A few months ago, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal travelled across the United States in search of 5G connectivity and documented her findings. Most of the major network players in the region were offering limited rollouts of this new technology in major cities, and the reporter was understandably interested if the early installations of 5G would live up to the tremendous hype.
Some of her findings were fairly predictable. When she could find a strong 5G signal, her download speeds were up to 1,800 megabits per second, which is more than 50 times the national average for 4G.
However, some of her findings were less predictable. For instance, she found that if outdoor temperatures were too hot, her phone would revert to a 4G connection. Likewise, her phone would also switch to 4G if the phone’s processors overheated from overuse. When this occurred, she had to stick her phone in an ice cooler for a few minutes to reconnect to the 5G service.
These are just a few examples telling us that 5G’s global rollout is going to be full of surprises for everyone involved—network operators and testers included. That said, we can still try and make some predictions about what the future might hold for service verification.
1. Increased Test Loads
Let’s start with something that’s not too hard to see coming: an increase in overall test loads for 5G networks.
Since 5G’s sub-millisecond latency speeds and massive capacity are going to make it possible to deploy Internet of Things (IoT) devices in complex networks outside of industrial settings, it stands to reason that testers will have to verify that those new devices can actually connect to the network.
Beyond that, there’s certainly going to be an increase in network elements that need functional testing, especially when you’re deploying infrastructure for the first time. Massive MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output) is one of the foundations of 5G’s increased data speeds and requires large arrays of antennae all working in tandem. This not only adds volume, but also additional complexity to testing workflows.
In that same vein, having an additional network operating in parallel to your existing LTE, 3G, and 2G infrastructure will mean an increased number of handover and fallback scenarios requiring verification. These are minor considerations by themselves, but all together, they add up.
2. Emphasis on Flagship Devices
For the first time in years, the latest and greatest mobile devices will be designed with different antennae and other elements intended to connect to completely different networks than most of the phones in the market today. Thus, rather than flagship devices being considered something of a luxury, they’ll represent the most important test cases for 5G networks. As such, there will be a huge emphasis on the ability to incorporate newly released devices into automated testing workflows as quickly as possible.
For some automation providers, this will increase the pressure to root or jailbreak Android and iOS devices, respectively, to better control their test environments. But in an era where sub-millisecond latency times are supposed to become the norm, the difference between a rooted device with less hardware restrictions and the real thing can be wide enough to present a real risk. For this reason, the ability to rapidly automate newly released devices without hacking them is going to be more crucial than ever.
3. Re-Imagining Speed Tests
Okay, remember those sub-millisecond latency times we mentioned a moment ago? Those have the potential to present even more headaches for testers. Why? Because measuring latency, jitter, and packet loss—not to mention download and upload speed—in a 5G environment is going to be a game of inches… or rather, a game of milliseconds. A recent ITU report says that latency times for 5G service should be between 1 and 4 ms at most. This is a huge reduction from the maximum allowable latency of 20ms for 4G.
In order to reduce the margin of error for their test results, testers are going to have to pay much closer attention than ever before to standardization and consistency of their speed tests. Manual testing becomes impractical due to the natural variation in methods. It will be increasingly necessary to have automated tests that perform the same actions in the same way every time.
4. Over-the-air Testing
Because of these low latency times, we expect to reach a point when wireless 5G connectivity within the home is faster than a wired connection. Things that were previously wired, like home theater setups involving speakers, projectors, etc., will to go wireless.
When this happens, it’s possible that over-the-air testing will become more commonplace, which means devices will be tested without a wired connection as testers try to ascertain beam tracking information and other 5G-specific data.
In theory, this may help to overcome some of the challenges inherent in millimeter waves—e.g. their relative inability to penetrate walls and other barriers. However, in practice, this will lead to a large number of new complex test cases.
5. The Rise of Hyper-Automation
Of course, 5G will also be arriving in an environment where other factors are already increasing the sophistication of automated telecom testing workflows. No doubt these factors will influence the way we test 5G networks and viceversa. For example, 5G will be maturing around the same time Gartner expects hyperautomation to be a transformative force across any number of different industries.
According to Gartner: “(H)yperautomation today involves a combination of tools, including robotic process automation (RPA), intelligent business management software (iBPMS) and AI, with a goal of increasingly AI-driven decision making.”
New concepts like hyperautomation are emerging at a pretty fortuitous time for telco testers. Be on the lookout for things like test scripts that can optimize themselves for improved 5G integration; or predictive algorithms that can hint at when new network elements might require maintenance; or digital twins that you can use to test network changes in order to reduce risk and decrease regression testing time.
In summary, we still have a lot to learn about the emerging world of 5G, and rigorous testing is necessary to reveal these findings. User expectations have been getting more stringent for years, and 5G is only going to intensify that phenomenon. Any organization that can quickly adapt testing workflows to accommodate these considerations and capitalize on hyperautomation tools can really gain a competitive advantage in this new space.