Podcast episode 34: The hero hiding in 5G

illustration of Jitin Bhandari

Every time someone picks up a 5G smartphone, a superhero springs into action.

For Nokia’s Jitin Bhandari, it’s not the ‘faster than a speeding bullet’ radio access network. And it’s not the transport’s ability to leap tall silos in a single bound. It’s the mild mannered 5G core. But the man charged with helping communications service providers build-out the next generation network is a superhero himself, if not to his clients, at least to his kid.

Below is a transcript of this conversation. Some parts have been edited for clarity.

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Michael Hainsworth: Every time someone picks up a 5G smartphone, a superhero springs into action. For Nokia’s Jitin Bhandari, it’s not the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet radio access network. It’s not the transport’s ability to leap tall silos in a single bound. It’s the mild-mannered 5G core. But the man charged with helping communication service providers build out the next generation network, is a super hero himself. If not to his clients, to his kid.

Jitin Bhandari: When I talked to my 10-year-old, what do I do for a living and what does Nokia do for a living, or what do we do as a telecommunications network? It’s very simple. You know, whenever you power your cell phone, behind the simple connection of it, connecting to the nearest cell tower, if you are opening up your favorite app to watch content, maybe Netflix, maybe Hulu or whatever. Or you’re using voice, video, messaging capability. And in fact, you are actually connected to the core. It is the foundation or the core network, that is providing those foundational three vanilla services, what we call as data, voice and messaging. So the chances are, every time you’re picking up the phone, you are using the data, voice or video or messaging, and you’re always connected to the core. 

Beyond your cell phone, if you are sitting at your home and if you have that fixed phone sitting somewhere in your corner of your room, and you’re using those fixed phones, guess what? You are still connected to the core of the network. Because all those voice video capabilities that you use through those fixed phones, are also powered through the core of the network. And it’s the same core, you will be surprised, that’s connecting both the mobile side of things, as well as the fixed side of the things. What we see in our home and offices.

MH: So you call the core “The forgotten hero”. Perhaps to better understand how it leaps tall buildings in a single byte, we should start by looking at the evolution from 3G and 4G, before we get into 5G.

JB: Yeah you know, that’s interesting. And we thought that, you know, it’s a good discussion to have about, you know, what’s happening in 5G. But before we jump into the crux of the 5G discussion, it’s almost important to see where we are coming from. Because, if you look at the last three decades, from a network standpoint, in the transformation of 3G, 4G, fixed and mobile convergence, and all of these aspects that we are seeing the transformation of the network. 

What we have been doing as an industry is providing essentially three vanilla services, what we call as data services, voice or video, and messaging. And if you pause and think for a second, right, there’s something foundational that happened during the 4G transformation. What happened essentially during the 4G transformation is, there was a unique moment when we did IP-fication of the network. What we mean by IP-fication of the network is, before the 4G era, what was happening was that the voice, the video and the messaging capability was essentially circuit switched in nature. And the way we were accessing data networks, the way we were using your favorite applications in the era of 2G, 3G, they were fast getting onto the technologies of what we know as IP technology. 

What happened in the 4G era, was a true convergence of the platforms of data, voice, video, and messaging. And what was powerful about that transformation behind 4G, was that we were able to get two very important dimensions, what we call data and mobility. What the 4G era brought us is a high throughput scale of data, an extreme amount of mobility. And with just those two parameters in the last decade, we can simply say that the amount of transformation that has unleashed out in the marketplace, think of players like Airbnb, think of players like Uber, just with the two fundamentals of data and mobility, they are able to create enormous amounts of market value out there. Not only for human mankind, but also the value that telecommunications and communications can bring in general. So that has been a phenomenal phase that has happened behind the 4G context. 

You know why I call this a forgotten hero? Every time there has been a transformation, whether it’s in the wireless technologies, as we go from 2G to 3G, to 4G, or this convergence of fixed and mobile that actually happened in 4G, or this IP-fication of voice, data and messaging services, that actually happened in 4G. It is very unfortunate Mike, that we have never understood the real value of core. Every time with this adoption of any access technologies around mobility and fixed, we have been building on layers of complexity, or this forgotten hero of ours, what we call as core. And that has been the foundational problem for us.

You can build the fastest legs that can get you through the marathon, but you gotta focus on your heart.

MH: Well, let’s talk about those access technologies. The core, of course, necessary to enable 5G’s promise of ultra broadband, low latency, ultra reliability. Well, when it comes to access technologies, one of the neat things about 5G over 4G, is that per service custom SLA.

JB: I really admit that for the last two years ever since we have been talking about 5G, or even before that, we have been extremely focusing on two aspects of 5G, that brings us to the promise of, you know, two true destructions. One is extreme bandwidth, and the capabilities with massive MIMO technologies and the access technologies that 5G has to promise, through its radio frequencies. The other piece that, you know, the very fact that we are now being able to operate in tens of milliseconds or four, or eight or 10 millisecond range, compared to the latencies of 60 to 80 milliseconds, is fundamentally groundbreaking, when it comes to an access technology standpoint, from a 5G aspect. But I must say that over the last two years, there has been (rightly so) a lot of focus about the transformation of the access technologies, but we are almost missing the mark. You can build the fastest legs that can get you through the marathon, but you gotta focus on your heart.

MH: Mmmh.

JB: And the heart of the network is the core of the network. You prepare for your 100 meters, you prepare for your marathons, and you can build the fastest legs, through these access technologies, and you can overlay it with the concepts of Cloud RAN and Open RAN. But if you aren’t focusing more onto the core of the network, why these vanilla services of voice, video and messaging needs a complete transformation, in the era of 5G. If you want to deliver to the promise of 5G, which is around massive MIMO, great amount of latency and tapping of these latency, creating of the new business value around these verticals, creating of service-specific SLAs, as what we call the concepts of network slicing, you got to look within first. And you got to start up from the ground up. How do you redesign this core? And that’s why, you know, this topic becomes very relevant, very important to us at these times.

MH: Well, I wanna talk about how you redesign that core. But first let’s talk a little bit more about those SLAs, those service-level agreements, that allow you to create the customized services, that 4G just simply wasn’t capable of building. What of the ARPU component to this, because I can imagine that the telecommunications industry, which has been seeing a decline in average revenue per user, and has been trying to at least stem the slide, if not build up and improve ARPU, how would services built on the 5G core, help in that department?

JB: That’s a fantastic question. And you know, the discussion actually goes back to the creation of the three vanilla services, and can we transform our network, to give more and beyond all these three vanilla services? You know, we gotta go back and ask ourselves those questions. 

As we were rebuilding 4G technologies, what we never did was the rebuilding of some of the foundations of our networks. And when we look at 5G, and you’re talking about ARPU, the average revenue per user, is tightly linked to the kind of services you would launch in your networks. Today, most of our networks and the foundations, and the building of our networks, is purely tied up to these three vanilla services. So now, if you pause and think what 5G does to us, is a unique value proposition of redesigning and rebuilding and rethinking, how do we redesign our networks? And that network definitions, if we look at the 5G specifications specifically, gives you real meat and real elements, of how can you open up the network for more verticalization of the services? How can you open up your network, be more platform agnostic, and embrace adjacent value add services that you could deliver to the 4.0 transformation we have been talking about in the industries? How can you redesign your network to cater to more enterprises and verticals and industries, so that you can truly improve the productivity that we talk about in the communications world? 

So what I’m saying fundamentally is, the promise of 5G beyond the access technologies, beyond these access pieces of it, is in the promise of redefining your networks, redefining your operations, so that you’ll be set up, to define new services for these verticals, for these enterprises, that directly connects you to create more business value. And that directly connects you to creating more service-based, SLA-based networks. That’s what we have been talking about.

MH: The value added that comes by connecting various verticals to Industry 4.0, I could see how that boosts ARPU at the enterprise level. What about at the consumer level? It strikes me that the core has an opportunity to optimize the network, not specifically to build value, but to reduce costs.

JB: Yeah, so this has been an ever-growing discussion in our industries. You know, our point of view is very, very simple. There are two aspects of creating value. Either you create value by introducing new services, or you create value by optimizing your operations, or doing operation excellence. The way you operate will deliver your networks, and hence create value by optimizing your operations. 

It’s not a discussion of whether you’re delivering to a consumer set base, or a B2C kind of an environment, or whether you are delivering to a B2B kind of an environment where your services are more targeted for enterprise verticals and so on and so forth. It’s about time that we start building networks with the notion of horizontal plays. Horizontal platforms, horizontal communications platforms, as we call it. And those communications platforms, if they are built right, if they’re built with the right design principles, we strongly believe that you can deliver to the promise of the consumers. 

You can cater to all the consumer needs and the various services in today’s networks of 5G, whether it’s AR/VR, whether it’s gaming, whether it is direct voice, video, immersive experiences, and the SLAs these services would need. You can also deliver through the same network, all those SLAs and all those differentiated services, what an enterprise, what a vertical, what an industrial revolution, what a broad digitization may need, from a network service provider standpoint. 

The power is enormous today behind the technologies of 5G of what a service provider can do. So the dialogue has to move on from, “Am I catering to only a consumer, or am I catering to a vertical or an industry?” I believe the dialogue should be, “How should I be principally building my network, and the core of the network, that’s designed to cater both B2C and B2B industries?” And that’s the fundamental piece of it.

It’s about time that we start building networks with the notion of horizontal plays.

MH: And when you build that out, the 5G core is more resilient. I can imagine that while a consumer will be more than happy to know that their Netflix feed is going to come in fast and smooth without a glitch. The resilience component at the six nines level, has to be tied to Industry 4.0. What role does the core play in ensuring that?

JB: That’s a very interesting question, because you know, resiliency and scale come natural to core, over the years and decades that we have built the core. And we have been talking a lot about core, but I don’t know if our listeners understand what really a core is. You know, I often use this analogy Mike, that you know, nature is made up of five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Our core is foundational in buildup of the basic five elements. The data core, the voice core, the subscriber data and the signaling and policy. These are the five primary elements that make up the core. Now, when you talk about the aspects of, you know, how is resiliency, redundancies, scale built into these five elements? What’s beautiful about this core is, for decades, one of the foundational things that the telecommunication industry has done fantastically well, is to build five nine resiliency and redundancy in the networks that we build. So that comes natural to us. What is more interesting to see and understand here is, that the promise of 5G that it brings, and the nuances and the architectural change in definition, how the code is built in to deliver to the promise of 5G. That’s more of a relevant discussion to have, rather than the resiliency and redundancy, which I believe comes naturally to our design principles and building.

MH: 5G is about massive MIMO and low latency, but that’s at the radio access network and transport levels. The true power of 5G is in the core, because it creates new business opportunities, I think is perhaps one of the most important elements of this conversation.

JB: Rightly so, and you know, we keep talking about this value creation aspect of it, but before we go deeper into it, I would like our listeners to understand, you know, what are the foundational principles of 5G core that are brought in, that are really unique to this new era? 

If you look at the 5G core design principles, and if you think of these five basic elements, the data core, the voice core, the subscriber data policy, and signaling, that is a huge amount of transformation. And that transformation brings a great amount of simplification to our networks. The design principles of 5G are all built around extreme agility, extreme adaptation of openness of the networks, extreme aspects of how can you build these networks as more plug and play nature, more service oriented in nature, and taking this journey of a traditional core, which is essentially known for three services, to more office service enablers, that you can dynamically create more services, through the concepts of network slicing. And that’s very unique out there Mike, that not many of us are realizing, that as much as we are focusing on these apps and radio technologies, how are we stressing on redesigning these five elements? You think about giving a rebirth of the core, around these five elements and making sure that, you know, you design it right, you build it right, so that you can actually deliver to the promise of new business value creation, that we talk about often behind 5G.

MH: Well, that brings us to an important point. Not all 5G cores are created equal by the CSPs that implement them. How do you build a 5G core correctly?

JB: That is an amazing question. You know, this is a unique time we live in. We talk a whole lot about 5G, but there’s another major transformation that’s underway throughout our technology industry, and that’s about cloud, right? And if you think about these two bigger technology transformations, one being 5G, and the other being cloud, you know, there are two paramount principles that have emerged through the web-scale industries, through the hyperscalers, and how we have designed our web scale concepts. 

There are two concepts and I tell you, you know, there’s a lot of noise and talk about these two concepts. One fundamental concept is building cloud-native software applications. And the other tool and technology that has been often talked about is extreme automation. These almost need to be married together when you are building these five foundational principles of the core. That’s almost the only way you can build this core, from the ground up, in a fashion which is open enough, agnostic enough to any platform, and be able to deliver to any services you can dream of, in a much faster, shorter life cycle, in the service provider environment. 

So what I would say is, if you’re thinking about building a core, you have to adopt and understand the foundational principle of, how do you build a core that is natively, inherently designed with the design principles of cloud native? And how that core embraces the concepts of extreme automation. Those are two foundational grounding principles, I must say.

MH: We haven’t spoken yet about the cloud. Unlike 4G, we can build unique services within the 5G core, powered by the cloud. What does the CSP though, need to do to be ready to become a cloud provider? Something that they never had to do before?

JB: You’re so spot on, on that. You know, over the years, through the 4G transformation, we did adapt to some of the early principles of cloudification through a technology called virtualization. You know, through our experiences of about 100 plus outings that we have had, in transforming and rebuilding, to some extent, some parts of our core, behind the backdrop of 4G, has given us lessons on, how do you build a core or software applications of telco kind, on the principles of cloud? 

There has been quite a bit of fair learning that we have had in the last seven, eight years. One of the foundational ones that we realize is that both CSPs, and us, need to understand the founding principles of a cloud architecture. We see that, you know, there’s a lack of competencies, lack of cultures of what truly a cloud definition is. For example, if you’re redesigning your network, you know what the pure power of cloud is, network desegregation. The beauty of the cloud architecture is, you can build edge, far edge, center core data centers, and you can almost throw any software applications, any workloads, based on the service they deliver to any proximity to the user. You could be having that application that demands extreme low latency, much closer proximity to an edge, or a far edge cloud, versus applications that are doing design for scale, and high throughput, can be built in on the data center, so that they use the power of the data centers. 

Now, if you’re doing those kind of principles in a network, you’ve got to understand the philosophies of how the software is built in the cloud native environment, how these applications are not built in a siloed nature, how these applications are built in a platform agnostic way, and these applications can actually be deployed in edge, far edge, and core cloud data centers. How these applications are fundamentally designed for extreme throughput and scale, so that you can deliver to the promise of 5G. So there are many aspects to it, and you know, our CSP friends and I, when we talk about many of these things, there are aspects of technologies, there are aspects of cultural differences and competency development that we’ve gotta do. There’s a blend of both, that we gotta make some serious ground, if we are serious about rebuilding these networks, behind the principles of cloud native and extreme automation.

MH: If the 5G core is built on web-scale principles of openness, agility, and flexibility, what are the issues that a CSP needs to consider for implementation?

I believe that, you know, we have a unique opportunity in our industry right now, to simplify our networks.

JB: You know, we have been talking about the transformation of 5G. And we earlier talked about the founding errors we did, or mistakes we did, and the things that we could learn from our 4G transformation. One of the pieces that we missed during the 4G transformation, is opening up the networks and how we implemented our networks. There was no attention whatsoever to if we are exposing the network assets, the operation assets to seamless, connected service oriented architectures, through to the fundamentals of API. That was never a design consideration. We never designed our applications in a true platform agnostic way. 

You can build a software application that scales well, that can be deployed in any part of the cloud, that can seamlessly connect with other applications and make more relevance to the service that needs to be delivered. There were no concepts of slicing (what we talk about in 5G). There was no concept of creating virtual copies of your own network, that are dedicated to a specific user, to a specific industry, to a specific service, delivering to those promises and SLAs. And you can’t do that overnight. You gotta be thinking from ground up. You gotta be thinking about how you’re building your access networks that are ready for these kinds of extreme scale, and extreme low latencies. But you gotta start thinking about, are you building these core network applications, which are designed around delivering these three vanilla services, but all these elements, five primary elements we talked about, which is data core, voice score, subscriber data, signaling, and policy. Are you designing them in the cloud native fashion? So that becomes essential. 

So I would encourage our service provider friends to start thinking about these five elements. Start thinking about almost building a dashboard to ourselves, that you know, are we building these five elements in the principle of openness? In the principles of platform agnostic way of building and cloud applications? Are these applications able to give you that resilience, and that scale, if built around cloud native principles? These are fundamental questions we should be asking every time, now we are rebuilding these networks, behind the era of 5G.

MH: So then let’s look at everything we’ve discussed. Tell me what’s your path to launching full 5G.

JB: When you look at today’s state of affairs of our networks, we have built quite a bit of complexity and often, not every service provider out there has a privilege to do a greenfield operation. So if the answer could be that, you know, if you could build a greenfield operation, the best way to do it is, rebuild the whole network, in a greenfield way, and build a true 5G network that’s built on the principles of cloud native and extreme automation. That would be my answer. 

But guess what Mike? You know, one thing that we are forgetting about is the power of 5G and the 5G architectures, and I would just want to say that, often, we have sort of a bias, that every time we think about 5G, we think about radios, 5G is so much about beyond radio and the technologies of access as we have been discussing. One of the pure powers of 5G, is around the stand-alone architectures. No matter how big or a small operator you are, whether you are operating at a national level, or regional level, or you are a global operator, across multiple countries, you can always look around in your networks, look at those geographic regions, where you see the most potential of creating B2B value, as well as delivering some B2C services, that tradition your network delivers. Identify that region, identify that location, identify those specific use cases. And there is no stopping you, to build a stand-alone architecture behind 5G, with fresh radio installed, a brand new core with these five elements, from the principles of cloud native and full automation, and have a seamless connection of that network, to your operations. Then you will see that the promise of 5G is fully delivered. 

And that’s what my take on it is. That’s where the kind of dialogues we are having with a lot of operators worldwide, and believe it or not, you know, we do see a lot of international operators, operators working across boundaries of countries, or operators even at a national or regional level, are seriously considering the power of stand-alone architectures of 5G. So, you know, you can always go to a normal path, which has been early adopted, which is much more of a non stand-alone architecture. But I would encourage all the operators to look at some of the aspects of stand-alone architectures. And if it’s a viable part for them, and for their strategies.

MH: What’s the one thing nobody’s talking about with 5G, that excites you the most?

JB: If I have to put it in one word, I must say, if I give you an analogy, right, if you look at your iPhone, it’s one of the simplest gadgets that you can use, and it’s been built behind one of the most complex technologies inside that box. Whenever you’re using your phone, you never think of all those complex aspects that get you that phone with the simplification that you get out of it. We strongly believe, and I strongly believe that, you know, the networks must be designed simple, must be operated in the foundational concepts of simplification. And I believe that, you know, we have a unique opportunity in our industry right now, to simplify our networks. Behind this promise of 5G and cloud, behind these design principles of cloud native, automation, that we talked about, the kind of unique opportunity, if we build up a network, build up an operations, that is seamlessly connected, using this design principle, using this complex technologies, we have a unique way to simplify our network, which we have never done in the last three or four decades, that excites me.

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