In June of last year, The 3rd Generation Partnership Project set the official standards for standalone 5G, effectively paving the way for the era of true 5G functionality. It might be a little bit of an exaggeration to say that we’re now experiencing a race to create usable 5G networks and devices among the wireless carriers and device manufacturers of the world (Apple, for instance, has been forthright about its decision to wait until 2020 to roll out its first 5G-enabled smartphone), but the floodgates are certainly beginning to open—and carriers like Verizon and AT&T are already performing a limited rollout of 5G home and mobile networks. In Europe, a leading operator in the 5G space has already announced its support for the OPPO Reno 5G.
Beyond the OPPO 5G, more 5G-enabled smartphones (to say nothing of 5G Internet of Things devices) aren’t too far behind. Sure, Apple is sitting the very early rounds out, but Verizon already has a mod for its Moto Z3 that enables it to connect to 5G networks. Likewise, Samsung has already released the Galaxy S10 5G, another of the first the first natively 5G-enabled smartphone. Though these devices aren’t likely to become standard among users for years to come, their impact on telecom testing has the potential to be powerful and immediate. As a rush of new hardware designed for both new networks and compatibility with 4G/LTE networks heads toward the market, testers will need to stay on the cutting edge in order to continue to verify service effectively.
5G: What’s the Difference?
Some of you no doubt remember some of these same concerns cropping up with the switch to 4G several years back. If so, you might be wondering if 5G is really worth the hype. Aside from the fact that devices will need millimeter-wave antennas that can cover the 600 and 700 MHz bands, what’s the difference really going to be? One some level, this question is pretty reasonable, and the short answer is that only time will tell. But the potential for a radical change in the way that telecom operators do business is certainly present in these new standards and the new technology that's bringing them to life. As 5G decreases latency and radically improves download speeds, a number of the technological innovations that seemed far off might become reality. After all, the implications of 5G go way beyond the limits of the handset.
Just by way of example, let’s talk about augmented reality. AR has gotten somewhat of a dicey reputation, largely because even the slightest hint of latency can cause feelings of nausea and vertigo in users. In the 5G era, it might be possible to decrease latency enough that this issue is nullified, meaning that the practical applications of AR technology could skyrocket, potentially having a ripple effect for telco operators who suddenly have to support and verify this functionality. If we think about the internet of things (IoT) more broadly, we see similar changes on the horizon. With improved throughput, bandwidth, and download speeds, IoT-enabled objects can be networked together more efficiently and more intricately—potentially leading to scenarios where network capacities need to be boosted dramatically to handle the increased load, as connections that were once made with wires are made wirelessly, say.
Challenges in 5G Testing
We may not know exactly what the 5G landscape will look like even a couple of years from now, but we do know that as these devices (and networks) emerge, device testing will become increasingly complex. Because the performance margins for latency are supposed to be getting narrower and narrower, detecting performance outside that acceptable range could become increasingly difficult for human testers—to say nothing of becoming increasingly difficult for test devices other than the end-user devices themselves. By the same token, the proliferation of different use cases—from increased IoT integration to new applications requiring new protocols—means that the field of potential test scenarios will continue to widen.
As we speak, the number of test cases that a human telco tester can perform in a day is dropping, from an average about 10 a few years to closer to 6 today. And this is before 5G has taken off in earnest. What will that number begin to look like once the increased complexities of these new standards really start to impact the latest devices? Furthermore, what will happen when service verification involves not just iOS devices, Android devices, and a handful of IoT items, but vast, unimaginable quantities of IoT devices? Even if testers are able to increase the number of use cases per day that they can cycle through, the total number of use cases that require testing could potentially skyrocket, leaving you right back at square one. Actually, probably a little bit shy of square one.
Device Testing Reimagined
Okay, so 5G is coming and the current state of device testing is arguably untenable. What should telco operators be doing about it? How can you put your organization in a position to thrive as technologies change and evolve? For starters, you could reorganize your test benches to prioritize the devices that your customers are actually using. This gives you a better chance of catching the small differences in network quality that will make or break your perceived quality of service. Even then, of course, you have the tremendous time constraints that come with the modern update cycle, leaving you with a lot of use cases to run through without a lot of time or resources to devote to them.
Something’s got to give. As the technology being tested breaks out of old paradigms, testing should do the same. Where device testing right now is mostly a matter of either human labor or simulated tests (which, again, won’t necessarily keep up with the nuances of 5G verification), the testing of the future needs to find a way to save time and labor without sacrificing precision—a way to verify hundreds of use cases at a time in a manner that’s repeatable and data-driven. In this way, you create processes that can be scaled and analyzed as needed in order to improve service and optimize costs. If you’re worried about the new frontiers of 5G, addressing these hurdles in testing should be a top priority.
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