For another year running 5G took centre stage at last week’s Mobile World Congress, the biggest event on the telecoms calendar. Both operators and vendors alike showcased their progress toward the next generation mobile technology, including new tech and new partnerships. What was evident this year is that operators are now speaking much more openly about their progress; the need for 5G use cases, launch timelines and the challenges they are facing. So, what have we learned about 5G from this year’s Mobile Word Congress 2017?
5G will focus on subscribers needs for more data
Over the past 12 months there has been a great deal of speculation about the multiple applications of 5G; the Internet of Things, Smart Cities, Connected cars etc. However, at this year’s event it became clear that 5G’s primary purpose will be a long established one – to tackle subscriber demand for more data.
NTT Docomo explained that its LTE and LTE-Advanced networks will be sufficient to handle IoT and machine-to-machine applications in the short term, allowing 5G to focus on direct consumer needs. And by the time the 2020 Olympics arrive, more data via 5G will no longer be an option but a necessity: In 2008, just 1% of interactions at the Olympics were via mobile devices. By 2016 this rose to almost 100%.
Industry alignment and vertical use cases are critical to success
Another common thread throughout the 5G discussions was the need for alignment across the entire industry. Although standards approval is not expected until 2020, most major OpCos are already deep in development and testing for 5G. Luke Ibbetson, Chief R&D Engineer at Vodafone Group was confident that the industry is beginning to now see a clear roadmap, but highlighted the risks of fragmentation, which has the potential to drastically slow down progress.
Current 5G development and testing is somewhat fuelled by operators’ requirements for early feedback to help identify vertical use cases. With many operators’ still yet to recover their investment in 4G, they are keen to identify and optimise use cases in other verticals such as transport and healthcare. Yuen Kuan Moon, CEO of Consumer at Singtel explained that operators will of course deploy 5G, but will need to see the vertical use cases in operation to justify investment.
Regulation and political uncertainty are threats to operator investment
The ‘5G Economy’ keynote delivered a welcomingly frank discussion on the economic realities of 5G for operators. Industry regulation was a hot topic, with Stéphane Richard, CEO of Orange Group explaining that resistance to in-market consolidation was a major threat to 5G investments. European Operators need a way of deepening their pockets, and consolidation would be one method of doing so. Mike Fries, CEO of Liberty Global cemented this point, explaining that consolidation in the cable network has proved beneficial for both operators and customers in the past.
As expected, political uncertainty was also a hot discussion topic at the event. Both Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC and Andrew Ansip, Vice President of the European Commission were put on the spot, but explained their objectives are not political, but focused on regulation to deliver a competitive environment for consumers. Andrew Ansip stated that the European Commission are focused on delivering a single market regulation, harmonising spectrum release standards and providing a more predictable environment for Operators.
Friday 24th February 2020 is the date to watch
Friday 24th July will see the start of the 2020 Olympics, and probably the first large scale deployment of 5G. Takehiro Nakamura, Vice President of NTT Docomo’s 5G Lab stated that 5G deployment will be focused in areas where high performance is needed, and of course around the Olympic facilities.
So 5G still looks set for commercial roll out across the globe in 2020. As with any major technology change, there are likely to be a few hurdles to overcome, but the organised, realistic approach taken so far by Operators looks set to continue, with the industry still very optimistic about the future of 5G.