means operational efficiency for the whole network, and will benefit the operator bring down the cost for even existing users allowing them to remain competitive and hence grow.

The Pillars of 5G Wireless Technology

Everything You Need to Know About 5G, by Amy Nordrum, Kristen Clark and IEEE Spectrum* Staff.

The five pillars below are the foundation of 5G technology.

Millimeter wave

Current networks use the 3 kHZ to 6 GHz spectrum, which is getting crowded due to the explosion of data from smart phones and other connected devices. Next-generation technologies will use the 30-300 GHz spectrum, known as millimeter wave or mmWave, available for mobile broadband communications for the first time. The associated leap in performance can deliver fiber-like speeds, without the wires.

Small cells

Millimeter waves cannot travel through buildings and they can be absorbed by plants and rain. This is why the current technology of big base stations broadcasting their signals over long distances will not work in 5G. To solve this problem, 5G will use thousands of low-powered mini base stations.

Massive MIMO

Advanced multiple input multiple output (MIMO) antenna technology, including adaptive analog beamforming and beam tracking/steering techniques, can increase data rate, coverage, and capacity at base stations and within devices.


It's like a traffic signaling system for cellular signals, allowing data to be sent by the base station to a specific user, instead of broadcasting in all directions, hoping the user will receive it. This precision prevents interference and is much more efficient than the current technology, enabling base stations to handle a larger number of incoming and outgoing data streams simultaneously. The base station uses the direction of the source stream to calculate where the user device is located and determine where to send the stream.

Full duplex

Today's base station transceivers can't simultaneously send and receive signals on the same frequency. 5G transceivers support full duplex transmissions, which enable send and receive of same frequency signals at the same time. An alternate solution is to time division the signal, meaning send the incoming and outgoing data at the same frequency interleaved in a known pattern so the receiving base station can differentiate between the two. Researchers have designed high speed silicon transistor switches to halt the backward roll of these switches so both signals can be sent at the same time, improving the spectral efficiency of the signals

5G and Network Transformation

The previous sections illustrate how 5G is a fundamentally different technology in terms of how the physical layer of the technology works, how it interacts with legacy technologies, and the use cases themselves. Now let us talk about the requirements and challenges of 5G and how they can be addressed by various network elements.

Challenge 1

Network hardware elements (user equipment, modems, antennas, etc.) operating at the physical layer need to work at a much higher speed, support greater bandwidth, and be backward-compatible.

Solution 1

The 5G standard has been defined such that, other than the physical layer, it is backward-compatible. Though the actual bits and bytes travel on different frequency bands and need different modems, the upper-layer protocols do not change much. For this reason, most of the 5G software stack remains unchanged; however, it does need to support higher bandwidth and speeds, a challenge that will be met by a combination of software and hardware architecture designs.

Challenge 2

Network elements must be scalable and agile so that services can be brought up and down fast, as required by user-generated demand.

Solution 2

Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV) will play a key role, since these technologies will enable network functions to be modularized and to run commodity-based servers. These servers, sitting in service providers' data centers and at the edge, can spin network services up and down on-the-go to meet user demands.

  • Virtual network functions (VNFs) hosted in containers and micro services will help reduce the footprint of network services. Compared to VM-based virtual network functions, they cost less to operate and are faster to bring up and down. Security concerns related to containerization can be addressed by using secure Kata containers as required by the network.
  • Orchestration frameworks will play a critical role, since automation and interworking of network functions across industries and vendors will be the key to scale a 5G network. Various open source projects like OpenStack*, OPNFV*, ONAP*, and Open Baton* are working in this direction.

Challenge 3

Networks need to be flexible without compromising on throughput and bandwidth requirements. Different use cases need to be optimized for different network service level agreements (SLAs). For example, use cases like automated driving and remote medicine are extremely latency-sensitive, while applications like gaming, augmented reality (AR), and virtual reality (VR) demand high bandwidth and low latency. A smart agricultural application has massive bandwidth demand due to scale but is not latency-sensitive. If these different scenarios are to be serviced by the same network, the network must classify the packets as belonging to a particular group, or network slice, and process them according to a set of rules. This requires extensive traffic classification and scheduling to implement all the network nodes through which the traffic passes. This implementation needs to be flexible enough so traffic classes and slices can be defined dynamically and not be tied to what has been preprogrammed in the hardware.

Service assurance: 5G's stringent requirements leave no room for error in terms of how network service classes are handled. If a service class (see Figure 2 for the different service classes) is guaranteed to meet an SLA that requires sub-microsecond latency, the underlying network infrastructure has to reserve resources to make that happen. It is vital to monitor systems for utilization and malfunctions, in order to prevent service disruptions or to facilitate the prompt resumption of normal service. Today, monitoring and management activities throughout the network are supported by discrete systems in fixed service chains with tightly integrated hardware and software products as well as established management frameworks and assurance tools. In a virtualized environment based on NFV, these activities are more challenging as a result of the disaggregation of hardware and software and the ability to deploy services dynamically.

infographic depicts cloud services matched to different needs
Figure 2. Matching cloud services to diverse delivery needs.

Solution 3

Using a well-designed software stack for the core and edge – supported by hardware designed to have the flexibility needed to enable traffic to be classified, sliced, and monitored – is the best way to transform networks and make them ready for 5G. One of the biggest challenges in the networking industry for moving to a more software-based solution has been the fact that these networks have to support legacy devices and be backward-compatible. With 5G, new networks are being deployed, creating the opportunity for a flexible and agile green field deployment.

Intel's 5G Solutions

Intel develops leading network technology and building blocks such as silicon, software, connectivity, memory, and integrated solutions to address the demands of next-generation networks. These solutions provide both the flexibility and scalability needed to build, utilize, and optimize tomorrow's network.

It all starts with Intel® Architecture (IA), which provides the performance and scalability necessary to keep up with today's demanding network requirements. Our roadmap of processors starts with Intel Atom® processors and scales to our leading Intel® Xeon® processor, which is purpose-built for the cloud and offers the most advanced foundation for software-defined infrastructure. With a tool chain that allows seamless migration across the IA roadmap, developers and network administrators can run their software on a single architecture – IA.


The network of tomorrow will be deployed using SDN and NFV. Instead of running a separate router, VPN, and firewall on three different pieces of hardware, you can run all of them on the same IA-based infrastructure. SDN provides an intelligent network and orchestration software that enables you to swap out hardware without requiring software reconfiguration. This will provide tremendous value to service providers in terms of driving network scale and agility while reducing capital expenditure (CAPEX) and operating expenditure (OPEX).

Visual cloud

Visual computing is exploding. Studies show that video will account for more than 79 percent of traffic traversing the network by 2020. Use cases include AR and VR, video on demand, live streaming, video surveillance, autonomous driving, medical imaging, 3D modeling, and computer/robotic vision. Intel is democratizing the creation and delivery of these compelling visual experiences by incorporating visual compute IP into our Intel Xeon processors with Intel® Graphics Technology. Intel® Quick Sync Video uses the dedicated media processing capabilities of Intel Graphics Technology to decode and encode quickly, while also enabling the processor to perform other tasks for maximum performance.


Although industry standards are in the planning stage and actual deployments will not occur until 2019 or 2020, there is a lot of buzz about 5G. Telecom operators and equipment manufacturers are becoming 5G ready now. There will be incremental steps to get there, including the continual expansion of LTE and LTE-A. Intel has an end-to-end story (see Figure 3) for both consumers and businesses from devices to access to the core and cloud.

infographic depicts wide range of use for 5G
Figure 3: 5G end to end solution from smart user devices to core and cloud

Building blocks

For 5G infrastructure, building blocks include FlexRAN, which is a vRAN software reference platform, and Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC), with products that can be deployed today to provide for lower latency and more connectivity. These components will ultimately provide a best-in-class user experience.


Wireless base stations, like most network nodes, have traditionally been vertically integrated boxes. FlexRAN (see Figure 4) is a reference architecture developed by Intel to implement software based radio stations which can sit on any part of the wireless networks from edge to core.

colorful design for a software base station
Figure 4. FlexRAN: A reference design for a software base station

Multi Access Edge Computing (MEC)

MEC implements software services close to the user to meet the low latency requirements of newer networks (4G, 4G LTE, 5G) and meets high bandwidth requirements. It opens the door to new types of applications that can use information such as real-time access to radio network information and location awareness. MEC unlocks the network to a new ecosystem of services at the network edge

Intel offers the Network Edge Virtualization (NEV) SDK platform with standard APIs and interfaces for developers and content providers.

infographic depicts Multi Access Edge Computing
Figure 5. Multi Access Edge Computing (MEC)

What's in it for Developers?

Analysts predict a USD 12-trillion dollar opportunity for 5G-related goods and services available globally in 2035. From creating innovative applications and services at the edge, to building a new SDN/NFV infrastructure for the datacenter and cloud, or connecting the world through initiatives like FaceBook's OpenCellular Project, developers will be at the heart of the 5G transformation. We at Intel look forward to making the journey with you.

About the Author

Sujata Tibrewala is an Intel community development manager and technology evangelist who defines programs and training events to ensure that the network developer ecosystem works together toward a common goal: to drive SDN/NFV adoption in the industry using open source ingredients such as DPDK,, Tungsten Fabric, Open VSwitch, Open Stack, ONAP, and more. She is a frequent presenter at various IEEE and industry conferences in SDN/NFV.

 Sujata has worked at several companies, including CISCO, Agere, Ericsson, Avaya, Brocade, leading all phases of diverse software technology projects such as an SDN open flow implementation, TCP/IP/Ethernet/VLAN forwarding software development on CISCO switches, and network processors and cloud deployments using virtualization technologies.She has a Masters from IISc Bangalore and Bachelors from IIT Kharagpur and has completed an Executive Women Leadership Program from Stanford.