Test equipment makers eye 5G progress and prepare for disruption

The wireless industry has turned its attention to the next big network transformation with the advent of 5G, and, for test equipment makers, the 5G evolution will likely mean a major disruption to the way operators test their networks and the devices that ride those networks.

Although there is no 5G standard yet, the 5G vision is typically described by wireless industry's leaders as a network that delivers speeds of 20 Gbps, offers extremely low latency and connects billions of devices. For text equipment makers, the combination of various spectrum frequencies that 5G will likely encompass, as well as the data rates and multi-antenna architectures means that new test equipment instrumentation will have to be created to handle the demands of 5G.

"Am I worried about 5G? Only that it's not well-defined at this point so we have to know where to place our bets," said Roger Nichols, 5G program manager at Keysight Technologies, a test measurement company that acquired network and device testing firm Anite for $607 million. Nichols said that one goal behind the purchase of Anite was to invest in core technologies that will enable the company to be better prepared for 5G and also to secure some of the research and development dollars that will start to flow to 5G development once the 5G standard is determined.

Nichols said that he believes 5G will create more opportunities for different types of testing, but that doesn't necessarily mean that operators will spend more money on test and measurement. "What we've seen in previous generations is that as the industry and technologies mature, they require fewer tests. There's a higher competency in the processes," he said.

For test equipment firm Spirent, the 5G vision means more complicated testing, particularly as the industry considers millimeter wave technology. "Millimeter wave makes things complicated," said Saul Einbinder, vice president of product marketing at Spirent. "It is high frequency, but the antenna is small and the power is small to compensate for the large number of small antennas."

Einbinder also said that with the growth in machine to machine communications and the Internet of Things, there will likely be millions of devices running on wireless networks by 2020. "5G provides some technologies to handle that large number of devices," Einbinder said. And while many of those M2M devices will be low bandwidth and low power, there will also be a lot more smartphones with more apps and faster video capabilities. "It's a challenge to the network testing side. How do you test a network with all these different types of use cases?" Einbinder asked.

Although not everyone in the industry is sure that 5G will include a new air interface technology, Spirent executives say that they believe a new air interface will be necessary to handle the bit rates and the modulation schemes that are currently being discussed. "This will not just require new spectrum but also new modulation schemes and encoding to get these data rates," said John Baker, general manager of mobility infrastructure at Spirent.

But Baker added that most test equipment companies are already accustomed to incorporating a variety of air interfaces and spectrum into their equipment as today's test equipment must be able to handle CDMA, GSM, 2G, 3G and LTE in one product.

Perhaps the biggest challenge will be testing for latency, which is already becoming an issue today. Baker said that latency has become very high on operators' network test requirements with the advent of VoLTE. "Networks were historically built for large packets to go back and forth. But VoLTE is based upon small packets. Some equipment may drop a packet but that wasn't an issue. But with latency it's an issue and it will have a significant impact on network performance," he added.

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