5G Momentum Impossible to Ignore

Qualcomm summit flags progress in 5G’s evolution

Much has changed since Qualcomm’s 2019 5G Summit in Barcelona. A global pandemic has had a dramatic impact on people’s lives and transformed our thinking about the importance of connectivity. This was the starting point for Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon’s opening keynote address at the company’s virtual 5G Summit this year. He said that “Under normal circumstances, it would have taken five to 10 years for everyone to recognize the potential and benefits of 5G. Today, we’re actively shaping this future”. The technology has its critics, but it’s impossible to ignore the momentum and potential that 5G holds.

Mr Amon said that 90 mobile operators have now lit up 5G in 40 countries, with more than 300 operators investing in the technology. Qualcomm expects 750 million 5G smartphones to ship in 2022, compared with over 900 million according to our forecast. By 2025 Qualcomm sees 5G connections reaching nearly 3 billion globally, fewer than our expectation of 3.6 billion.

This growth is considerable, and the breadth of areas covered during the keynote presentation underlines why the industry is accelerating commitment ahead of that seen in the 4G transition. Inevitably, challenges such as spectrum availability and coverage must be addressed. Dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) is playing an important role here, allowing 4G and 5G to share the same spectrum and operators to be less reliant on dedicated 5G spectrum. Qualcomm highlighted how AT&T and Verizon are now deploying DSS in the US, as are Claro in Brazil and Deutsche Telekom in Germany, to deliver 5G to more than half of the population in Germany.

DSS, combined with carrier aggregation, is providing a level of flexibility and quality of service that wasn’t available in the transition from 3G to 4G. These two technologies provide operators with options in terms of rolling out and establishing 5G networks that will be developed and enhanced over time. For those with rich troves of dedicated mid-band spectrum, DSS isn’t essential. But for operators with little or no 5G spectrum, DSS is critical to getting 5G underway. Carrier aggregation will be used by all to boost data rates; so much so that Mr Amon described 2021 as “the year of 5G carrier aggregation deployments”.

This was an important point from the opening keynote that often gets overlooked. 5G is a journey, and the networks will evolve and enable new capabilities in the same way as 4G did. A good example is the transition to standalone 5G core networks, which has been announced by T-Mobile, with other carriers following into 2021. Similarly, millimetre wave is seeing steady momentum, with more than 125 operators investing to roll out 5G as part of an approach that balances capacity, speed and coverage using low-, mid- and high-band spectrum — a layer cake as T-Mobile describes it.

Led by the shift to standalone 5G networks, these developments will bring a new level of flexibility and enable many of the long-promised capabilities and low-latency uses at the network edge. This is part of a broader transformation of the radio access network (RAN) through virtualization, which Qualcomm is seeking to address by expanding its portfolio with new RAN platform offerings.

As Deutsche Telekom’s senior vice president for technology innovation, Arash Ashouriha, put it, “Open RAN is about opening up the ecosystem and creating a standards-based interoperable marketplace”. Qualcomm’s announcement builds on its modem and radio frequency heritage in devices and brings that to networks. This transformation is a cornerstone of 5G, and as Jason Zander, executive vice president of Microsoft Azure, said, “operators’ transition to a more flexible and scalable infrastructure has new potential for service innovation”.

5G Is a Platform

The past 18 months have been sowing the seeds for the maturation of 5G in 2021 and beyond. The next 12 months will see 5G start to move from an air interface layered on top of 4G to a platform. This applies to how networks are built using open interfaces and commercial “off the shelf” hardware, and to the building blocks they establish for 5G apps and services. It’s this transition that will begin to shape the more interesting uses that were in focus at Qualcomm’s 5G Summit 2020.

A major focal point of the keynote presentation was “extending the walls of the enterprise” to the “walls of our homes”, and how 5G will help smooth the transition in where and how we work. This is consistent with our view that edge computing for enterprise applications will be the beachhead for the most interesting, innovative and lucrative 5G services. There are opportunities in automotive, 5G connected PCs, private networks, time-sensitive networking, edge computing for industrial and consumer uses, millimetre-wave technology for indoor use, and fixed wireless access.

Qualcomm spans all these areas and has conviction in their realization. This isn’t just because of the capabilities it has available or in development. Its 4G and 5G Summits have long highlighted how broad and diverse the ecosystem is. The keynote alone welcomed senior speakers from Deutsche Telekom, Microsoft Azure, Nio, Reliance Jio, Samsung, Sophos, Verizon and VMware.

In the age of 5G, broad-based partnerships will be the critical factors for success, with solutions demanding involvement from a wide range of partners well beyond the traditional realms of mobile. A rising tide floats all boats, and cooperation has never been more important to move the vision of 5G and edge computing from a conference to reality.

A version of this article was first published by FierceWireless on 20 October 2020.