The advent of 5G in the telecommunications industry was top of mind for the 22,000 attendees of the first Mobile World Congress Americas conference, recently hosted in Los Angeles.

5G brings the possibility of virtualizing a radio access network (RAN) and running in an edge cloud.

Cloud computing is also a key factor in transforming the telecom landscape. It offers flexibility, lower total costs, and high service availability but as it stands, the challenge is that current cloud-based networks rely on centralized architecture that cannot cost-effectively support the ultra-low latency and extreme throughput required by IoT and 5G. Those use cases need much higher data throughput per user and low latency for applications. Enter the edge cloud, which distributes cloud capabilities across the network and places computing resources at the network edge where the traffic is. It enables implementation of Cloud RAN, multi-access edge Computing (MEC) and 5G on the edge. Applications that will ride on 5G such as IoT, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will bring additional use cases to host applications at the edge.

Bill Cune, vice president of network architecture at Corning Inc., and a speaker at the conference, said he’s talking to a customer who wants to deliver tens of megabits per second simultaneously to every user in a concert hall. “They’re doing that because they want to enable a guest experience that involves virtual reality and have it be a flawless, seamless experience. That type of use-case requirement is what’s driving this RAN innovation because you just simply can’t do that with the way networks have been architected in the past,” he pointed out, adding, “2G to 3G to 4G was really just increasing speed, but 5G is now increasing not only speed, but increasing flexibility. It’s able to support millions of connections, but at a high data rate and high densities. It has to be very controlled.”

Cune describes how the business goal of providing access in major stadiums has gone from building one sector per stadium for voice-only 10 years ago, to now, where every group of 400 seats has its own sector. Because it’s become so dense the RAN needs to be built out differently. He sees it transforming from a cell-centric to a user-centric architecture: “You have antennas every 15 feet and you don’t want to set up antennas for every operator, that’s excessive, so we’ve been really good cornering the distribution antenna systems and converging everything onto one. The implementation of a single radio node that can take the base band from multiple sources in an open environment is going to be a key RAN innovation.”

Along with convergence comes a necessarily more open environment, which is good news for developers. Informed by 5G, John Donovan at AT&T telegraphed this a few years ago when he talked about transforming AT&T from a hardware company to a software company. Cune emphasized, “The hardware will become more flexible, more open, more white box X86 types of solutions. The result? I think software development will become more open. Developers at the big brand vendors will be writing code for more general processor purposes, not just their specific hardware.”

Another benefit to the emerging more open, standardized environment will be that smaller players in the industry will be able to collaborate with the heavy hitters. Cune gives as an example a small company Phluido, Inc. He says, “Corning has been talking to them for years, because they’ve come with up with a very interesting way to do fronthaul, with very low bandwidth requirements. These are guys who thought of a better way to do something, and in the past, the only way they could have had a prayer at getting this adopted would be to maybe go sell themselves, sell something to one of the big brand vendors, or go through the tedious process of getting it standardized. Now you’ve got this open RAN initiative and folks like this can present their ideas. Even companies as small as a two or three person company have a prayer of getting their work adopted. We love what these guys did. There are benefits for us, and without this kind of open system it makes it very difficult for somebody like Phluido for someone like Corning to adopt their technology. If you adopt a technology that is non-standard, you’re on the outside looking in. When the standards are defined by the weight or the mass of the two or three big giants, it creates a dynamic that everyone’s trying to avoid right now.”

Ideally it’s going to get to the point for developers where the network is invisible. “You won’t have to worry as much about the network and available bandwidth, you’ll just write the applications,” Cune predicted. “You won’t be constrained by artificial limitations that sometimes get inserted into the picture by a high latency network.”