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How a Network Digital Twin Can Manage 5G Complexity for Government


For federal government and military, the promise of 5G has a high priority in resilient operations – especially in contested and congested environments. Learn how defense organizations can design and test 5G spectral agility across complex mesh networks and Open RAN solutions.

Defense organizations have long been challenged to ensure radio signals are transmitted and delivered securely and effectively. For government and military, the promise of 5G is very much about resilient operations – especially in contested and congested environments. 5G promises enormous capabilities – with a capacity to connect massive numbers of people, machines and devices using high-speed connections.

5G also introduces complexity, with numerous frequency ranges and new technologies. When it comes to radio network design and spectral agility, a range of key variables must be addressed to ensure the success of critical ground-to-ground, ground-to-air, ship-to-shore, and air-to-air communications.

What are those variables? How can a Network Digital Twin uniquely help defense organizations test for the myriad combinations? This blog explores how testing spectral agility, mesh networks and Open RAN 5G solutions can ensure designs for superior and reliable communications in the world’s most challenging environments.

Six Key Variables of Assured Radio Network Communications

Long before 5G is integrated into civil and defense networks, government must be assured the technology will work as intended in live, often rigorous, and demanding environments. When designing radio networks and devices for military use, six key variables must be addressed to ensure reliable communications:

  1. Distance: With greater distance from radio antennas, especially with satellite communications, the communication path is longer and signal strength will be reduced by the time it reaches the end device.

  2. Reflections: Radio signals reflect off different types of atmospheric conditions and solid materials. That may cause multi-path propagation, where a signal reaches the receiving antenna by two or more paths.

  3. Blockers: Numerous obstacles can fully block or partially absorb signals. Rough terrain, buildings and certain armored vehicle materials are examples of potential blockers.

  4. Interference and noise: Other radio communications, additional electronic devices, atmospheric conditions, and many other factors all contribute to the critical issue of signal interference, which can distort communications or make them difficult to hear.

  5. Motion: Sounds are in motion, as are people, ground vehicles, nautical vessels, and aircraft – and all at different speeds. Complexity of motion, such as the Doppler effects’ change in sound wave frequencies produced by a source in motion, impacts how radio communications behave and perform.

  6. Bad actors: Spoofing and jamming are intentional interference methods that bad actors use to inject inaccurate information into communications or to prevent essential signal delivery.

The only way to know these variables – or combinations of variables – have been addressed, is to have the right testing strategy with the right capabilities and expertise. This often entails comprehensive and custom testing, which can require an inordinate amount of time and money, especially with internal test teams that need to ramp up on the evolving complexities of 5G technology. This is where a 5G Network Digital Twin can play an essential role.

How a Digital Twin’s Channel Emulation Helps Build Spectral Resilience

A 5G Digital Twin is a software emulation of the 5G physical network. Empowered by lab and test automation and continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) best practices, it allows for continuous prototyping, testing and optimization. It’s a powerful solution that speeds up testing, reduces costs and improves outcomes well before the network and devices are deployed in theater.

One key function of the Digital Twin is the channel emulation capability that supports testing of all the scenarios above through combinations of variables and complexities, including:

  • Multi-faceted environments: indoor, outdoor, urban, rural, and even potentially ground-to-ground, ground-to-space conditions

  • Feeding effects: the ability to implement, in repeatable and on-demand ways, effects such as the Doppler effect, to be simulated and checked to ensure signal access or system performance

  • Added interference: inserting noise, jamming signals or other interference to test that the techniques, systems, devices, and antenna system kits are capable of managing it, where the interference can be actual playback from recorded field conditions

A 5G Digital Twin can support testing of all these combinations and variables in an automated way. Without automation, the time needed to configure and test all of the scenarios becomes prohibitive.

Spirent’s 5G Network Digital Twin helps to prove complex use cases, blending the emulated network with the real-world network, services, and devices. A team of seasoned experts guides the testing of complex conditions, to ensure security and performance of devices and networks in contested and congested environments.

Chart from "The Relationship Between 5G & Digital Twins for Industry 4.0" infographic

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Three Use Cases: Spectrum Resiliency, Mesh Network Comms and Open RAN Testing

5G isn’t just one technology – it’s a collection of technologies. As such, it is imperative to test networks and devices across a multitude of use cases to validate 5G network performance in real-world conditions.

1. Spectral Agility for Resilient Operations

A Digital Twin can support testing across any or all of the six key performance and security variables outlined above. With a goal of defining and ensuring high priority in resilient operations, testing scenarios can be set up to answer essential spectral agility questions like these:

  • Distance: Are the components too far away and power levels too low? What is the optimal distance?

  • Reflections: If the signal is being reflected through a range of multi-paths, how can the architecture be built for resilience?

  • Blocking: Are signals being blocked because of a material in an organization’s control? If so, could changes in the obstacle’s design or materials resolve the issue?

  • Interference and noise: What causes the disruption? How well is the network muting the noise or interference? How can a device design change improve the clarity?

  • Motion: What is an optimal network design to flexibly deal with people, devices, and transport in motion – especially when objects are moving quickly on a three-dimensional scale?

  • Bad actors: How quickly are jamming and spoofing attempts detected? How well does the network repair for jamming? For spoofing?

Discovering how the system is performing with the fluctuating variables, and combinations of variables, will validate the agility – or help identify gaps requiring improvement to prepare the system for a live environment.

2. Mesh Network Testing for Complex Tactical Edge Communication Systems

Unlike a traditional cellular network, a mesh network is an environment where everything is moving independently relative to each other where troops, vessels, aircraft, and vehicles are moving simultaneously on the ground, at sea and in the air.

Multiple mesh topology options exist, each used for specific security and privacy purposes:

  • Star Communication: No devices talk directly to each other, where all signals go through a common point

  • Convoy: Line of vehicles where communications hop short distances from one moving vehicle to the next, to the next, to the next

  • Looping: Each device communicates only to the one on its left or right, for a full circle of devices

  • Full Mesh: Every device communicates with all other devices

A mesh network provides secure and ultimately superior service above and beyond a consumer network. But it’s a complex environment to validate. Each of the devices – or nodes – moves in a different potential mesh configuration and they all have different radio propagation models. In real life, there may be combinations of meshes working together.

Testing mesh networks involves testing potential performance issues that may impact each of the nodes at any given time. These include the Doppler effect and capacity – often with high-definition communications and flexibility being keys to optimal performance in congested environments.

The 5G Network Digital Twin supports the repeatability of all these combinations. State-of-the-art lab and test automation, and repeatable emulation, become essential to achieving comprehensive validation on this scale.

3. Testing Open RAN to Achieve Supplier Diversity Supply Chain Security

Commercial radio devices are designed for macro consumer networks and large urban environments. The military routinely develops their own communication devices that can stand up to the unique, rugged, and hostile environments in which they operate. With these requirements in mind, government and military are currently exploring how to exploit Open RAN to provide a more resilient radio network for their complex and demanding range of environments.

Open RAN offers defense organizations:

  • Flexibility of sub-elements, to include all (and/or only) the parts that serve the purpose

  • Innovative capabilities, to support desert, jungle, or other harsh environments

  • Vendor diversity, to provide supply chain resiliency if one vendor is compromised and unable to deliver what’s needed

  • Complexity, to ensure the parts and vendors interoperate in accordance with the military’s exacting requirements and standards

With the interoperability of different technologies – where multiple components must integrate into a single seamless system – it’s imperative to ensure they work together as planned. Performance is critical, and defense organizations need a “yes” answer to this question: “Does it perform as well or better than a traditional RAN system?”

An Open RAN environment, with multiple vendor components, is no longer a closed system like RAN. It will have multiple attack surfaces. “Is it secure?” 5G Digital Twin facilitates comprehensive testing of all the elements in the environment – some of which may be hosted in geographically dispersed locations. A Digital Twin fosters testing vendor compliance with specifications, interoperability, performance, scalability, and security to meet or exceed stringent requirements.

Managing the Complexity of 5G for Government with the Digital Twin

5G is evolving and full of promise. It also comes with complexities that can be challenging to adequately test at scale. Spirent’s 5G Network Digital Twin can help to address those complexities for government and defense.

A final thought: as noted in our newly released 5G 2021 Update: Market Drivers, Insights and Considerations – A Spirent Report Addendum, perhaps the most notable trend underpinning 5G rollouts is the status elevation of software, gear, and service companies from that of “vendor” to “trusted partner.” Tightening budgets has shifted internal teams into roles where they focused only on areas where they are experts, leaning on highly skilled partners to fill in the qualified resource gaps. This is the where the 5G Digital Twin can help organizations address that gap with cutting-edge technology, seasoned expertise, and advanced testing methodology.

Learn more about Spirent solutions for government.

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Stephen Douglas
Stephen Douglas

Head of Market Strategy

Spirent is a global leader in automated test and assurance for the ICT industry and Stephen heads Spirents market strategy organization developing Spirents strategy, helping to define market positioning, future growth opportunities, and new innovative solutions. Stephen also leads Spirent’s strategic initiatives for 5G and future networks and represents Spirent on a number of Industry and Government advisory boards. With over 25 years’ experience in telecommunications Stephen has been at the cutting edge of next generation technologies and has worked across the industry with service providers, network equipment manufacturers and start-ups, helping them drive innovation and transformation.