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Heavy Reading Annual Operator Survey

This Heavy Reading 2021 5G Network & Service Strategies Operator Survey is designed to provide insight into how
5G networks and services will evolve as operators and the wider mobile ecosystem invest in and develop 5G technology. This is the third annual version of the survey, and it comes after almost a full year of disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the report, 5G Americas President Chris Pearson provides his thoughts on 2021 being the year of the 5G innovation platform – see below.

(To download the full survey, click here.)

2021: The Year of the 5G Innovation Platform

Weathering a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, over 100 commercial 5G networks were launched around the world, bringing online hundreds of millions of 5G subscribers, re-envisioning the way connectivity affects how we live, work and play.

By Chris Pearson, President, 5G Americas

It may not seem like it, but 5G commercial networks have only been around for a little over two years, beginning with launches in South Korea and with AT&T in the US in December 2018. But if it seems like we have been talking about 5G for a long time now, it is because we have! Serious scholarship on 5G principles began all the way back in 2009 with NYU Professor Ted Rappaport’s seminal work on millimeter wave.

The anticipation cycle for 5G began very far ahead of its actual deployments. It took nearly a decade before academia’s vision of 5G networks were commercially launched. But as of January 2021, there are now 156 5G networks around the world, and around 230 million 5G connections. Vision has not only become reality, but that reality is growing faster than any previous generation of wireless cellular.

Despite the extended hype cycle, 5G networks are only now emerging en masse. But at what a critical time for human connectivity! The perils of COVID-19 may have likely forever changed the way we conduct our personal and professional lives, as millions of people around the world work-from-home in an urgent, real-time global experiment of immense proportions. According to Nokia Deepfield’s Network Intelligence Report, networks experienced a year’s worth of traffic growth (30 to 50 percent) in just a few weeks, which stabilized to around 30 percent by September 2020.

Let’s face it, despite working from home, most of the world is still a mobile place. Goods must still travel along complex supply chains to arrive at your door in a day or two. Services must continue to be delivered across time and space. To coordinate these activities requires mobile data. Cloud and edge computing resources must be connected to devices, objects, and people in real space. Wireless technologies like 5G offer the ability to connect data to a mobile world, of connecting people to people while they’re in transit, and people to things on a massive scale.

The key to achieving this lies in understanding that 5G is actually an “innovation platform” as Ericsson puts it. 5G lies at the epicenter of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is bringing together elements of artificial intelligence, cloud and edge computing, virtual and augmented reality, blockchain, Internet of Things, and robotics to allow people and objects to communicate with each other over vast distances.

But how is this platform coming together? Are we ready? To answer that question, you have to look at three key ingredients: network, spectrum, and devices.

When it comes to networks, 5G has just only gotten started, as most network operators have not yet even fully implemented their 5G standalone networks. In 2021, we are likely to see the full implementation of standalone 5G networks across a wide range of network operators. While some have already implemented standalone 5G systems in 2020, broad adoption this year will drive the ‘full experience’ of 5G to many millions more users.  Standalone will unleash the power of the 5G core network, combining enhanced mobile broadband capabilities of up to 20 Gbps theoretical peak data download throughput – or 100 Mbps of typical user experience speeds – along with ultra-reliable low latency connectivity and connection density of up to 1 million devices per square kilometer.

Regarding spectrum, the increasing availability of mid-band spectrum in the United States and elsewhere (including CBRS band, C-Band, and the opening of a portion of the 5.9 GHz band for C-V2X activity in America) is beginning to open up 5G as a real platform for technology innovation. The success of the CBRS auction and the phenomenal result of the C-Band auction proceeds in the US demonstrated just how valuable and rare mid-band spectrum truly is, and how much network operators will go towards investing in its availability.

The upshot is that these spectrum investments will be directly translated in an operator’s willingness to work with businesses to utilize it – and we should expect to see a many pilot use cases to emerge over the next few months that will take advantage of robust standalone networks matched with new mid-band spectrum.

With the number of commercially available 5G devices now reaching 335, according to the GSA, consumers have had several months to get used to 5G networks. New 5G use cases are surely being created in the minds of innovators as the market does a fantastic job of seeding 5G availability into the hands of anyone who can get a 5G signal. This front-loading of 5G-capable devices has a welcome sight in that it was the opposite of what occurred with 4G LTE, which required years to get consumers to adopt new devices. Basically, what this means is that the market is becoming “5G-ready” for the next big consumer innovation. Having such a large pool of 5G devices smooths the adoption path for when 5G services become developed – there will be very little friction when it comes to ensuring a 5G service or app can be used by a large target market.

So to answer the question – are we ready yet?  Is the 5G innovation platform operating on all cylinders yet? No, not quite. Not all the pieces are in play – but they’re rapidly getting there.

We think 2021 is going to be a flash point for enterprise 5G innovation. Already, there is much activity taking place in gas and oil extraction, as well as manufacturing and utilities, that are focused on CBRS-based private networks. Key 5G service and application incubators like the 5G Open Innovation Lab are collaborating with a startup ecosystem to create the next big wave of connectivity applications. There are two immediate sectors which appear to be accelerating at high velocity:  automotive and healthcare.

The automotive sector changes are being revitalized with the new designation in the U.S. of the slice of 5.9 GHz spectrum now to be allocated for cellular-vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) technologies. At the same time, Tesla has completely up-ended the transportation sector with new advances in electric vehicle technology, as well as data-hungry AI systems, which will drive an increasingly powerful trend to modernize vehicles into smart mobile platforms.

In healthcare, the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated the incredible need for mobile data in both patient-doctor virtual visits, as well as the need for ultra-reliability and low latency in an increasing array of health sensors, ranging from smart watches to continuous glucose monitors. The flexibility of 5G networks in delivering both extremely data transfer rates and massive connectivity will be key features in building tomorrow’s health care industry. 

At the end of the day, enterprises would be well-advised to think about 5G as a platform for their own innovation. Businesses should ask themselves four questions involving how they could benefit – or be harmed by competitors using advances in 5G:

  • What’s the impact of wireless data theoretical throughput rates of up to 20 Gbps on the downlink or 10 Gbps on the uplink?
  • How will ultra-reliable low latency wireless connections impact my real-time operations?
  • What if I could have up to 1 million devices per square kilometer managed wirelessly?
  • What will I do with 5G that will change my industry?

Today, enterprises are already beginning to grapple with these questions. Those who find solutions for their business may end up creating entirely new business models from it and drive the engine of their digital transformation innovation for their industry. They will become the standard bearers of the new way of doing business. They will be the creators of tomorrow’s enterprises. And 5G will help them lead the way.

Chris Pearson

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