In 1877, Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated the possibility of making long distance telephone calls by calling the offices of The Boston Globe. As you can imagine, the press had a field day—and it’s easy to understand why. From the perspective of technological progress, transmitting voice communication over a trunk line successfully was a feat that would have been scarcely imaginable even a few decades before, and the research and experimentation that led to it would have been extremely complex. On the other hand, service verification would have been a breeze. Since the ceiling for voice quality back then was quite low, it was still a simple matter of placing a call and hoping that it went through successfully. If so: service verified.
In the past century and half or so, things have obviously gotten a lot more complicated—and they’re about to get even more so with the rise of 5G. Even in the early era of cellular telephony, telco operators could mostly focus on verifying network functionality primarily on handsets, but today the high reliability and low latency offered by 5G means that the field of devices that require testing is about to increase exponentially. The internet of things (IoT), narrowband IoT, and the rise of machine-to-machine (M2M) communication don’t just mean that loads on most 5G networks are going to be higher than those on their predecessors, they mean that the entire process of ensuring high quality of service is going to change.
How 5G Will Change Your Network
We briefly mentioned the IoT, narrowband IoT, and M2M above, all of which will contribute to the “massive internet of things,” of MIoT—a phrase that refers to the potentially massive influx of new devices (and thus new traffic) that 5G networks will have to sustain in many environments. Though 5G’s capabilities make it uniquely suited to the task, this increase in load still has the potential to lead to an uptick in failures and other potential network issues, especially in the early days when exact protocols are still being refined. From a testing perspective, these changes are likely to create increased pressure on load tests in particular when rolling out new networks or network updates, while simultaneously increasing the number of use cases that require testing.
Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. Rather, tests will need to be performed in an ecosystem that includes all new equipment (which will itself require conformance testing). For instance, you’ll be working with new chipsets that are designed to meet the 3GPP standards (supporting new frequency bands that can power increased bandwidth, etc.), which will determine the designs of new systems and subsystems. And these are just the obvious changes. As new network architectures crop up there will almost certainly be additional changes to the testing environment—meaning that anyone trying to provide a decent quality of service will frequently find herself in uncharted territory.
To give a slightly more concrete example of the ways that network changes in the world of 5G could have a cascade effect on service verification, let’s take a closer look at a specific scenario: over-the-air testing. IoT devices in particular and wireless devices in general need their signal paths and antennas tested over-the-air in order to accurately assure functionality. This comes with a set of known challenges, but in a 5G environment those challenges are magnified. Why? Because 5G’s shortened wavelengths (which could otherwise reduce network quality) are being compensated for by beam steering techniques that involve multiple antennas working in tandem. As a result, the interplay between different antennas, base stations, and the information each one is trying to transmit will become radically more complex.
There is no simple answer here: telco domain experts and testers will simply have to develop a new set of techniques and standards that approach the level of accuracy that over-the-air tests strove for in the pre-5G era. In the meantime, device testers are going to be wading through high levels of complexity in order to achieve even modest test coverage. Add this to the proliferation of new devices on a market that gets more and more fragmented each year, and you’re looking at huge increases in costs for in-house testing operations—just as those tests are becoming more crucial than ever for providing high quality of service.
Conformance vs. Complexity
For telecom network operators, the situation described in the paragraphs above might seem a little daunting. How are you supposed to perform acceptance tests for a host of wireless devices, test quality of service for data, voice, and video (including jitter, latency, packet loss, delay, etc.), and test your network strength and coverage without completely breaking the bank? More than that, how are you supposed to do all of that while making sure that your network conforms to emerging standards? After all, the complexity of the situations we’re talking about effectively reduces the number of use cases a human tester can run through in a single day, meaning that more and more person hours would ostensibly need to be devoted to reaching earlier levels of test coverage—all at the same time that tiny differences in latency can make or break customer perceptions.
One potential path forward for cutting through these emerging complexities is to turn towards test automation. While tests run in a simulated environment aren’t likely to uncover the more minute gaps in service quality on a 5G network, automated tests run on out-of-the-box devices present no such issue. At the same time, they can potentially bring your number of tests per day into the hundreds or thousands, meaning that as use cases proliferate you’re not stuck choosing between a dip in test coverage (and the inevitable corresponding dip in quality of service) or a tremendous outlay of person hours and other resources in order to complete your tests. In this way, automated testing can potentially offer a tidy solution to the problems that might arise for network operators as we enter the 5G era. As devices themselves move further beyond the handset, shouldn’t testing move away from laborious and outdated manual processes?