Industry Looks to 5G-Advanced as Network Deployments Ramp Up

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Barbara Pareglio, executive director for connectivity for aviation and drones at the GSMA, to discuss the development of 5G and what’s next on the technology’s road map.

I started by asking how successful the GSMA considers the progress of 5G to be so far. Ms Pareglio was upbeat in her assessment, pointing to more than 200 live commercial networks in 81 countries, with dozens more in a trial or pre-commercial phase.

Significantly, she added that deployment is translating into adoption. According to the GSMA’s own figures, we can expect to see over 1 billion consumer 5G connections by the end of 2022, which will be about four years since the first networks went live. By comparison, it took 4G eight years to get to this point, and 3G 11 years. She added that the industry could reach 2 billion consumer 5G connections by 2025 — making 5G the fastest generational roll-out in history.

Ms Pareglio highlighted China as a leader of early adoption in 5G, having been more on the front foot compared with previous generations. The market is benefiting from early and fast network deployment, with more than 1.8 million 5G base stations already in operation.

Despite the positive assessment, Ms Pareglio also noted some challenges ahead. Principally, many people still lack a full understanding of how 5G can help them, despite the availability of enhanced experiences in augmented reality, extended reality, video streaming and virtual reality. She said consumers in Europe are often more conservative in their buying behaviour than in other regions. In developed Asia–Pacific markets, for example, there’s greater willingness to test out new technologies such as 5G. Her remarks come amid a worsening cost-of-living crisis that’s expected to result in a sharp fall in global mobile phone sales this year.

Ms Pareglio also highlighted the necessity of the right conditions for investment, digital innovation and network modernization, furthering connectivity and enabling 5G availability. She said that at present, North America is the only region where operators are spending more on 5G networks than earlier tech generations. GSMA expects that, globally, mobile operators face capital expenditure investment of over $600 billion worldwide between 2022 and 2025 — of which about 85% will be in 5G networks. Of that overall investment, it’s expected that Europe will require $122 billion, with 90% of that allocated to 5G.

Europe’s standing in 5G compared with other world regions was a recurring theme. It followed the GSMA’s recent 2022 Mobile Economy Report Europe that warned Europe’s Digital Decade goals are being threatened by slower 5G roll-out compared with competitor markets.

The report said that by 2025 the average adoption of 5G in Europe will reach 44%, but this will trail other markets such as South Korea (73%), Japan and the US (both 68%). It added that nearly a third of people in Europe will remain without 5G coverage compared with 2% or less in South Korea and the US.

Although Europe set the pace in 2G, for 5G the early leadership in mobile networks has shifted to North America and developed Asia–Pacific markets. A leading reason is a complex and fragmented landscape that hosts multiple competing providers, stymying efforts to achieve scale.

So how could Europe close the gap? Ms Pareglio believes the region needs to find new ways of encouraging investment. She also advocated greater focus on the more lucrative business market, more partnerships and co-operations between industry sector players and a more affordable and timely process to allocate mobile spectrum.

Her comments come as European operators again contemplate combining their operations to achieve greater scale. A few years ago, several proposed deals were blocked by regulators over competition concerns. Now, mergers and acquisitions are back on the table: Orange and MasMovil have agreed to unite in Spain, and Vodafone and Three in the UK recently confirmed they’re in talks.

Major European operators are also lobbying for big technology companies such as Google and Meta to contribute to the cost of deploying telecom networks. It’s an area in which influential bodies, including the GSMA, have become increasingly vocal, calling for “shared responsibility across the digital ecosystem” to help meet targets for the roll-out of 5G and gigabit broadband networks.

Our conversation looked forward to the introduction of 5G-Advanced. The technology — also known as 5.5G — is considered the mid-point of the 5G journey, and an important upgrade on initial 5G launches. The first specifications are being included on the current Release 18 from 3GPP, which started earlier in 2022 and is expected to close in 2024. More details will be included in Release 19, set to close in 2025, and Release 20.

Significantly, 5G-Advanced includes a greater focus on enterprise services — for example, in sectors such as automotive, utilities and public safety. Here, very high data rates and low latencies can better support applications such as extended reality, drones, time-sensitive networking and precise positioning. Other focus areas include non-terrestrial networks and reduced capability, which cover solutions such as Industrial IoT and consumer wearables.

The greater focus of 5G-Advanced on enterprise contrasts with early 5G releases that were more directed toward the consumer market, notably through offering faster speeds for mobile broadband. My colleague Richard Webb discussed the GSMA’s role in the transition to 5G-Advanced in more detail.

5G momentum is building and, despite the challenges, these remain exciting times for the industry. I would like to thank Ms Pareglio for our insightful conversation.