The role of 5G in the new reality
Plenty has been written about the importance of 5G, its economic value and the role it will play in connecting and digitizing almost every facet of life. For industry insiders it was never hard to see what a new “G” could deliver by virtue of more capacity, more throughput and lower latency. Still, uses for the new generation of networks had the industry in a bind. Greater network capacity and efficiency have been justifications for investment, but fell short in firing people’s imagination at the possibility of 5G as a connectivity platform for what comes next.
Much has changed since the outbreak of Covid-19. I hesitate in writing an article about how 5G could help us through a pandemic as it risks being glib at best and hopelessly blinkered at worst. What does it matter, when people have lost lives and livelihoods? Nonetheless, it’s inescapable that the situation elevates the importance of connectivity to a level that no one could have anticipated just a few months ago. This is a bold statement given that the world was socio-economically dependent on connectivity long before the crisis.
If the pandemic had hit 10 or 15 years ago, we would have been considerably less prepared. Connectivity was less ubiquitous, less reliable and hadn’t yet catalyzed the digital transformation that has made it possible for homes, education and commerce to adapt. By the same token, I believe that the impact of the pandemic would look very different in five years’ time in an age of pervasive 5G.
A leading factor here is not just the faster speeds promised by 5G, but capacity. Although this has long been the driving force for 5G investment, it’s been a difficult message to relay to everyone, from investors to consumers. Capacity isn’t a visible issue until it becomes an obvious problem. When lockdowns began in large parts of the world, the points of demand shifted overnight. Vast volumes of traffic shifted from the predictability of commercial buildings with dedicated fibre networks to distribution across wide and largely residential areas with varied fixed-line broadband infrastructure.
With restrictions on people’s movements, video streaming, gaming, video calling, productivity software and educational tools are all competing for capacity in the home, and networks must also accommodate services for mission-critical healthcare and first responders. Verizon’s CEO, Hans Vestberg, recently stated on an Axios webcast that since lockdown began in the US, usage of collaboration tools has exploded 1,200%, gaming 150% and streaming 50%. A host of other services have reported similar spikes, and Netflix and YouTube have had to cut their bit rates in many markets to free up capacity.
5G is designed to address exactly these needs. The network is more efficient, meaning it can carry more traffic, more cost-effectively. Similarly, millimetre wave has been the target of unfair criticism in the US, but it will become an essential and prevalent technology given its critical role in releasing fresh spectrum and therefore capacity, not to mention multigigabit throughput. We expect to see renewed interest in 5G as an alternative to ageing copper-based fixed-line broadband, with 5G fixed wireless services likely to gather momentum in markets where infrastructure is poor or fixed-line competition is limited.
Mission-critical services were always a central part of the 5G vision, but the pandemic will present the benefits of the new networks in a new light. The overused example of remote surgery misses the bigger near-term priority of an intelligent network that can prioritize capacity and traffic. A virtualized, intelligent 5G network will enable more flexible adjustment to capacity as well as prioritization of traffic using network slicing. The significance of the overnight rise in data traffic is now a leading case study for the importance of network transformation to a more flexible, software-based network. The same goes for edge computing and the need to move data and intelligence closer to the source. A good overview of this can be found in Mobile Edge Computing and the Data Processing Continuum.
Lockdowns also expose the need for consistent coverage. There isn’t a country affected by Covid-19 that hasn’t laid bare the gulf in the accessibility and availability of connectivity in lower-income and rural communities. Fibre is essential for backhaul but simply isn’t practical on a nationwide basis. Put simply, 5G will ensure more throughput and more capacity in more places through a combination of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum. This is critical to ensure widespread access and the continuity of services. With a nationwide 5G network, the industry can more seamlessly adapt to a sudden change to the points of demand.
Of course, all this is useless if 5G isn’t priced and structured correctly. Charging a premium isn’t a sustainable move and usage caps will have to more closely resemble fixed broadband, with pricing plans shifting to speed rather than usage. A year on from the first 5G deployment, much has been learnt and progress made on the 5G journey. A delusional few may be pointing the finger of blame at 5G for the pandemic, but the current crisis means the use for 5G has never been clearer.
Now is the time to really press on with the commitment to 5G so that we emerge stronger, more resilient, and better equipped for a new normal. Ericsson recently increased its forecast for 5G subscriptions to 2.8 billion by 2025 and said it would also raise its projections for 2020, although it gave no further detail. T-Mobile stated in its latest results disclosure that it built more than 1,000 network sites in April alone. Network operators and infrastructure companies are holding up to their promise. It’s important that the broader ecosystem of suppliers, regulators, municipalities, developers and enterprises do the same.
A version of this blog post first appeared in FierceWireless on 20 May 2020.
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