5G: ‘Just another G’ – yet a catalyst of change

Executive Briefing Service, Network Futures

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Our predictions for 5G, based on our assessment of the opportunities and barriers it faces, including how and when it will impact different markets. Combined with other technologies and industry trends, 5G will change the shape of the industry, but not in the way that many expect.

Join us for a free webinar with the report’s authors on Wednesday 8 August, 4pm BST

Introduction

This briefing document is being published in June 2018. This report does not re-hash the familiar background story to 5G – the original specifications, the much-ballyhooed early thoughts on use cases, nor the breathless rhetoric about how it is going to change the world (or in the risible words of one hyperbolic tech CEO, “be more important than electricity”). Neither is it a hatchet job decrying the whole exercise as worthless. Instead, it looks at the factors acting as brakes and accelerants for 5G, and how they may affect the overall ecosystem’s evolution.

What is needed, however, is a way to cut through the spin – especially where it is aimed at policymakers and investors, who often latch on to simple but unrealistic stories. Some of the most absurd ‘5G-wash’ hyperbole emanates from Brussels and Washington DC, and in the run up to the next World Radio Congress in 2019 (where spectrum allocations are debated) it is critical that rationality and critical thought prevails over glossy lobbying. It is harmful to us all if 5G hype means it ends up overshadowing worthy parallel developments in satellite communications, private wireless and other technologies that also deserve attention, spectrum or subsidised research projects.

It is understandable that many in the industry ‘talk up their own book’, especially given consolidation and profitability concerns in the vendor space. The 2018 market for telecoms infrastructure is expected to decline, and there are huge hopes at Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei that 5G can help turn it around in 2019–20. But that is not an adequate excuse to exaggerate. Neither is it an excuse to mislabel and market diverse other technologies (advanced versions of 4G, Wi-Fi and so on) as ‘5G’ – although such egregious duplicity is one of the few certainties here. It is probably enhancements and capacity additions for 4G that will prove the biggest moneyspinners over the next 12–24 months.

In theory, the next 24 months should be when it all happens for 5G. Early demonstrations and trials have been well publicised, including various global cities’ testbeds and the South Korean Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Almost every week yields new press releases, lauding everything from medical diagnosis (NTT DoCoMo) to self-driving snowploughs (Telenor). It is unclear how much any of these shiny announcements actually accelerate real, commercial deployments – or real business models.

This period is also a critical juncture for standards, starting with the formalisation of the first phase of standards at the June 3GPP meeting (Release 15), leading up to the full ratification of 5G as the official IMT2020 technology by the International Telecoms Union (ITU ) in 2020.

Much of the technology media is trying to pitch the development and deployment of 5G as a race, either between countries or individual operators. The first fixed-wireless deployments are under way, while the earliest mobile devices are expected by the year end (probably portable 5G/Wi-Fi hotspot modems). 2019 should see a flurry of early launches and the first 5G-capable smartphones becoming available.

Yet those forms of 5G broadband – fixed or ‘enhanced mobile’ – are hardly novelties, despite the gigabit speeds and low latencies promised. In many ways, they risk being overshadowed by continued evolution of 4G networks, which is occurring in parallel.

There are also plenty of IoT-type demonstrations, whether for delivery drones, autonomous vehicles or automated industrial machinery. Yet these seem much less real for now – the value-chains are far from clear, and often they will need networks to be built in new locations, rather than reusing existing towers and backhaul. It also isn’t obvious that large enterprises are willing to pay much for such connectivity, and whether they’ll be happy with ‘slices’ of MNO-controlled networks or if they want to own them outright.

There remain many hard-to-answer questions about 5G’s emergence:

  • Will global consumers switch to 5G phones en masse in 2021–22 or more from 2023–24?
  • Will today’s mobile operators consolidate further or will there be an explosion of new niche providers targetting verticals or specific uses?
  • Is there a ‘race’ between countries to deploy 5G, and if so, why? Do arguments about 5G ‘leadership’ really translate to economic benefit and jobs, and if so, for whom?
  • Will the US, Japan, South Korea and maybe China take a significant lead on 5G, or is it more about geopolitical grandstanding in the Trump/Xi age, and helping national-champion vendors and operators gain a reputational boost?
  • Will 5G, NFV, SDN and edge computing work in true synergy, or will delays or limitations in one area have knock-on impacts on the others?
  • What are the unexpected practical ‘gotchas’ for 5G that might add friction, cost or delay to deployment, or complexity to operations? Is fibre availability for backhaul a critical prerequisite?
  • Does 5G pose an opportunity for new niche suppliers of technology – for example in small cells – or will thinning margins and price pressure from operators and open source force many aspirant vendors out of the market?
  • Will ‘verticals’ and IoT really matter for 5G, and if so will telcos view enterprises more as customers, partners or even suppliers and competitors? Which industries are realistic opportunities for 5G’s new capabilities for low latency or ‘massive IoT’?
  • Who, if anyone, will make a profit from 5G-enabled networks, devices, services and embedded capabilities?

The truth is that many of these questions cannot be definitively answered today, despite the emphatic nature of a lot of industry comment. Here, we present some scenarios and especially look at the idea of pre-requisites: what needs to be done first, for 5G to be successfully deployed or monetised? There are potential bottlenecks ahead, as well as opportunities.

Hopefully, we have plotted the roadmap, even if the industry cannot ‘drive autonomously’ yet.

The rest of this report is structured into the following sections:

  • 5G positive signals – standards, trials and enthusiasm
  • 5G cautions – prerequisites, questions and complexities
  • Verticals – huge opportunity or more market fragmentation and competition?
  • Timelines and practicalities

Think of this report as a weather forecast. 5G will be much like the UK climate: patchy clouds, with rays of sunshine and the occasional storm. The summer will be late but warm, but you’d best pack a 4G or Wi-Fi umbrella just in case.

And just as with weather, trying to do long-range forecasts is very risky. There’s a good chance that circumstances will prove you wrong. But despite that, we have some qualitative predictions stretching out to 2026, at which point we expect to be bombarded with 6G hype, alongside 5G reality.

Sign up for our free webinar with the report’s authors – Wednesday 8 August, 4pm BST

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • 5G positive indicators: reasons to be happy!
  • Early trial results and deployment plans
  • Spectrum
  • Summary – the good news!
  • But what are the obstacles to 5G?
  • Densification and network sharing
  • In-building coverage
  • A lack of 5G business models
  • 5G-specific models in a hybrid-network world?
  • Devices and silicon
  • Other issues and concerns
  • Verticals: customers, partners or competitors?
  • Overview
  • Operator networks for verticals? Or private 5G?
  • Thoughts on specific verticals
  • Vendor attitudes to verticals and private networks
  • Timelines and practicalities
  • 5G in name only?
  • Conclusions

Figures:

  • Figure 1: 5G predicted timeline, 2018–2026
  • Figure 2: Who are the 5G bulls and bears?
  • Figure 3: 5G antennas may be larger and heavier than 4G equipment
  • Figure 4:  Multiple dimensions for future wireless networks’ use cases and requirements
  • Figure 5:  Creating private 5G networks involves significant complexity for enterprises
  • Figure 6: Predicted 5G relevance to verticals, 2023-25 timeframe
  • Figure 7:  Numerous applications of machine learning and AI for 5G networks
  • Figure 8: Overall 5G predicted timeline, 2018–26

 

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