Mobile network operators in many parts of the world have done a decent job rolling out 5G technology and are beginning to reap needed returns on their huge investments.
According to the latest figures from the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA), at least 101 mobile operators in 44 countries or territories have launched one or more fully commercial 3GPP-compliant 5G services.
And market research group Omdia suggests there are now almost 138 million 5G connections globally, a 116% improvement over the first quarter of 2020.
The Association has also identified 400 commercially available 5G devices globally as of the end of last month, 20 commercially available 5G-capable mobile processors and platforms, and eight discrete 5G modems from five different semiconductor companies.
The GSA does recognize there are significantly different rates of 5G growth around the world, partly due to the impact of the pandemic and its follow on consequences. Growth has been strongest in China, South Korea, and North America, with most European countries only just starting to catch up.
Collectively, the three giant Chinese operators — China Mobile, China Unicom and China Telecom, are expected to deploy 600,000 5G bases-stations by the end of this year.
Of the commercial networks, the GSA suggests there now 94 operators live with 3GPP-compliant 5G mobile services (up from 63 at the end of March 2020), while 37 have launched 3GPP-compliant 5G fixed wireless access (FWA) or home broadband services, up from 34.
However, these networks are to date limited to Non Standalone Services (NSA) and are primarily offering services to consumers for an improved experience on their mobile phones or tablets through faster data rates and ultra-low latency as they use their mobile phones or tablets. These early implementations of the fifth generation mobile technology was, of course, in part, designed to allow existing 4G LTE operators to move quickly and relatively seamlessly to 5G.
However, this step change in connectivity has still to be felt in almost all the business-to-business use cases and the myriad of industrial applications the industry has been promising for years.
In part, the answer lies in the fact that the early implementations are all based on the Non Standalone Services (NSA) version of the fifth-generation mobile technology, which was — in part — designed to allow existing 4G LTE operators to move quickly and relatively seamlessly to 5G.
Many of these other — and on the whole still visionary — applications are having to wait for what is now being referred to as “real 5G” –or Standalone 5G (SA). This version has been designed so as not to need other connections, and which will be able to support advanced technologies, such as network slicing.
he industry took a huge step towards achieving most of this with the approval of the 3GPP organization’s Release-16 specifications.
“This is going to prove a hugely important catalyst for new, novel services and 5G-compliant private networks. You will see much more activity in the enterprise sector over the next year as the Release – 16 specifications begin to impact developments,” Joe Barrett, President of the GSA told EE Times.
A lot of the work will come from the MNOs but, increasingly, from companies acquiring their own spectrum who will work to create new in-house opportunities behind their own firewall, said Barrett.
“Just look what happened at the FCC’s last auction a few months ago — we saw completely new entrants who will generate novel applications for services such as IoT, factory automation , health technologies, agriculture – not to mention private networks,” Barrett enthused.
“A lot of this will require government regulations as regards making spectrum available in different bands, including the C-Band and mmWave, on a ready basis, as well as parallel help in building out the necessary fibre infrastructure,” the GSA executive added.
Barrett is very positive on the likelihood that the technology will, over time, deliver on the hype. He maintains that 5G is already being adopted faster than previous generations.
Returning to regional differences, it seems very likely China will be the first to have scale in 5G SA, and with significant use-cases.
The GSA shared with EE Times some of the ambitious projects being readied by some of the Chinese operators. For instance, China Mobile is targeting ten vertical industrial opportunities including ‘smart grids, autonomous driving, intelligent healthcare projects, intelligent education, aviation networks and intelligent agriculture’.
Meanwhile China Telecom’s vision includes focus on the media sector, industry networks, CCTV, intelligent health and education and logistics.
Having said all that, T-Mobile in the US is widely accepted to have launched one of the first standalone commercial 5G networks – just weeks after 3GPP released the final specs for 5G SA. The other US carriers are not far behind.
As an aside, the message regarding rolling out 5G will not be helped by telcos launching services with made-up monikers. This week (October 5th) AT&T said it had deployed 5G+ in parts of downtown Milwaukee. 5G+ refers to the telco’s service for 5G that is delivered using high-band or millimetre wave spectrum, which it says will be capable of download speeds of up to 1Gbps.
The company says the initiative means consumers in the area “will now have access to both of AT&T flavors of 5G.)
Of the numerous advances made possible by Release-16, perhaps the most important for increased enterprise participation is that related to ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLCC) services. It is this, coupled with network slicing, that is expected to drive the rapid development of some of the more advanced services made possibly by 5G.
Gabriel Brown, principal analyst at Heavy Reading, part of the Omdia market research group, argues that the industry needs to focus on demonstrating a working, end-to-end architecture that can support many of the emerging services envisioned for 5G. He suggests URLCC will have a significant impact in this effort so as to get beyond a proof-of-concept phase into small scale pilots in the field.
“I expect to see dozens of small-scale trials in most parts of the world. All this is already road-mapped –the necessary chips-sets and related components that will make this happen are already shipping,” Brown told EE Times.
Concurring with Barrett’s view, Brown stressed that “Release 16, with its important and much needed focus on enterprises, private networks, non-public access, as well as industrial requirements, will trigger significant activity, and some of these applications will reach commercial reality within 18 months.”
“It is almost as if 3GPP has acknowledged that the two approaches should have equal status going forward,” Brown said.
He also posits that it is not very surprising the push towards private 5G-capable networks has been slow. “It has not really been possible from a technology point of view so far — the necessary eco-system of products and devices has just not been there.”
From a business perspective, Brown notes that private 4G-LTE networks have been more than adequate to date and have been doing remarkably well in a number of markets, notably in the US. “They have been meeting existing requirements and expectations.”
Meanwhile, Barrett suggests that MNOs will need to look at different approaches and business cases if they are going to benefit from the inevitable and significant increase in private and enterprise networks.
“Traditionally, these are long established companies and they have enjoyed huge revenues from providing voice and data services. They do realize that they will have to make changes to some of their business cases, and most are relying on the promised benefits that will accrue from the introduction of network slicing,” said Barrett.
He added they will also see significant competition in this sector from some of the large system integrators, such as CAP-Gemini.
A recent report from research house Omdia and digital business platform specialist BearingPoint/Beyond suggests that operators are in danger of missing out on significant opportunities in early 5G enterprise services deals unless they revamp their marketing strategies.
The problem, according to the report is that the CSPs are very much focusing on delivering 5G connectivity as an isolated service while enterprises are seeking a much broader package of technologies and services that would include — but are not limited to — 5G connectivity.
The issue for the operators, the report notes, is that most just do not possess the kind of partnership ecosystem needed to be able to offer a broad suite of applications.
Many of the deals being negotiated or struck do not include a traditional operator at all, the report found, notably in sectors such as automotive. In the majority of cases, the projects are led by an internal team within the enterprise, while, as noted above, in many there is a systems integrator involved. All this is leading to a fragmented market.
There are of course exceptions and positive outcomes for some telcos.
It is clear there is a major opportunity for operators, and that the market will be worth huge amounts, but the report also notes that if CSPs are to benefit from the 5G enterprise opportunities, they need to make sure they don’t repeat the same mistakes that were made with 4G.
So the key issue here is that what the enterprises want and need is, in far too many instances, not necessarily what the operator has to offer in terms of technology.