Friday, 22 November 2019

5G Call Drops in EN-DC: A Thread for Service Quality?

As explained in the post about EN-DC setup the addition of 5G NR radio resources to an ongoing LTE connection provides additional bandwidth for user plane data transmission. And it seems to be fair to say that at least in social media today 5G speed test results, especially throughput measurements, are treated as the benchmark for EN-DC service performance. Hence, it is also logical that a loss of the physical 5G radio link (5G drop) could have a serious impact on user experience.

I write "could", because as a matter of fact many 5G drops will not be recognized by subscribers using non-realtime services including HTTP streaming.

Due to the dual connectivity of LTE Master eNodeB (MeNB) and Secondary gNodeB (SgNB) the signaling trigger points indicating a 5G drop are also a bit more complex compared to what we know from LTE. Indeed, both network nodes are able to release 5G radio resources abnormally using three different X2AP message flow scenarios as shown in figure 1.

Figure 1: Three Basic Signaling Flows for Abnormal Release of 5G Radio Resources

Which of these individual message flows will be found in the trace data depends on which of the two base stations is the first one that detects a problem on the 5G radio link.

A particular case that is seen quite often in live networks is illustrated in figure 2.

Figure 2: 5G Drop due to SGC Failure in UE

Here the trigger is a LTE RRC SCG Failure Information NR message sent by the UE to the MeNB. Thus, the MeNB requests the release of 5G radio resources, which is acknowledged and executed by the SgNB.

In addition (not show in the figures) also the GTP/IP-Tunnel for user plane transport between S-GW and gNB is released by the MeNB after successful completion of the X2AP SgNB Release procedure.

For the UE the 5G drop is not as serious as a drop of the LTE radio connection would be. It is just a fallback on plain LTE, so to say. And after the switching the GTP/IP-Tunnel back to a downlink endpoint at the eNB 4G payload transmission continues.

The longer the overall duration of the radio connection the higher is the risk that the 5G radio resources are lost during an EN-DC call. One of my favorite cases is a subscriber with a radio connection that last a bit more than two and a half hours - see figure 3.

Figure 3: Location Session Record of a Single Subscriber indicating a total number 340 SgNB Drops over 2:33 Hours

Thanks to the smart algorithms of NETSCOUT's TrueCall geolocation engine there is high confidence that she or he sits in an indoor environment, but is served by an outdoor 5G cell. Thus, the penetration loss of the 5G signal is significant. Due to the higher frequency the path loss has also higher impact on the 5G than on the 4G radio signal. This seems to be the main reason why the 5G radio link drops as often as 340 times, which leads to an overall 5G (SgNB) Drop Rate of 83% for this connection.

However, the impact on the subscriber experience might not be a serious one as a different KPI, the 5G EN-DC Duration Rate indicates. According to the Duration Rate 99.99% of all the time 5G radio resources have been available for the subscriber. This is possible, because as also shown in figure 2 within a relatively short time new 5G radio resources are allocated again to this connection. Even if the subscriber is watching e.g. a Netflix video the buffering of already downloaded data on the end user device should be sufficient to conceal the short interruption of the data transfer over 5G resources.

With rising amount of EN-DC traffic it might be rather problematic for the network to handle the additional signaling load originating from the frequent 5G additions and releases. In extreme cases this may even lead to congestion due to CPU overload in RAN nodes or virtual network functions.

For realtime services like Voice over New Radio (VoNR) the entire situation changes. Here even short interruptions of the user plane radio transmission can be perceived by subscribers so that the above discussed 5G Duration Rate KPI will become insufficient to estimate the service quality. Hence, this will drive the demand for a fully integrated view of 5G RAN and Core KPIs covering both, signaling and application quality.

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