One of the most surprising things I learned while writing the 5G Book with Oguz Sunay is how the cellular network’s history, starting 40+ years ago, parallels that of the Internet. And while from an Internet-centric perspective the cellular network is just one of many possible access network technologies, the cellular network in fact shares many of the “global connectivity” design goals of the Internet. That is, the cellular network makes it possible for a cell phone user in New York to call a cell phone in Tokyo, then fly to Paris and do the same thing again. In short, the 3GPP standard federates independently operated and locally deployed Radio Access Networks (RAN) into a single logical RAN with global reach, much as the Internet federated existing packet-switched networks into a single global network.
For many years, the dominant use case for the cellular network has been access to cloud services. With 5G expected to connect everything from home appliances to industrial robots to self-driving cars, the cellular network will be less-and-less about humans making voice calls and increasingly about interconnecting swarms of autonomous devices working on behalf of those humans to the cloud. This raises the question: Are there artifacts or design decisions in the 3GPP-defined 5G architecture working at cross-purposes with the Internet architecture?
Another way to frame this question is: How might we use the end-to-end argument—which is foundational to the Internet’s architecture—to drive the evolution of the cellular network? In answering this question, two issues jump out at me, identity management and session management, both of which are related to how devices connect to (and move throughout) the RAN.
The 5G architecture leverages the fact that each device has an operator-provided SIM card, which uniquely identifies the subscriber with a 15-digit International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI). The SIM card also specifies the radio parameters (e.g., frequency band) needed to communicate with that operator’s Base Stations, and includes a secret key that the device uses to authenticate itself to the network. The IMSI is a globally unique id and plays a central role in devices being mobile across the RAN, so in that sense it plays the same role as an IP address in the Internet architecture. But if you instead equate the 5G network with a layer 2 network technology, then the IMSI is effectively the device’s “ethernet address.”
Ethernet addresses are also globally unique, but the Internet architecture makes no attempt to track them with a global registry or treat them as a globally routable address. The 5G architecture, on the other hand, does, and it is a major source of complexity in the 3GPP Mobile Core. Doing so is necessary for making a voice call between two cell phones anywhere in the world, but is of limited value for cloud-connected devices deployed on a manufacturing floor, with no aspiration for global travel. Setting aside (for the moment) the question of how to also support traditional voice calls without tracking IMSI locations, the end-to-end argument suggests we leave global connectivity to IP, and not try to also provide it at the link layer.
Let’s turn from identity management to session management. Whenever a mobile device becomes active, the nearest Base Station initiates the establishment of a sequence of secure tunnels connecting the device back to the Mobile Core, which in turn bridges the RAN to the Internet. (You can find more details on this process here.) Support for mobility can then be understood as the process of re-establishing the tunnel(s) as the device moves throughout the RAN, where the Mobile Core’s user plane buffers in-flight data during the handover transition. This avoids dropped packets and subsequent end-to-end retransmissions, which may make sense for a voice call, but not necessarily for a TCP connection to a cloud service. As before, it may be time to apply the end-to-end argument to the cellular network’s architecture in light of today’s (and tomorrow’s) dominant use cases.
To complicate matters, sessions are of limited value. The 5G network maintains the session only when the same Mobile Core serves the device and only the Base Station changes. This is often the case for a device moving within some limited geographic region, but moving between regions—and hence, between Mobile Cores—is indistinguishable from power cycling the device. The device is assigned a new IP address and no attempt is made to buffer and subsequently deliver in-flight data. This is important because any time a device becomes inactive for a period of time, it also loses its session. A new session is established and a new IP address assigned when the device becomes active. Again, this makes sense for a voice call, but not necessarily for a typical broadband connection, or worse yet, for an IoT device that powers down as a normal course of events. It is also worth noting that cloud services are really good at accommodating clients who’s IP addresses change periodically (which is to say, when the relevant identity is at the application layer).
This is all to say that the cellular network’s approach, which can be traced to its roots as a connection-oriented voice network, is probably not how one would design the system today. Instead, we can use IP addresses as the globally routable identifier, lease IP addresses to often-sleeping and seldom-moving IoT devices, and depend on end-to-end protocols like TCP to retransmit packets dropped during handovers. Standardization and interoperability will still be needed to support global phone calls, but with the ability to implement voice calls entirely on top of IP, it’s not clear the Mobile Core is the right place to solve that problem. And even if it is, this could potentially be implemented as little more than legacy APIs supported for backward compatibility. In the long term, it will be interesting to see if 3GPP-defined sessions hold up well as the foundation for an architecture that fully incorporates cellular radio technology into the cloud.
We conclude by noting that while we have framed this discussion as a thought experiment, it illustrates the potential power of the software-defined architecture being embraced by 5G. With the Mobile Core in particular implemented as a set of micro-services, an incremental evolution that addresses the issues outlined here is not only feasible, but actually quite likely. This is because history teaches us that once a system is open and programmable, the dominant use cases will eventually correct for redundant mechanisms and sub-optimal design decisions.