Ensuring 5G network performance
Modern societies worldwide depend on the performance, reliability and security of critical infrastructures and networks. There is a plethora of ‘new verticals’ including manufacturing, warehouse, mining, ports or other critical infrastructure.
These ‘new vertical’ use cases all have one common requirement: the mobile network needs to provide a superior performance compared to a commercial mobile network. In such environments, 5G brings new capabilities to build fast and secure campus or private networks tuned to higher performance, which can increase productivity and efficiency.
To be successful in these business-critical use cases, the wireless networks need to be as reliable as the wired ones. To explain what ‘superior network performance’ means, we need to consider the various types of applications used in such a business-critical environment. We continue to see applications where people are involved, for example remote support or maintenance (AR/VR) where an expert from afar provides guidance to an onsite non-expert on how to maintain or repair a machine. Tablet connectivity is another important ‘human’ use case.
In addition, we see many machine applications with varying requirements. These include automated guided vehicles (AGVs) or autonomous mobile robots (AMRs).
Industry 4.0 process control is another machine application and many more are expected in the future. What is clear is that private networks will need to fulfil a huge variety of KPI-related requirements.
Network deployment phases and user groups
A private network for business-critical use cases follows different lifecycle phases depending on its maturity and importance for covering critical industrial processes. An important criterion is which user group is responsible for the actual lifecycle phase.
Engineering activities are typically aimed at verifying the RF performance of a novel network technology, as well as features and services in the early phases of introduction based on lab tests and field trials, where the interaction of the network and devices is in focus. The engineering phase often precedes network rollout, can happen in the field as well as in the lab and is typically done by experts.
Before deploying the private network, for example on a mine site, spectrum clearance is essential because interference will always limit network performance. If the private network is deployed, its network performance will need to be tuned to fulfil the required customer KPIs and therefore passive RF and active tests have to be executed and finally documented in an acceptance report. For both the spectrum clearance and network tuning phases, the user group responsible is the company who plans the private network, for instance an infrastructure supplier, a system integrator or a mobile network operator.
Once deployed and operational, it is critical that performance levels of the network (in terms of coverage and other KPIs such as data throughput and latency) are regularly checked because every modification in the network, for example moving a metal shelf or robot on the factory shop floor, will affect the signal propagation characteristics and can affect the coverage and network performance. Through continuous performance monitoring, the private network can be predictively maintained at an optimum performance level before an issue occurs. Here the responsible party is the company that uses the network for their business and since they are often not technical experts in mobile communication, the test tools at their disposal should be easy to use (or even be able to operate autonomously).
If a problem occurs in the private network, for instance KPIs are not being met over an operational period or there are negative trends in certain areas, then technically skilled experts should perform troubleshooting. This will take the form of detailed passive RF and active tests onsite and the user group responsible in this phase will be the operator of the network who is responsible for keeping the SLA (service level agreement). Think the IT department (which has developed a certain level of know-how regarding operation and troubleshooting of the network) but also either a system integrator or infrastructure supplier to which the task of operating the network was outsourced.
Test methods and their benefits
For passive tests with network scanners, SIM cards are not needed and it is possible to get an overview of all ‘always on’ downlink signals in the area by automatic channel detection (ACD), decoding of broadcast channel information and many RF parameters like signal strength or synchronisation.
With active tests where a connection with the network is needed, we can measure the network performance in terms of application quality of experience (QoE) or quality of service (QoS), for instance data throughput or latency. As RF frontend for active tests, smartphones and data modules can be used and the benefit here is their ease of use. The benefit of a data module is that the measurement is very close to the real-world use cases in private networks where data modules are integrated in robots, AGVs or other machines.
Only through a combination of passive and active testing is it possible to completely verify the reliability and performance of a network. Through continuous monitoring of network KPIs, it is possible to predict capacity bottlenecks or failures and conduct preventive network upgrades, reconfiguration or maintenance to solve the problem before it affects the end application resulting in high consequential costs. For an optimised process, smart tools that are easy to use (even for personnel who are not highly trained) are a must.
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