Cast your memory back to 2019, when two short syllables were on the tip of everyone’s tongue: 5G. Back then, in what feels like a different era, all the high-tech world seemed abuzz over the new cellular standard that was about to change everything. Fixed wireless access (FWA) services would bring high-speed broadband to millions of homes without having to worry about aging residential infrastructure. High-speed mmWave would dwarf the best that LTE could offer. And, with new ultra-low-latency services, mass-scale IoT coverage, network slicing, and more, an amazing future for consumers and industry seemed just around the corner.

Then COVID-19 hit, and everything just … stopped. Everyone scrambled to adapt to the realities of remote work, supply chain disruptions, and the various other challenges of the last 24 months. And, many organizations, including network operators, hit the pause button on long-planned technology projects in favor of more immediate concerns.

If you haven’t been keeping tabs on this space, you might think the industry has been treading water ever since. But that is not the case at all. Testing cellular networks, devices, and services in more than 1,400 5G engagements around the world means the race for the 5G future is officially back on.

Reaching New Milestones

The numbers reported for the first half of 2021 paint a picture of an industry ramping up 5G investment in earnest. Below are some stats from the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) to back that up.

  • Nearly 170 operators have now launched 5G mobile or FWA services, and an additional 270 are investing in 5G trials and evaluations.
  • Device vendors now offer more than 500 different 5G devices worldwide, with another 300 currently in development.
  • Over 75 operators are actively investing in evaluating, testing, or rolling out networks with 5G standalone architectures (5G SA) — a huge step on the path to next-generation services, like network slicing.

More than 450 million subscribers are now actively using 5G services, and the GSM Association (GSMA) forecasts that figure will reach 1.8 billion by 2025.

Just as important, the industry is moving rapidly to adopt some of the more groundbreaking capabilities 5G brings to the table. Open radio access network (Open RAN) architectures, for example, hold the potential to upend the traditional RAN marketplace, enabling new RAN technology startups and innovative edge applications that were never possible before. According to TeckNexus, 45 operators across 27 countries are conducting trials and early rollouts of Open RAN right now.

Investment is even ramping up in the next generation of cellular technologies. Early work in 6G has already begun, with a focus on terahertz (THz) frequencies, open networking, and wireline/wireless network convergence.

Tracking Geographic Trends

Different markets are focusing on different aspects of 5G investment. In North America, for example, fierce competition is driving operators to invest in service assurance and other tools to deliver the best possible customer experience. Meanwhile, in the Asia-Pacific region, operators are focusing on building out capacity and capabilities in transport infrastructure, with the goal of supporting emerging 5G industrial use cases.

Among the more encouraging trends, 5G SA core testing and deployments are picking up steam across North America, Europe, and Asia. In Europe in particular, where the market sustained many months of COVID-related delays, operators are racing to migrate to 5G SA core networks as quickly as possible.

Across all markets, we’re seeing growing demand for automated 5G network and service testing. This shouldn’t be surprising given the ongoing operational challenges of COVID-19 as well as the complexity of multivendor 5G core environments. As operators evolve their continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) capabilities to support these more dynamic cloud-native environments, the sheer number of things to test grows exponentially.

Surveying 5G Market Segments

Over the first half of 2021, the major trends witnessed across different market segments are outlined below.

  • Service providers — Network operators made up the largest 5G segment, with 5G rollouts and evolution to 5G SA cores continuing to grow. Service assurance was a key area of focus, particularly at the edge, where operators are looking to achieve lower latencies and higher quality. That was especially the case for video, which is emerging as a key battleground for early 5G market share.  
  • Network vendors — Network equipment providers intensified their focus on enabling high-speed Ethernet and transport capacity, as early 5G networks deliver data rates up to two-and-a-half times that of 4G. As the effects of this shift ripple throughout the network, 400G solutions are becoming a priority. Vendors are also seeking to assure that 5G networks can meet stringent timing and synchronization demands, especially across multi-split networks.
  • Device vendors — 5G device-makers ramped up investment in ensuring operator acceptance and location accuracy — ultimately seeking to validate that new devices can deliver on the promise of 5G. They face pressure from operators to identify and fix any device-based issues early on in 5G network rollouts, since operators know that when subscribers have problems, they’re likely to blame the network, not the device.
  • Government and military — Globally, government and military investment in 5G is still in early days. That’s not the case in the U.S., where government bodies like the Department of Defense and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) are taking an active role in influencing 5G and Open RAN designs and specifications.  

Getting Back On Track

Despite the slowdowns and disruptions of the past two years, the industry is returning to a pre-COVID pace for 5G investment and rollouts, and that pace is picking up steam. In fact, we see more network operators and technology vendors demanding as-a-service offerings for 5G testing and, increasingly, fully managed testing services. More than any other data point, this shift indicates just how much the industry is focusing on speed. As 5G stakeholders offload more of the testing effort to trusted partners, they can focus on what they see as their top priority: delivering a new world of 5G digital experiences.