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The industry is now six years into network functions virtualization (NFV). Along the way, we have learned that retrofitting virtualized network functions (VNFs) and multiple VNF managers into the ETSI NFV framework has not brought the transformational success carriers anticipated. But carriers have invested significantly in NFV and virtualized infrastructure, and the journey must continue. Where to next? Vendors have developed service-based architectures (SBAs) for 5G, but are operators ready to make that core infrastructure leap? Operators must move forward, and leading vendors (Cisco, Ericsson, Huawei, Mavenir, Nokia, and ZTE) are putting their new 5G core product launches at the forefront of their next-generation networking portfolios.

5G networks will have more demanding network and service delivery requirements than prior generations of wireless infrastructure, and these requirements are driving fundamental change to carriers' core architecture. To achieve the necessary scale and performance for 5G, carriers need an agile, cloud-native, service-based core architecture that will reduce time to market for both 4G and 5G services and allow them to monetize new services more quickly. 5G adds network slicing and control and user plane separation (CUPS), which will provide unique services per application with specific latency requirements and service assurance.

Global carriers are successfully conducting 5G trials, with some tier-1 carriers even launching 5G services ahead of formal 5G commercialization in 2020. Carriers such as Verizon and AT&T in the US, Elisa in Finland, Swisscom in Switzerland, BT/EE in the UK, China Mobile, and Ooredoo have trialed and launched services ahead of the market, gleaning insights into how to build a proposition for paying 5G customers.

Each carrier is developing a large partner ecosystem to help bring 5G to its customer base as soon as possible, and enabling a cloud-native core architecture has been a strategic priority. In the evolution to 5G core, carriers need to turn to trusted partners that can provide them with guidance in moving from 4G LTE to 5G. This guidance needs to cover how to develop 5G use cases, communicate realistic 5G core migration timelines, and create technology roadmaps for both 4G and 5G services. Above all, carriers need partners that have a deep understanding of their network assets and service strategies and can map them to new, cloud-native 5G core architectures. Carriers may not yet be ready to go to fully virtualized 5G infrastructure today, but they are working furiously to prepare for a future in which they could make the leap.

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