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8 October 2019

Operators are only at the start of tackling the issue of 5G roaming

Roaming has always been a significant challenge for a new connectivity technology. It took years for globally accepted back office mechanisms for roaming – covering a plethora of processes from handover to remediation to billing – to develop for cellular networks. The WiFi industry went through a similar struggle, and has not yet truly achieved a common global approach. And with 5G, the goalposts have moved again – not because of the connectivity itself, but the need to support roaming across the software-driven, shared, sliceable platforms.

To allow connectivity to take place across many operators’ virtual networks, cloud infrastructure, edge nodes and slicing will be a significant challenge, both technically and in terms of how operators need to adjust their existing agreements and processes – often to take other, new service providers into account too. A very high degree of automation will be essential to coordinate and orchestrate all these moving parts across many industries and countries.

Roaming issues in 5G are not just about grand global slicing visions. Speaking at the recent Competitive Carriers’ Association (CCA) conference, Craig Sparks, chief innovation officer at regional US operator C Spire, said that US roaming “has to be part of the conversation about what 5G brings to the table that’s different from how we’ve done it in the past”.

He believes the industry must move to roaming that is closer to the Airbnb model, very automated and able to accommodate large numbers of providers in a standardized way. The closest the wireless industry has got to this so far is probably the WiFi marketplace platform developed by BandwidthX, though it is hard to imagine that, with Amazon and Google getting more interested in connectivity, they will not bring their marketplace expertise to bear in orchestrating future 5G networks.

For now at least, the telcos are still driving the thinking. “In the future it’s an automated description of your network’s capabilities and what they can do,” said Sparks, with discovery engines dynamically adding new capabilities in 5G networks.  “What you think about as roaming today is just not how we’re going to be thinking about it in 10 years,” because of automated service assurance and a wider variety of operators and private networks.

An interesting proof of concept in this area is supporting 4G roaming in Japan and Germany between NTT Docomo and Deutsche Teleckom (DT), with DT installing part of its virtualized core on Docomo hardware so that its users, when in Japan, saw the network just as an extension of the DT platform.

And in South Korea, the most advanced 5G nation so far in terms of subscriber uptake, KT has launched 5G roaming services in partnership with three international MNOs – Italy’s TIM, Sunrise of Switzerland and Elisa of Finland.

“KT is leading the roaming market with ‘Super Plan’,” said Park Hyun-jin, managing director of KT’s 5G business division. This plan offers unlimited data and unlimited data roaming, and was ranked third in a customer survey conducted by KT, looking at the purchasing decisions driving 5G adoption. The most popular reason to upgrade was for technological advance, including battery saving.