Operators Start to Unlock 5G’s Vast Potential

Huawei event highlights notable advances

It’s been about three years since the eagerly anticipated launch of the first live commercial 5G networks. Services are now available in over 60 markets, and total connections are set to pass 1.3 billion in 2022 according to our latest forecast.

Operators’ early benefits from 5G are just the tip of the iceberg. The consumer market was the first to adopt 5G; hundreds of millions of people are already enjoying faster, more reliable connectivity, and new services such as extended reality and cloud gaming offer opportunities for operators to upgrade customers to premium tariffs and generate new sources of revenue.

But the greatest long-term benefit from 5G is likely to come in the enterprise sector. Here, the migration to standalone 5G networks, combined with technologies such as edge computing, artificial intelligence and the Internet of things, can unlock a wide variety of new applications of the technology, and with them much-needed new revenue opportunities.

As part of its Day Zero Forum, held in Barcelona on the eve of MWC 2022, Huawei assembled a group of industry experts to showcase strong global momentum in 5G. A dedicated stream, titled Lighting up the Future, highlighted opportunities to foster innovative services and develop new business models.

Executive director and president of Huawei’s carrier business group, Ryan Ding, kicked off the event by telling delegates that momentum in 5G has exceeded expectations. He said that by the end of 2021, 200 operators had deployed commercial 5G networks, up from 140 at the start of the year. Over the same period, the number of different 5G devices on the market more than doubled to about 1,300, and total 5G users worldwide rose to over 700 million.

Mr Ding hailed the success of 5G pioneers such as China Mobile, LG Uplus, Zain and Elisa, each of which, he said, are enjoying top-line growth buoyed by strong uptake of 5G services.

He also explained how 5G is helping create new business models for operators. For example, in China more than 100 museums have developed 5G augmented reality services, helping increase visitor numbers by 20% and revenue by 24%. Operators are benefiting from this through revenue-sharing agreements.

Mr Ding said that 5G can enable operators to raise their prices because the technology is almost 10 times more efficient than 4G. For example, a 5G plan at China Mobile includes twice as much monthly data (40GB) as a 4G plan, but for only $4 more at $24 a month. He said this is a positive for all parties; customers benefit from a 40% reduction in the cost per gigabyte, and China Mobile is seeing average spending jump by 20%.

Another area of 5G success, according to Mr Ding, is fixed wireless access, with over 80 commercial deployments of the technology by operators at the end of 2021. CCS Insight’s latest forecast projects strong growth in users of 5G fixed wireless access, passing 50 million in 2025. Fixed wireless access can be very valuable to operators: one connection can feed several devices. In mobile-first markets, the technology offers a ready solution compared with investing in cable or fibre connectivity.

In various industry sectors, Chinese operators — supported by Huawei — had signed over 3,000 5G commercial contracts by the end of 2021, helping generate $3.3 billion of revenue. Mr Ding cited examples such as the use of 5G in coal mines to improve safety, efficiency and worker conditions.

Under the slogan “more bits, less watts”, Mr Ding also promoted how Huawei’s 5G climate strategy can help telecom operators and enterprises. In Poland, for example, the company has helped a local operator reduce carbon emissions by 40% through the deployment of solar power technology at its mobile sites.

Energy consumption for 5G per bit is only 10% of that used by LTE but delivers 30 times more capacity. Because 5G is more energy-efficient, it’s vital for operators to migrate traffic onto 5G networks quickly. This can not only help achieve their own net zero carbon ambitions, but support other sectors in reaching theirs.

In an upbeat speech Li Huidi, executive vice president of China Mobile, said the operator has already deployed more than 700,000 5G base stations, with almost 500,000 tapping its 2.6 GHz frequencies. He said that by the end of 2022, total 5G base stations will have passed 1 million. Expanding, he pointed to strong 5G coverage at the venues used during the recent Winter Olympic Games and good customer experiences when travelling on high-speed trains across China.

Mallik Rao, chief technology officer with Telefonica Germany, said that deploying 5G has helped turn around the operator’s fortunes, enabling it to better compete with Vodafone and Deutsche Telekom. He said that 5G network coverage has already reached 30% of the German population and that this has been achieved without resorting to dynamic spectrum sharing, a technology he said “overpromises and underdelivers” on the 5G experience.

Mr Rao also highlighted the opportunity for operators from private 5G networks, citing a deployment with automotive giant Daimler to help improve production processes.

Alan Loh, innovation and solutions executive manager at Zain, claimed the Saudi operator had “the largest 5G network in the Middle East and Africa” and said it’s the first provider in the region to launch commercial standalone 5G services. Significantly, he pointed to a 30% increase in average spending among 5G customers compared with their 4G counterparts. Nearly 40% of Zain’s mobile data traffic is now carried over 5G, with more than half used for entertainment services such as mobile video and gaming. Impressively, the operator said it has recorded speeds of 2.2 Gbps on the latest smartphones.

Prof Dr Prasit Watanapa shared details of a smart hospital in Siriraj, near Bangkok, Thailand. He described the benefits of employing a combination of 5G, artificial intelligence and the Internet of things, such as real-time patient tracking, remote diagnosis, virtual reality applications to monitor patients’ conditions and the delivery of medicines in unmanned 5G-connected cars.

The event showed how 5G is bringing tangible benefits to mobile operators, industry sectors, and both consumer and enterprise customers. After many years of build-up, it was refreshing to hear how the technology is helping to develop new services in areas such as robotics, fixed wireless access, private networks, extended reality, smart cities and industrial drones. All were important themes at MWC.

But the 5G journey is only just getting started. Network roll-out is accelerating; new spectrum bands are being opened up; and fledgling launches of standalone 5G — bringing a dedicated core no longer anchored in LTE — are set to ramp up in 2022 and 2023. This should herald a new wave of services such as autonomous vehicles, holographic displays, network slicing and the much-vaunted metaverse.

Now’s the time for the mobile industry to capitalize on the technology’s clear potential. Exciting times lie ahead.