5G standalone (SA) core: Why and how telcos should keep going

Major 5G Standalone deployments are experiencing delays…

There is a widespread opinion among telco industry watchers that deployments of the 5G Standalone (SA) core are taking longer than originally expected. It is certainly the case that some of the world’s leading operators, and telco cloud innovators, are taking their time over these deployments, as illustrated below:

  • AT&T: Has no current, publicly announced deadline for launching its 5G SA core, which was originally expected to be deployed in mid-2021.
  • Deutsche Telekom: Launched an SA core in Germany on a trial basis in September 2022, having previously acknowledged that SA was taking longer than originally expected. In Europe, the only other opco that is advancing towards commercial deployment is Magenta Telekom in Austria. In 2021, the company cited various delay factors, such as 5G SA not being technically mature enough to fulfil customers’ expectations (on speed and latency), and a lack of consumer devices supporting 5G SA.
  • Rakuten Mobile: Was expected to launch an SA core co-developed with NEC in 2021. But at the time of writing, this had still not launched.
  • SK Telecom: Was originally expected to launch a Samsung-provided SA core in 2020. However, in November 2021, it was announced that SK Telecom would deploy an Ericsson converged Non-standalone (NSA) / SA core. By the time of writing, this had still not taken place.
  • Telefónica: Has carried out extensive tests and pilots of 5G SA to support different use cases but has no publicly announced timetable for launching the technology commercially.
  • Verizon: Originally planned to launch its SA core at the end of 2021. But this was pushed back to 2022; and recent pronouncements by the company indicate a launch of commercial services over the SA core only in 2023.
  • Vodafone: Has launched SA in Germany only, not in any of its other markets; and even then, nationwide SA coverage is not expected until 2025. An SA core is, however, expected to be launched in Portugal in the near future, although no definite deadline has been announced. A ‘commercial pilot’ in three UK cities, launched in June 2021, had still not resulted in a full commercial deployment by the time of writing.

…but other MNOs are making rapid progress

In contrast to the above catalogue of delay, several other leading operators have made considerable progress with their standalone deployments:

  • DISH: Launched its SA core- and open RAN-based network in the US, operated entirely over the AWS cloud, in May 2022. The initial population coverage of the network was required to be 20%. This is supposed to rise to 70% by June 2023.
  • Orange: Proceeding with a Europe-wide roll-out, with six markets expected to go live with SA cores in 2023.
  • Saudi Telecom Company (STC): Has launched SA services in two international markets, Kuwait (May 2021) and Bahrain (May 2022). Preparations for a launch in Saudi Arabia were ongoing at the time of writing.
  • Telekom Austria Group (A1): Rolling out SA cores across four markets in Central Europe (Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia), although no announcement has been made regarding a similar deployment in its home market of Austria. In June 2022, A1 also carried out a PoC of end-to-end, SA core-enabled network slicing, in partnership with Amdocs.
  • T-Mobile US: Has reportedly migrated all of its mobile broadband traffic over to its SA core, which was launched back in 2020. It also launched one of the world’s first voice-over-New Radio (VoNR) services, run over the SA core, in parts of two cities in June 2022.
  • Zain (Kuwait): Launched SA in Saudi Arabia in February 2022, while a deployment in its home market was ongoing at the time of writing.
  • There are also a number of trials, and prospective and actual deployments, of SA cores over the public cloud in Europe. These are serving the macro network, not edge or private-networking use cases. The most notable examples include Magenta Telekom (Deutsche Telekom’s Austrian subsidiary, partnering with Google Cloud); Swisscom (partnering with AWS); and Working Group Two (wgtwo) – a Cisco and Telenor spin-off – that offers a multi-tenant, cloud-native 5G core delivered to third-party MNOs and MVNOs via the AWS cloud.
  • The three established Chinese MNOs are all making rapid progress with their 5G SA roll-outs, having launched in either 2020 (China Telecom and China Unicom) or 2021 (China Mobile). The country’s newly launched, fourth national player, Broadnet, is also rolling out SA. However, it is not publicly known what share of the country’s reported 848 million-odd 5G subscribers (at March 2022) were connected to SA cores.
  • At least eight other APAC operators had launched 5G SA-based services by July 2022, including KT in South Korea, NTT Docomo and SoftBank in Japan and Smart in the Philippines.

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Many standalone deployments in the offing – but few fixed deadlines

So, 5G standalone deployments are definitely a mixed bag: leading operators in APAC, Europe, the Middle East and North America are deploying and have launched at scale, while other leading players in the same regions have delayed launches, including some of the telcos that have helped drive telco cloud as a whole over the past few years, e.g. AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Rakuten, Telefónica and Vodafone.

In the July 2022 update to our Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker, which contained a ‘deep dive’ on 5G core roll-outs, we presented an optimistic picture of 5G SA deployments. We pointed out that the number of SA and converged NSA / SA cores. We expect to be launched in 2022 outnumbered the total of NSA deployments. However, as illustrated in the figure below, SA and converged NSA/SA cores are still the minority of all 5G cores (29% in total).

We should also point out that some of the SA and converged NSA / SA deployments shown in the figure below are still in progress and some will continue to be so in 2023. In other words, the launch of these core networks has been announced and we have therefore logged them in our tracker, but we expect that the corresponding deployments will be completed in the remainder of 2022 or in 2023, based on a reasonable, typical gap between when the deployments are publicly announced and the time it normally takes to complete them. If, however, more of these predicted deployments are delayed as per the roll-outs of some of leading players listed above, then we will need to revise down our 2022 and 2023 totals.

Global 5G core networks by type, 2018 to 2023

 

Source: STL Partners

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • Major 5G Standalone deployments are experiencing delays
    • …but other MNOs are making rapid progress
    • Many SA deployments in the offing – but few fixed deadlines
  • What is holding up deployments?
    • Mass-market use cases are not yet mature
    • Enterprise use cases exploiting an SA core are not established
    • Business model and ROI uncertainty for 5G SA
    • Uncertainty about the role of hyperscalers
    • Coordination of investments in 5G SA with those in open RAN
    • MNO process and organisation must evolve to exploit 5G SA
  • 5G SA progress will unlock opportunities
    • Build out coverage to improve ‘commodity’ services
    • Be first to roll out 5G SA in the national market
    • For brownfield deployments, incrementally evolve towards SA
    • Greenfield deployments
    • Carefully elaborate deployment models on hyperscale cloud
    • Work through process and organisational change
  • Conclusion: 5G SA will enable transformation

    Related research

    Previous STL Partners reports aligned to this topic include:

  • Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G core deep dive
  • Telco cloud: short-term pain, long-term gain
  • Telco Cloud Deployment Tracker: 5G standalone and RAN

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6G: Hype versus reality

What is 6G and why does it matter?

Who’s driving the 6G discussion?

There already are numerous 6G visions, suggested use-cases and proposed technical elements. Many reflect vendors’ or universities’ existing specialist research domains or IPR in wireless, or look to entrench and extend existing commercial models and “locked-in” legacy technology stacks.

Others start from broad visions of UN development goals and policymakers’ desires for connected societies, and try to use these to frame and underpin 6G targets, even if the reality is that they will often be delivered by 5G, fibre or other technologies.

The stakeholder groups involved in creating 6G are wider than for 5G – governments, cloud hyperscalers / tech-co’s, industrial specialists, NGOs and many other groups seem more prominent than in the past, when the main drivers came from MNOs, large vendors and key academic clusters.

Over time, a process of iteration and “triangulation” will occur for 6G, initially starting with a wide funnel of ideas, which are now starting to coalesce into common requirements – and then to specific standards and underlying technical innovations. By around 2024-25 there should be more clarity, but at present there are still many directions that 6G could take.

What are they saying?

Discussions with and available material from parties interested in 6G discusses a wide range of new technologies (e.g. ultra-massive MIMO) and design goals (e.g. speeds of 1Tbps). These can be organised into six categories to provide a high-level set of futuristic statements that underpin the concept of 6G,  as articulated by the various 6G consortia and governing bodies:

  1. Provision of ultra-high data rate and ultra-low latency: Provision of up to 1Tbps speeds and as low as 1 microsecond latency – both outdoors and – implicitly at least – indoors.
  2. Use of new frequencies and interconnection of new network types: Efficient use of high, medium, and low-frequency bands, potentially including visible light and >100GHz and even THz spectrum. This will include possible coordination between non-terrestrial networks and other existing networks, and new types of radio and antenna to provide ubiquitous coverage in a dispersed “fabric” concept, rather than traditional discrete “cells”.
  3. Ultra-massive MIMO and ultra-flexible physical and control layers: The combination of ultra-large antenna arrays, intelligent surfaces, AI and new sensing technologies working in a range of frequency bands. This will depend on the deployment of a range of new technologies in the physical and control layers to increase coverage and speed, while reducing cost and power consumption.
  4. High resolution location: The ability to improve locational accuracy, potentially to centimetre-level resolutions, as well as the ability to find and describe objects in 3D orientation.
  5. Improved sensing capabilities: Ability to use 6Gradio signals for direct sensing applications such as radar, as well as for communications.
  6. General network concepts: A variety of topics including the concept of a distributed network architecture and a “network of networks” to improve network performance and coverage. This also includes more conceptual topics such as micro-networks and computing aware networks. Finally, there is discussion on tailoring 6Gfor use of / deployment by other industries beyond traditional telcos (“verticals”), such as enhancements for sectors including rail, broadcast, agriculture, utilities, among others, which may require specific features for coverage, sector-specific protocols or legacy interoperability.

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How is 6G different to 5G?

In reality, the boundaries between later versions of 5G and 6G are likely to be blurred, both in terms of the technology standards development and in the ways marketers present network products and services. As with 5G, the development of 6G will take time to reach many of the goals above. From 3GPP Release 18 onwards, 5G is officially being renamed as “5G Advanced”, mirroring a similar move in the later stages of 4G/LTE development. Rel18 standards are expected to be completed around the end of 2023, with preliminary Rel19 studies also currently underway. Rel20 and Rel21 will continue the evolution.

Figure 1: Roadmap for 6G

Source: Slides presented by Bharat B Bhatia President, ITU-APT Foundation of India at WWRF Huddle 2022

However, from 2024 onwards, the work done at 3GPP meetings and in its various groups will gradually shift from enhancing 5G to starting the groundwork for 6G – initially defining requirements in 2024-25, then creating “study items” in 2025-26. During that time, new additions to 5G in Rel20/21/22 will get progressively thinner as resources are devoted to 6G preparations.

The heavy lifting efforts on “work items” for 6G will probably start around 2026-27, with 5G Advanced output then dwindling to small enhancements or maintenance releases. It is still unclear what will get included in 5G Advanced, versus held over until 6G, but the main emphasis for 6G is likely to be on:

  • Greater performance and efficiency for mobile broadband, with attention paid to MIMO techniques, better uplink mechanisms and improved cell-to-cell handover
  • Additional features for specific verticals, as well as V2X deployments and IoT
  • Support of new spectrum bands
  • Improvements in mapping and positioning
  • Enhanced coverage and backhaul, for instance by establishing “daisy-chains” of cell sites and extensions and repeaters, including using 5Gfor backhaul and access
  • More intelligence and automation in the 5Gnetwork core, including improvements to slicing and orchestration
  • Better integration of non-terrestrial networks, typically using satellites or high-altitude platforms
  • Capabilities specifically aimed at AR/VR/XR
  • Direct device-to-device connections (also called “sidelink”) that allow communication without the need to go via a cell tower.

We can expect these 5G Advanced areas to also progress from requirements, to study, and then to work items during the period from 2022-27.

However, these features will mostly be an evolution of 5G, rather than a revolution by 5G. While there may be a few early moves on areas such as wireless sensing, Releases 18-21 are unlikely to include any radical breakthroughs. The topics we discuss elsewhere in this report, such as potential use of terahertz bands, blending of O-RAN principles of disaggregation, and new technology domains such as smart surfaces, will be solidly in the 6G era.

An important point here is that the official ITU standard for next-gen wireless, likely to be called IMT2030, is not the same as 3GPP’s branding of the cellular “generation”, or individual MNOs service names. There may well be early versions of 6G cellular, driven by market demand, that don’t quite match up to the ITU requirements. Ultimately 3GPP is an industry-led organisation, so may follow the path of expediency if there are urgent commercial opportunities or challenges.

In addition, based on the experience of 4G and 5G launches, it is probable that at least one MNO will try to call a 5G Advanced launch “6G” in their marketing. AT&T caused huge controversy – and even lawsuits – by calling a late version of LTE “5Ge” (5G evolution), even including the icons on some phones’ screens, while Verizon’s early 5G FWA systems were actually a proprietary pre-standard version of the technology.

If you’re a purist about these things – as we are – prepare to be howling in frustration around 2027-28 and describing new services as “fake 6G”.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
    • What is 6G?
    • Key considerations for telcos and vendors around 6G
    • What should telcos and vendors do now?
    • 6G capabilities: Short-term focus areas
    • Other influencing factors
  • What is 6G and why does it matter?
    • Who’s driving the 6G discussion?
    • What are they saying?
    • The reality of moving from 5G Advanced to 6G
    • Likely roll out of 6G capabilities
  • Regulation and geopolitics
    • The expected impact of regulation and geopolitics
    • Summary of 6G consortiums and other interested parties
  • 6G products and services
  • Requirements for 6G
    • AI/ML in 6G
    • 6G security
    • 6G privacy
    • 6G sustainability
  • Drivers and barriers to 6G deployment
    • Short-term drivers
    • Short-term barriers
    • Long-term drivers
    • Long-term barriers
  • Conclusion: Realistic expectations for 6G
    • The reality: What we know for certain about 6G / IMT2030
    • Possibilities: Focus areas for 6G development
    • The hype: Highly unlikely or impossible by 2030

Related research

 

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The new telcos: A field guide

Introduction

The traditional industry view is that “telcos” are a well-defined and fairly cohesive group. Industry associations like GSMA, ETNO, CTIA and others have typically been fairly homogeneous collections of fixed or mobile operators, only really varying in size. The third-ranked mobile operator in Bolivia has not really been that different from AT&T or Vodafone in terms of technology, business model or vendor relationships.

Our own company, STL Partners used to have the brand “Telco 2.0”. However, our main baseline assumption then was that the industry was mostly made up the same network operators, but using a new 2.0 set of business models.

This situation is now changing. Telecom service providers – telcos – are starting to emerge in a huge variety of new shapes, sizes and backgrounds. There is fragmentation in technology strategy, target audiences, go-to-market and regional/national/international scope.

This report is not a full explanation of all the different strategies, services and technological architecture. Instead of analysing all of the “metabolic” functions and “evolutionary mechanisms”, this is more of a field-guide to all the new species of telco that the industry is starting to see. More detail on the enablers – such as fibre, 5G and cloud-based infrastructure – and the demand-side (such as vertical industries’ communications needs and applications) can be found in our other output.

The report provides descriptions with broad contours of motivation, service-offerings and implications for incumbents. We are not “taking sides” here. If new telcos push out the older species, that’s just evolution of those “red in tooth and claw”. We’re taking the role of field zoologists, not conservationists.

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Field guides are collections/lists of natural & human phenomena

animal-species-telcos-stl-partners

Source: Amazon, respective publishers’ copyright

The historical landscape

The term “telco” is a little slippery to define, but most observers would likely agree that the “traditional” telecoms industry has mostly been made up of the following groups of CSPs:

  • MNOs: Countries usually have a few major mobile network operators (MNOs) that are typically national, or sometimes regional.
  • Fixed operators: Markets also have infrastructure-based fixed telcos, usually with one (or a small number) that were originally national state-owned monopolies, plus a select number of other licensed providers, often with greenfield FTTX fibre. Some countries have a vibrant array of smaller “AltNets”, or competitive carriers (originally known as CLECs in the US).
  • Converged operators: These combine fixed and mobile operations in the same business or group. Sometimes they are arms-length (or even in different countries), but many try to offer combined or converged service propositions.
  • Wholesale telcos: There is a tier of a few major international operators that provide interconnect services and other capabilities. Often these have been subsidiaries (or joint ventures) of national telcos.

In addition to these, the communications industry in each market has also often had an array of secondary connectivity or telecom service providers as a kind “supporting cast”, which generally have not been viewed as “telecom operators”. This is either because they fall into different regulatory buckets, only target niche markets, or tend to use different technologies. These have included:

  • MVNOs
  • Towercos
  • Internet Exchanges
  • (W)ISPs
  • Satellite operators

Some of these have had a strong overlap with telcos, or have been spun-out or acquired at various times, but they have broadly remained as independent organisations. Importantly, many of these now look much more like “proper telcos” than they did in the past.

Why are “new telcos” emerging now?

To some extent, many of the classes of new telco have been “hiding in plain sight” for some time. MVNOs, towercos and numerous other SPs have been “telcos in all but name”, even if the industry has often ignored them. There has sometimes been a divisive “them and us” categorisation, especially applied when comparing older operators with cloud-based communications companies, or what STL has previously referred to as “under the floor” infrastructure owners. This attitude has been fairly common within governments and regulators, as well as among operator executives and staff.

However, there are now two groups of trends which are leading to the blurring of lines between “proper telcos” and other players:

  • Supply-side trends: The growing availability of the key building blocks of telcos – core networks, spectrum, fibre, equipment, locations and so on – is leading to democratisation. Virtualisation and openness, as well as a push for vendor diversification, is helping make it easier for new entrants, or adjacent players, to build telecom-style networks
  • Demand-side trends: A far richer range of telecom use-cases and customer types is pulling through specialist network builders and operators. These can start with specific geographies, or industry verticals, and then expand from there to other domains. Private 4G/5G networks and remote/underserved locations are good examples which need customisation and specialisation, but there are numerous other demand drivers for new types of service (and service provider), as well as alternative business models.

Taken together, the supply and demand factors are leading to the creation of new types of telcos (sometimes from established SPs, and sometimes greenfield) which are often competing with the incumbents.

While there is a stereotypical lobbying complaint about “level playing fields”, the reality is that there are now a whole range of different telecom “sports” emerging, with competitors arranged on courses, tracks, fields and hills, many of which are inherently not “level”. It’s down to the participants – whether old or new – to train appropriately and use suitable gear for each contest.

Virtualisation & cloudification of networks helps newcomers as well as existing operators

virtualisation-cloudification-networks-STL-Partners

Source: STL Partners

Where are new telcos likeliest to emerge?

Most new telcos tend to focus initially on specific niche markets. Only a handful of recent entrants have raised enough capital to build out entire national networks, either with fixed or mobile networks. Jio, Rakuten Mobile and Dish are all exceptions – and ones which came with a significant industrial heritage and regulatory impetus that enabled them to scale broadly.

Instead, most new service providers have focused on specific domains, with some expanding more broadly at a later point. Examples of the geographic / customer niches for new operators include:

  • Enterprise private 4G/5G networks
  • Rural network services (or other isolated areas like mountains, offshore areas or islands)
  • Municipality / city-level services
  • National backbone fibre networks
  • Critical communications users (e.g. utilities)
  • Wholesale-only / shared infrastructure provision (e.g. neutral host)

This report sets out…

..to through each of the new “species” of telcos in turn. There is a certain level of overlap between the categories, as some organisations are developing networking offers in various domains in parallel (for instance, Cellnex offering towers, private networks, neutral host and RAN outsourcing).

The new telcos have been grouped into categories, based on some broad similarities:

  • “Evolved” traditional telcos: operators, or units of operators, that are recognisable from today’s companies and brands, or are new-entrant “peers” of these.
  • Adjacent wireless providers: these are service provider categories that have been established for many years, but which are now overlapping ever more closely with “traditional” telcos.
  • Enterprise and government telcos: these are other large organisations that are shifting from being “users” of telecoms, or building internal network assets, towards offering public telecom-type services.
  • Others: this is a catch-all category that spans various niche innovation models. One particular group here, decentralised/blockchain-based telcos, is analysed in more detail.

In each case, the category is examined briefly on the basis of:

  • Background and motivation of operators
  • Typical services and infrastructure being deployed
  • Examples (approx. 3-4 of each type)
  • Implications for mainstream telcos

Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
    • Overview
    • New telco categories and service areas
    • Recommendations for traditional fixed/mobile operators
    • Recommendations for vendors and suppliers
    • Recommendations for regulators, governments & advisors
  • Introduction
    • The historical landscape
    • Why are “new telcos” emerging now?
    • Where are new telcos likeliest to emerge?
    • Structure of this document
  • “Evolved” traditional telcos
    • Greenfield national networks
    • Telco systems integration units
    • “Crossover” Mobile, Fixed & cable operators
    • Extra-territorial telcos
  • Adjacent wireless providers
    • Neutral host network providers
    • TowerCos
    • FWA Fixed Wireless Access (WISPs)
    • Satellite players
  • Enterprise & government telcos
    • Industrial / vertical MNOs
    • Utility companies offering commercial telecom services
    • Enterprises’ corporate IT network service groups
    • Governments & public sector
  • New categories
    • Decentralised telcos (blockchain / cryptocurrency-based)
    • Other “new telco” categories
  • Conclusions

Related Research

 

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Fixed wireless access growth: To 20% homes by 2025

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Fixed wireless access growth forecast

Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) networks use a wireless “last mile” link for the final connection of a broadband service to homes and businesses, rather than a copper, fibre or coaxial cable into the building. Provided mostly by WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) or mobile network operators (MNOs), these services come in a wide range of speeds, prices and technology architectures.

Some FWA services are just a short “drop” from a nearby pole or fibre-fed hub, while others can work over distances of several kilometres or more in rural and remote areas, sometimes with base station sites backhauled by additional wireless links. WISPs can either be independent specialists, or traditional fixed/cable operators extending reach into areas they cannot economically cover with wired broadband.

There is a fair amount of definitional vagueness about FWA. The most expansive definitions include cheap mobile hotspots (“Mi-Fi” devices) used in homes, or various types of enterprise IoT gateway, both of which could easily be classified in other market segments. Most service providers don’t give separate breakouts of deployments, while regulators and other industry bodies report patchy and largely inconsistent data.

Our view is that FWA is firstly about providing permanent broadband access to a specific location or premises. Primarily, this is for residential wireless access to the Internet and sometimes typical telco-provided services such as IPTV and voice telephony. In a business context, there may be a mix of wireless Internet access and connectivity to corporate networks such as VPNs, again provided to a specific location or building.

A subset of FWA relates to M2M usage, for instance private networks run by utility companies for controlling grid assets in the field. These are typically not Internet-connected at all, and so don’t fit most observers’ general definition of “broadband access”.

Usually, FWA will be marketed as a specific service and package by some sort of network provider, usually including the terminal equipment (“CPE” – customer premise equipment), rather than allowing the user to “bring their own” device. That said, lower-end (especially 4G) offers may be SIM-only deals intended to be used with generic (and unmanaged) portable hotspots.
There are some examples of private network FWA, such as a large caravan or trailer park with wireless access provided from a central point, and perhaps in future municipal or enterprise cellular networks giving fixed access to particular tenant structures on-site – for instance to hangars at an airport.

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FWA today

Today, fixed-wireless access (FWA) is used for perhaps 8-9% of broadband connections globally, although this varies significantly by definition, country and region. There are various use cases (see below), but generally FWA is deployed in areas without good fixed broadband options, or by mobile-only operators trying to add an additional fixed revenue stream, where they have spare capacity.

Fixed wireless internet access fits specific sectors and uses, rather than the overall market

FWA Use Cases

Source: STL Partners

FWA has traditionally been used in sparsely populated rural areas, where the economics of fixed broadband are untenable, especially in developing markets without existing fibre transport to towns and villages, or even copper in residential areas. Such networks have typically used unlicensed frequency bands, as there is limited interference – and little financial justification for expensive spectrum purchases. In most cases, such deployments use proprietary variants of Wi-Fi, or its ill-fated 2010-era sibling WiMAX.

Increasingly however, FWA is being used in more urban settings, and in more developed market scenarios – for example during the phase-out of older xDSL broadband, or in places with limited or no competition between fixed-network providers. Some cellular networks primarily intended for mobile broadband (MBB) have been used for fixed usage as well, especially if spare capacity has been available. 4G has already catalysed rapid growth of FWA in numerous markets, such as South Africa, Japan, Sri Lanka, Italy and the Philippines – and 5G is likely to make a further big difference in coming years. These mostly rely on licensed spectrum, typically the national bands owned by major MNOs. In some cases, specific bands are used for FWA use, rather than sharing with normal mobile broadband. This allows appropriate “dimensioning” of network elements, and clearer cost-accounting for management.

Historically, most FWA has required an external antenna and professional installation on each individual house, although it also gets deployed for multi-dwelling units (MDUs, i.e. apartment blocks) as well as some non-residential premises like shops and schools. More recently, self-installed indoor CPE with varying levels of price and sophistication has helped broaden the market, enabling customers to get terminals at retail stores or delivered direct to their home for immediate use.

Looking forward, the arrival of 5G mass-market equipment and larger swathes of mmWave and new mid-band spectrum – both licensed and unlicensed – is changing the landscape again, with the potential for fibre-rivalling speeds, sometimes at gigabit-grade.

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Table of contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • FWA today
    • Universal broadband as a goal
    • What’s changed in recent years?
    • What’s changed because of the pandemic?
  • The FWA market and use cases
    • Niche or mainstream? National or local?
    • Targeting key applications / user groups
  • FWA technology evolution
    • A broad array of options
    • Wi-Fi, WiMAX and close relatives
    • Using a mobile-primary network for FWA
    • 4G and 5G for WISPs
    • Other FWA options
    • Customer premise equipment: indoor or outdoor?
    • Spectrum implications and options
  • The new FWA value chain
    • Can MNOs use FWA to enter the fixed broadband market?
    • Reinventing the WISPs
    • Other value chain participants
    • Is satellite a rival waiting in the wings?
  • Commercial models and packages
    • Typical pricing and packages
    • Example FWA operators and plans
  • STL’s FWA market forecasts
    • Quantitative market sizing and forecast
    • High level market forecast
  • Conclusions
    • What will 5G deliver – and when and where?
  • Index

Cloud gaming: What is the telco play?

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Drivers for cloud gaming services

Although many people still think of PlayStation and Xbox when they think about gaming, the console market represents only a third of the global games market. From its arcade and console-based beginnings, the gaming industry has come a long way. Over the past 20 years, one of the most significant market trends has been growth of casual gamers. Whereas hardcore gamers are passionate about frequent play and will pay more to play premium games, casual gamers play to pass the time. With the rapid adoption of smartphones capable of supporting gaming applications over the past decade, the population of casual/occasional gamers has risen dramatically.

This trend has seen the advent of free-to-play business models for games, further expanding the industry’s reach. In our earlier report, STL estimated that 45% of the population in the U.S. are either casual gamers (between 2 and 5 hours a week) or occasional gamers (up to 2 hours a week). By contrast, we estimated that hardcore gamers (more than 15 hours a week) make up 5% of the U.S. population, while regular players (5 to 15 hours a week) account for a further 15% of the population.

The expansion in the number of players is driving interest in ‘cloud gaming’. Instead of games running on a console or PC, cloud gaming involves streaming games onto a device from remote servers. The actual game is stored and run on a remote compute with the results being live streamed to the player’s device. This has the important advantage of eliminating the need for players to purchase dedicated gaming hardware. Now, the quality of the internet connection becomes the most important contributor to the gaming experience. While this type of gaming is still in its infancy, and faces a number of challenges, many companies are now entering the cloud gaming fold in an effort to capitalise on the new opportunity.

5G can support cloud gaming traffic growth

Cloud gaming requires not just high bandwidth and low latency, but also a stable connection and consistent low latency (jitter). In theory, 5G promises to deliver stable ultra-low latency. In practice, an enormous amount of infrastructure investment will be required in order to enable a fully loaded 5G network to perform as well as end-to-end fibre5G networks operating in the lower frequency bands would likely buckle under the load if lots of gamers in a cell needed a continuous 25Mbps stream. While 5G in millimetre-wave spectrum would have more capacity, it would require small cells and other mechanisms to ensure indoor penetration, given the spectrum is short range and could be blocked by obstacles such as walls.

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A complicated ecosystem

As explained in our earlier report, Cloud gaming: New opportunities for telcos?, the cloud gaming ecosystem is beginning to take shape. This is being accelerated by the growing availability of fibre and high-speed broadband, which is now being augmented by 5G and, in some cases, edge data centres. Early movers in cloud gaming are offering a range of services, from gaming rigs, to game development platforms, cloud computing infrastructure, or an amalgamation of these.

One of the main attractions of cloud gaming is the potential hardware savings for gamers. High-end PC gaming can be an extremely expensive hobby: gaming PCs range from £500 for the very cheapest to over £5,000 for the very top end. They also require frequent hardware upgrades in order to meet the increasing processing demands of new gaming titles. With cloud gaming, you can access the latest graphics processing unit at a much lower cost.

By some estimates, cloud gaming could deliver a high-end gaming environment at a quarter of the cost of a traditional console-based approach, as it would eliminate the need for retailing, packaging and delivering hardware and software to consumers, while also tapping the economies of scale inherent in the cloud. However, in STL Partners’ view that is a best-case scenario and a 50% reduction in costs is probably more realistic.

STL Partners believes adoption of cloud gaming will be gradual and piecemeal for the next few years, as console gamers work their way through another generation of consoles and casual gamers are reluctant to commit to a monthly subscription. However, from 2022, adoption is likely to grow rapidly as cloud gaming propositions improve.

At this stage, it is not yet clear who will dominate the value chain, if anyone. Will the “hyperscalers” be successful in creating a ‘Netflix’ for games? Google is certainly trying to do this with its Stadia platform, which has yet to gain any real traction, due to both its limited games library and its perceived technological immaturity. The established players in the games industry, such as EA, Microsoft (Xbox) and Sony (PlayStation), have launched cloud gaming offerings, or are, at least, in the process of doing so. Some telcos, such as Deutsche Telekom and Sunrise, are developing their own cloud gaming services, while SK Telecom is partnering with Microsoft.

What telcos can learn from Shadow’s cloud gaming proposition

The rest of this report explores the business models being pursued by cloud gaming providers. Specifically, it looks at cloud gaming company Shadow and how it fits into the wider ecosystem, before evaluating how its distinct approach compares with that of the major players in online entertainment, such as Sony and Google. The second half of the report considers the implications for telcos.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Cloud gaming: a complicated ecosystem
    • The battle of the business models
    • The economics of cloud gaming and pricing models
    • Content offering will trump price
    • Cloud gaming is well positioned for casual gamers
    • The future cloud gaming landscape
  • 5G and fixed wireless
  • The role of edge computing
  • How and where can telcos add value?
  • Conclusions

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5G: Bridging hype, reality and future promises

The 5G situation seems paradoxical

People in China and South Korea are buying 5G phones by the million, far more than initially expected, yet many western telcos are moving cautiously. Will your company also find demand? What’s the smart strategy while uncertainty remains? What actions are needed to lead in the 5G era? What questions must be answered?

New data requires new thinking. STL Partners 5G strategies: Lessons from the early movers presented the situation in late 2019, and in What will make or break 5G growth? we outlined the key drivers and inhibitors for 5G growth. This follow on report addresses what needs to happen next.

The report is informed by talks with executives of over three dozen companies and email contacts with many more, including 21 of the first 24 telcos who have deployed. This report covers considerations for the next three years (2020–2023) based on what we know today.

“Seize the 5G opportunity” says Ke Ruiwen, Chairman, China Telecom, and Chinese reports claimed 14 million sales by the end of 2019. Korea announced two million subscribers in July 2019 and by December 2019 approached five million. By early 2020, The Korean carriers were confident 30% of the market will be using 5G by the end of 2020. In the US, Verizon is selling 5G phones even in areas without 5G services,  With nine phone makers looking for market share, the price in China is US$285–$500 and falling, so the handset price barrier seems to be coming down fast.

Yet in many other markets, operators progress is significantly more tentative. So what is going on, and what should you do about it?

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5G technology works OK

22 of the first 24 operators to deploy are using mid-band radio frequencies.

Vodafone UK claims “5G will work at average speeds of 150–200 Mbps.” Speeds are typically 100 to 500 Mbps, rarely a gigabit. Latency is about 30 milliseconds, only about a third better than decent 4G. Mid-band reach is excellent. Sprint has demonstrated that simply upgrading existing base stations can provide substantial coverage.

5G has a draft business case now: people want to buy 5G phones. New use cases are mostly years away but the prospect of better mobile broadband is winning customers. The costs of radios, backhaul, and core are falling as five system vendors – Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, and ZTE – fight for market share. They’ve shipped over 600,000 radios. Many newcomers are gaining traction, for example Altiostar won a large contract from Rakuten and Mavenir is in trials with DT.

The high cost of 5G networks is an outdated myth. DT, Orange, Verizon, and AT&T are building 5G while cutting or keeping capex flat. Sprint’s results suggest a smart build can quickly reach half the country without a large increase in capital spending. Instead, the issue for operators is that it requires new spending with uncertain returns.

The technology works, mostly. Mid-band is performing as expected, with typical speeds of 100–500Mbps outdoors, though indoor performance is less clear yet. mmWave indoor is badly degraded. Some SDN, NFV, and other tools for automation have reached the field. However, 5G upstream is in limited use. Many carriers are combining 5G downstream with 4G upstream for now. However, each base station currently requires much more power than 4G bases, which leads to high opex. Dynamic spectrum sharing, which allows 5G to share unneeded 4G spectrum, is still in test. Many features of SDN and NFV are not yet ready.

So what should companies do? The next sections review go-to-market lessons, status on forward-looking applications, and technical considerations.

Early go-to-market lessons

Don’t oversell 5G

The continuing publicity for 5G is proving powerful, but variable. Because some customers are already convinced they want 5G, marketing and advertising do not always need to emphasise the value of 5G. For those customers, make clear why your company’s offering is the best compared to rivals’. However, the draw of 5G is not universal. Many remain sceptical, especially if their past experience with 4G has been lacklustre. They – and also a minority swayed by alarmist anti-5G rhetoric – will need far more nuanced and persuasive marketing.

Operators should be wary of overclaiming. 5G speed, although impressive, currently has few practical applications that don’t already work well over decent 4G. Fixed home broadband is a possible exception here. As the objective advantages of 5G in the near future are likely to be limited, operators should not hype features that are unrealistic today, no matter how glamorous. If you don’t have concrete selling propositions, do image advertising or use happy customer testimonials.

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
    • 5G technology works OK
  • Early go-to-market lessons
    • Don’t oversell 5G
    • Price to match the experience
    • Deliver a valuable product
    • Concerns about new competition
    • Prepare for possible demand increases
    • The interdependencies of edge and 5G
  • Potential new applications
    • Large now and likely to grow in the 5G era
    • Near-term applications with possible major impact for 5G
    • Mid- and long-term 5G demand drivers
  • Technology choices, in summary
    • Backhaul and transport networks
    • When will 5G SA cores be needed (or available)?
    • 5G security? Nothing is perfect
    • Telco cloud: NFV, SDN, cloud native cores, and beyond
    • AI and automation in 5G
    • Power and heat

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5G: The first three years

The near future of 5G

Who, among telecoms operators, are 5G leaders? Verizon Wireless is certainly among the most enthusiastic proponents.

On October 1, 2018, Verizon turned on the world’s first major 5G network. It is spending US$20 billion to offer 30 million homes millimetre wave 5G, often at speeds around a gigabit. One of the first homes in Houston “clocked speeds of 1.3 gigabits per second at 2,000 feet.”  CEO Vestberg expects to cover the whole country by 2028, some with 3.5 GHz. 5G: The first three years cuts through the hype and confusion to provide the industry a clear picture of the likely future. A companion report, 5G smart strategies, explores how 5G helps carriers make more money and defeat the competition.

This report was written by Dave Burstein with substantial help from Andrew Collinson and Dean Bubley.

What is 5G?

In one sense, 5G is just a name for all the new technologies now being widely deployed. It’s just better mobile broadband. It will not change the world anytime soon.

There are two very different flavours of 5G:

  • Millimetre wave: offers about 3X the capacity of mid-band or the best 4G. Spectrum used is from 20 GHz to over 60 GHz. Verizon’s mmWave system is designed to deliver 1 gigabit downloads to most customers and 5 gigabits shared. 26 GHz in Europe & 28 GHz in the U.S. are by far the most common.
  • Low and mid-band: uses 4G hardware and “New Radio” software. It is 60-80% less capable on average than millimetre wave and very similar in performance to 4G TD-LTE. 3.3 GHz – 4.2 GHz is by far the most important band.

To begin, a few examples.

5G leaders are deploying millimetre wave

Verizon’s is arguably currently the most advanced 5G network in the world. Perhaps most surprisingly, the “smart build” is keeping costs so low capital spending is coming down. Verizon’s trials found millimetre wave performance much better than expected. In some cases, 5G capacity allowed reducing the number of cells.

Verizon will sell fixed wireless outside its incumbent territory. It has ~80 million customers out of district. Goldman Sachs estimates it will add 8 million fixed wireless by 2023 and more than pay for the buildout.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg says he believes mmWave capacity will allow very attractive offerings that will win customers away from the competition.

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What are the other 5G leaders doing?

Telefónica Deutschland has similar plans, hoping to blow open the German market with mmWave to a quarter of the country. Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone are sticking with the much slower mid-band 5G and could be clobbered.

Most 5G will be slower low and mid-band formerly called 4G

80% or more of 5G worldwide the next three years will not be high-speed mmWave. Industry group 3GPP decided early in 2018 to call anything running New Radio software “5G.” In practice, almost any currently shipping 4G radio can add on the software and be called “5G.” The software was initially said to raise capacity between 10% and 52%. That’s 60% to 80% slower than mmWave. However, improved 4G technology has probably cut the difference by more than half. That’s 60% to 80% slower than mmWave. It’s been called “faux 5G” and “5G minus,” but few make the distinction. T-Mobile USA promises 5G to the entire country by 2020 without a large investment. Neville Ray is blanketing the country with 4G in 20 MHz of the new 600 MHz band. That doesn’t require many more towers due to the long reach of low frequencies. T-Mobile will add NR software for a marketing push.

In an FCC presentation, Ray said standalone T-Mobile will have a very wide 5G coverage but at relatively low speeds. Over 85% of users will connect at less than 100 megabits. The median “5G” connection will be 40-70 megabits. Some users will only get 10-20 megabits, compared to a T-Mobile average today of over 30 megabits. Aggregating 600 MHz NR with other T-Mobile bands now running LTE would be much faster but has not been demonstrated.

While attesting to the benefits of the T-Mobile-Sprint deal, Neville claimed that using Sprint spectrum at 2500 MHz and 11,000 Sprint towers will make a far more robust offering by 2024. 10% of this would be mmWave.

In the final section of this report, I discuss 5G smart strategy: “5G” is a magic marketing term. It will probably sell well even if 4G speeds are similar. The improved sales can justify a higher budget.

T-Mobile Germany promises nationwide 5G by 2025. That will be 3.5 GHz mid-band, probably using 100 MHz of spectrum. Germany has just set aside 400 MHz of spectrum at 3.5 GHz. DT, using 100 MHz of 3.5 GHz, will deliver 100–400 megabit downloads to most.

100–400 megabits is faster than much of T-Mobile’s DSL. It soon will add fixed mobile in some rural areas. In addition, T-Mobile is selling a combined wireless and DSL router. The router uses the DSL line preferably but can also draw on the wireless when the user requires more speed.

China has virtually defined itself as a 5G leader by way of its government’s clear intent for the operators. China Mobile plans two million base stations running 2.5 GHz, which has much better reach than radio in the 3.5 GHz spectrum. In addition, the Chinese telcos have been told to build a remarkable edge network. Minister Miao Wei wants “90% of China within 25 ms of a server.” That’s extremely ambitious but the Chinese have delivered miracles before. 344 million Chinese have fibre to the home, most built in four years.

Telus, Canada’s second incumbent, in 2016 carefully studied the coming 5G choices. The decision was to focus capital spending on more fibre in the interim. 2016 was too early to make 5G plans, but a strong fibre network would be crucial. Verizon also invested heavily in fibre in 2016 and 2017, which now is speeding 5G to market. Like Verizon, Telus sees the fibre paying off in many ways. It is doing fibre to the home, wireless backhaul, and service to major corporations. CEO Darren Entwistle in November 2018 spoke at length about its future 5G, including the importance of its large fibre build, although he hasn’t announced anything yet.

There is a general principle that if it’s too early to invest in 5G, it’s a good idea to build as much fibre as you can in the interim.

Benefits of 5G technology

  • More broadband capacity and speed. Most of the improvement in capacity comes from accessing more bandwidth through carrier aggregation, and many antenna MIMO. Massive MIMO has shipped as part of 4G since 2016 and carrier aggregation goes back to 2013. All 5G phones work on 4G as well, connecting as 4G where there is no 5G signal.
  • Millimetre wave roughly triples capacity. Low and mid-band 5G runs on the same hardware as 4G. The only difference to 4G is NR software, which adds only modestly to capacity.
  • Drastically lower cost per bit. Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam said, “5G will deliver a megabit of service for about 1/10th of what 4G does.”
  • Reduced latency. 1 ms systems will mostly only be in the labs for several more years, but Verizon’s and other systems deliver speed from the receiver to the cell of about 10 milliseconds. For practical purposes, latency should be considered 15 ms to 50 ms and more, unless and until large “edge Servers” are installed. Only China is likely to do that in the first three years.

The following will have a modest effect, at most, in the next three years: Autonomous cars, remote surgery, AR/VR, drones, IoT, and just about all the great things promised beyond faster and cheaper broadband. Some are bogus, others not likely to develop in our period. 5G leaders will need to capitalise on near-term benefits.

Contents:

  • Executive Summary
  • Some basic timelines
  • What will 5G deliver?
  • What will 5G be used for?
  • Current plans reviewed in the report
  • Introduction
  • What is 5G?
  • The leaders are deploying millimetre wave
  • Key dates
  • What 5G and advanced 4G deliver
  • Six things to know
  • Six myths
  • 5G “Smart Build” brings cost down to little more than 4G
  • 5G, Edge, Cable and IoT
  • Edge networks in 5G
  • “Cable is going to be humongous” – at least in the U.S.
  • IoT and 5G
  • IoT and 5G: Does anyone need millions of connections?
  • Current plans of selected carriers (5G leaders)
  • Who’s who
  • Phone makers
  • The system vendors
  • Chip makers
  • Spectrum bands in the 5G era
  • Millimetre wave
  • A preview of 5G smart strategies
  • How can carriers use 5G to make more money?
  • The cold equations of growth

Figures:

  • Figure 1: 20 years of NTT DOCOMO capex
  • Figure 2: Verizon 5G network plans
  • Figure 3: Qualcomm’s baseband chip and radio frequency module
  • Figure 4: Intel 5G chip – Very limited 5G production capability until late 2019
  • Figure 5: Overview of 5G spectrum bands
  • Figure 6: 5G experience overview
  • Figure 7: Cisco VNI forecast of wireless traffic growth between 2021–2022

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