5G brings so many new technologies to telecom. It’s easily the industry’s most transformative network evolution yet. With cloud-native cores, network slicing, edge computing, and other innovations, 5G networks will look and act unlike anything we’ve seen before. But with so many new capabilities and possibilities, the next mobile generation also carries big question marks.
Which new services and use cases will gain traction first, especially in the coveted enterprise and industrial sector? When will we see the first true “killer apps” for 5G? We don’t yet have clear answers. In our role helping service providers around the world test and validate their networks, we’ve had a firsthand look at how operators are working through these questions. Based on what we’re seeing in the field, here are the biggest trends to watch this year.
If you’re ticking off 5G challenges to overcome, operational complexity usually tops the list. There’s just no way for telco ops teams to manage exponentially more complex cloud-native 5G software environments using antiquated provisioning and fault management processes. Sooner or later, analysts keep telling us, they’ll have to automate. This year, those predictions are coming true.
Right now, we’re seeing multiple Tier 1 operators testing automated, AI-driven active testing and assurance solutions. These tools can emulate complex 5G environments in the cloud and help Operations teams proactively identify problems before they affect customers. Paired with new ML algorithms, these tools can make real-time decisions about what and when to test to improve performance or isolate issues, all without human intervention.
Service Providers Get Cozy With the Cloud
A primary goal of 5G is to bring the agility, scalability, and efficiency of hyperscale cloud environments to telecom networks. But for service provider organizations with little cloud experience, getting there can be a significant lift. Again and again in 2021, we saw operators reassess early 5G cloud strategies when they realized just how much help they’d need.
This year, we’ll see more sservice providers turn to the experts—the “big three” hyperscalers themselves. By outsourcing much of the cloud deployment and management effort, operators can get to market more quickly and benefit from cloud economies of scale. But these relationships also come with risk, such as getting locked into one cloud ecosystem. Before they go all-in with hyperscalers, look for more operators to demand the ability to migrate workloads easily across clouds.
Early Enterprise Use Cases Go Live
In their push to bring early 5G enterprise solutions to market, many telcos have partnered with cloud providers and solution vendors to develop and test new cloud-hosted edge services. This year, we’ll start seeing those efforts go live. In the coming months, look for multiple private-cloud edge services to launch targeting enterprise and industrial use cases, starting with security, video surveillance, and remote monitoring and maintenance.
Making an even bigger splash, at least initially, we’ll see a major push for telecom-sponsored, private 5G, often in partnership with hyperscalers. We expect the number of private LTE or 5G networks (currently around 3,000) to more than quadruple in the next few years. Large sports and entertainment venues, transportation hubs, and industrial campuses will lead the charge. This is also where we’ll likely see the first large-scale use of mmWave radio, as testing has shown it delivers surprisingly excellent indoor coverage for thousands of users with a small footprint.
Dynamic Spectrum Sharing
In these early days of 5G, coverage is king, and operators have been racing to expand their 5G footprints to keep pace with the competition. DSS offers a quick, cost-effective way to do it, allowing operators to roll out 5G services in a market by deploying 5G radios over the same frequency bands as LTE. So, we’ll likely see more of this approach, at least in the first half of 2022. But we’ll also see more service providers recognize that this shortcut has a shelf life.
DSS does make the 5G logo show up on subscriber devices, but the actual experience users get isn’t much better than LTE. That’s assuming common DSS issues, like spectral inefficiencies and interference, don’t make performance even worse, as has been the case in several early rollouts. By 2023, when more operators look to compete on 5G performance rather than coverage, DSS won’t help. Those service providers that have been putting it off will have no choice but to undertake the more onerous process of reallocating spectrum and adding cell towers.
Up to now, each new wireless generation was mostly about getting faster. 5G does improve data rates versus LTE, but for operators looking to tap into more revolutionary (and lucrative) enterprise and industrial services, speed is secondary. Far more important is latency—and not just lower latency, but the ability to deliver consistent latency everywhere customers need it. Service providers are conducting extensive testing and validation in this area, and we expect latency to become the key differentiator for 5G services as early as the end of this year.
Open Radio Access Network
2021 saw multiple O-RAN pilots, many with impressive early results. This year, we’ll see small and medium-size production deployments start to launch. Initial efforts will focus on rural regions and non-dense urban areas, where loads are less demanding, and operators can fall back on existing macro networks if needed. We may see some challenger service providers make early O-RAN pushes into urban centers this year, but the larger incumbents will likely hold off until 2023 or 2024.
The Journey to 6G
You might be surprised to hear of service providers conducting early testing on 6G technologies, before they’ve even completed their 5G rollouts. But while we’re still in very early days, these efforts can give us a sneak peek at what’s coming next, such as:
- Virtual and augmented reality realms that combine immersive holographic video with sophisticated tactile feedback.
- “3D coverage,” where terrestrial networks combine with satellite constellations and other networks to extend seamless connectivity and edge intelligence across sky, space, and sea.
- “Smart surfaces” that can intelligently redirect radio signals to extend coverage with a fraction of the power consumption.
We may not have all the answers yet for what 5G holds in store, much less 6G. But, no matter what else happens, expect plenty of excitement in the next few years as we find out.