Before 5G takes off, we need to solve key testing challenges (Reality Check)

Our sci-fi future is just around the corner, right? Well, let’s pump the brakes.

The industry has big plans for 5G networks: autonomous vehicles, immersive augmented reality, ubiquitous drones, automated factories. If it was on The Jetsons, it’s probably on the table for 5G. And for the network operators and technology vendors aiming to deliver them, these applications promise lucrative new revenue streams too.

Doug Roberts, General Manager, Lifecycle Service Assurance, Spirent Communications

So, our sci-fi future is just around the corner, right? Well, let’s pump the brakes. Yes, these applications are now possible. But there remains a sizable gap between what’s needed to enable them and what current 5G networks actually deliver. As we field-test deployments today, we’re not simply fine-tuning. We’re encountering fundamental issues: 5G-to-4G handoffs that add 30-second delays. Edge networks that can’t match latencies of current 4G networks, much less support things like remote surgery.

As an industry, we’ll get from Point A to Point B, but we shouldn’t underestimate what that journey involves. We need to put aside assumptions about what 5G networks can deliver and get serious about measuring what they actually do. We need to rethink our testing strategies from the ground up.

Why are new testing approaches needed to unlock the 5G future? And what key challenges do we need to overcome? Let’s take a closer look.

Challenge 1: More Complex, Dynamic Environments

If you ran a telco network in the past, your testing methodology was relatively predictable. You dealt with maybe two or three vendors, a handful of different network device models that had existed for years and were field-proven in large-scale operator environments. You knew what these devices did, and you had a finite number of interoperability tests to perform, because there was a finite number of variables.

What happens with 5G? Instead of three vendors, now you’ve got 30. Instead of a few different boxes, you’ve got 150 nodal network functions in a software-defined architecture, each receiving software updates at different cadences. All these components interoperate in new, unpredictable ways. You’ve introduced a massive number of new variables. And the number of things you need to test has grown exponentially.  

Challenge 2: Everything Is New

With operators already delivering 5G services, it’s easy to forget that the 3GPP standards are still under development. There’s a list of new things coming in Release 16, more coming in Release 17, still more in Release 18.  Which means that your testing methodology will need to change in ways you can’t yet understand, because those releases are still being finalized.

It’s not just standards that are new; the solutions and vendors you’re working with are too. Most of these components have never been tested together before, certainly not at scale. So, you need to get far more granular in validating interoperability, performance, and security. And here’s another wrinkle: As you replace monolithic network devices with collections of virtualized nodal functions, you’ll find that some of those functions don’t exist yet. So, you’ll need to emulate them, as well as the conditions they’ll face when millions of users hit them at scale.

Challenge 3: Legacy Approaches No Longer Work

Operators and vendors are used to having mature, field-proven tools and methodologies to validate everything their networks and solutions need to do. With 5G enabling all manner of new use cases, that’s no longer the case. Take one example: delivering a network slice to connect a major sports arena.

The value of this service depends on the ability to tailor it for exactly what that venue needs. To do that, you’ll need to validate these new, multivendor nodal functions for tens of thousands of users, all using dozens of different devices, running hundreds of distinct applications—from ordering food to placing bets to streaming video and more—in extremely dense environments. Older testing methodologies won’t help here. And even if they could, they wouldn’t scale.

5G Action Items

To overcome these challenges, we need to rethink our testing philosophy from top to bottom. Here are some good places to start:

  • Get back to fundamentals. It’s fine to imagine tomorrow’s possibilities, but let’s make sure we’re covering the basics today. Just because something worked in a 4G environment, we can’t assume we’ll get comparable performance (or security, or interoperability) in 5G. We have to test all these things for what they are: brand-new technologies.
  • Expect much more testing. We’re no longer measuring bytes coming in and out of a network appliance interface. We need to test the interplay of dozens of virtualized nodal functions, in multiple ways, at scale. That includes testing standalone functions, their handoffs to adjacent functions, and their behavior as a composite system comparable to the monolithic box they replaced. As we deploy more use cases, we also need to test a much wider range of behavior. Streaming 4K video comes with very different requirements than passing instructions to driverless vehicles.
  • Prepare for an ongoing effort. Don’t expect to reach a time when testing is complete. You’ll need to continually validate standards compliance, performance, security, and interoperability across the lifecycle—from lab to preproduction, as you start turning up services, and as you scale to larger numbers of users. And you’ll need to repeat that effort whenever any variable in the environment changes.
  • Be willing to ask for help: It might have made sense in the past for operators and vendors to conduct their own testing. With all the new components and complexity that come with 5G, however, that model no longer works. More than ever, 5G demands independent, vendor-agnostic testing and validation. And it demands a level of automation that legacy and homegrown testing approaches can’t meet. If you can’t use prebuilt test cases and run them automatically, at scale, you’ll never get to market.

The good news is that, when you reimagine testing for 5G, you’ll gain more confidence. You’ll know that vendor claims are validated. And when you’re ready to roll out futuristic new services, you’ll trust all the pieces of the puzzle to work together the way they should. Just as important, you’ll get to that point more quickly. So you can not only bring amazing new experiences to customers, you can do it before anyone else.

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