Innovation in Unprecedented Times

Reflections on the keynote at GSMA’s Thrive

“Innovation in Unprecedented Times” felt like an appropriate opening keynote session to the GSMA’s Thrive virtual conference. CCS Insight has studied not only the direct impact of the pandemic on our industry, but also the changes that it has thrust on work and society, as well as the role of connectivity and technology in helping the world fight the virus and adapt to a “new normal”. We’ve considered how telecom networks are answering the Covid-19 call, how remote collaboration has become essential to our working lives, and how the outbreak has shone a light on the need for 5G.

The GSMA’s Thrive keynote address comprehensively addressed these themes and more importantly, revealed the industry’s focus on bringing global change. As Yang Jie, chairman of China Mobile said, “crisis and opportunities coexist”. All speakers commented that connectivity has become even more important, with Mats Granryd, director general of the GSMA, emphasizing that a robust and resilient mobile network is a crucial building block in response to change in a post-Covid-19 world.

The sentiment from the speakers underlined a point that we recently made in highlighting the need for 5G. If the pandemic had hit 10 or 15 years ago when connectivity was less ubiquitous and hadn’t yet catalyzed a wave of digital transformation, we would have been considerably less prepared. Equally, the impact of the pandemic would be very different in five years’ time in an age of pervasive 5G.

5G Deployments Continue Apace

The fact that delays to 5G deployments have been minimal is a reflection of the technology’s importance and the industry’s commitment. Mr Yang stated at the event that China Mobile will deploy 300,000 5G base stations in China in 2020, and Huawei’s rotating chairman Guo Ping described 5G as “the backbone for the economic recovery”.

Qualcomm president Cristiano Amon reaffirmed the progress 5G has made, revealing that more than 60 5G networks have been rolled out, with over 320 additional operators investing in 5G. Qualcomm also expects 5G connections to top 1 billion by 2023, hitting the milestone two years faster than 4G. This view consistent with our own forecasts, which project connections to reach that landmark by the end of 2022.

The pandemic has, of course, caused some short-term impact on network roll-out, particularly with testing and access to cell sites. However, the industry is clearly determined to press on with 5G. The migration to standalone and cloud-native core networks, as highlighted by Ke Reuiwen, chairman and CEO of China Telecom, is fruit of the need not just to implement a new high-speed air interface, but to transform the supporting network architecture. A more flexible and agile network is essential to realize the promise of low-latency, high-throughput uses and to the prioritization of traffic and capacity using network slicing.

Similarly, Mr Amon highlighted the imminent completion of 3GPP Release 16, which will significantly advance the 5G standard with the introduction of unlicensed and shared spectrum, features for the industrial Internet of things and ultrareliable low-latency communication, alongside improvements to millimetre-wave support and mobile broadband (to name just a few).

Tomorrow’s Use Cases Today

In Microsoft’s latest results release, CEO Satya Nadella said that the company had seen two years of digital transformation in two months. This phenomenal rate of change has transformed the perception of the importance of connectivity. At the GSMA’s Thrive event, Mr Amon noted that “it’s no longer necessary to explain the benefits of a secure, fast and reliable 5G connection”. Multiple speakers compared 5G to electricity, with Huawei’s Mr Guo claiming that “5G is like electricity 100 years ago” given its foundational role in social and industrial transformation.

Although we’re perhaps not at this point yet, the pandemic has changed the narrative on the uses for 5G. Connectivity has allowed education to continue remotely, and the GSMA estimates that 1.4 billion students are using mobile services for their educational needs. It’s clear that 5G will be key to delivering a more engaging and immersive experience for students with technologies such as augmented and virtual reality, particularly as Qualcomm expects that some 1.7 billion students will continue studying remotely.

Similarly, the GSMA estimates that 1.3 billion people are already using mobile connectivity for healthcare, as remote consultations grew exponentially during the pandemic. Mr Amon said that there will be more than 1 million virtual healthcare appointments in the US in 2020 — in fact, my son is having one as I write this. Qualcomm predicts that 50% of healthcare services will be carried out virtually by 2030. As an enabler of this vision, 5G will enhance in-person consultations and lower costs for a sector that accounts for some 10% of GDP.

The picture has also changed dramatically in the workplace. When lockdowns began in large parts of the world, the points of demand shifted overnight. Vast volumes of traffic moved from the predictability of commercial buildings with dedicated fiber networks to distribution across wide and largely residential areas with varied fixed-line broadband infrastructure. For networks to be able to meet this demand anywhere, 5G will be critical, particularly if Qualcomm’s estimates that 84% of people will continue to work from home or telecommute after the pandemic prove to be accurate.

A Call to Action

There’s little debate about the significance of the changes we’ve seen in just a few short months, what that means for connectivity, and the responsibility our industry has to help societies and economies adapt and prosper. But this doesn’t just happen. It requires spectrum, cross-industry partnerships, support from local and national governments and collaboration between public and private sectors. The countries that have used technology most effectively to combat the virus and adapt are those with a digital agenda that’s widely embraced and used as a platform for new products and services.

The global response to the pandemic underlines the importance of what technology has enabled, and the potential of the experiences that 5G and other enabling technologies will deliver.

A version of this article was first published by FierceWireless on 2 July 2020.