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20 September 2019

5G hares risk using immature solutions, and losing to far-sighted tortoises

When a new generation of technology is over the horizon, it’s easy to assume that the newest operators with the most disruptive visions will be the first to cash in. But sometimes the legend of the tortoise and the hare comes into play.

China Mobile was supposed to the first major operator to move to 5G New Radio Standalone (NR SA) with a full 5G core, while Rakuten was hot favorite to be the first to deploy a fully cloud-native end-to-end network (initially for 4G). But the Chinese leader pulled back from the plan to roll out NR SA from day one and now has no firm timeline to deploy its cloud-native core at scale, amid many business case challenges for its massive 5G project.

This week, Rakuten Mobile was reported to have run into delays, and in any case has not been able, as yet, to roll out a network entirely based on pure cloud principles. Meanwhile, another disruptive force, T-Mobile USA, has hit its own delays, to its ambitious plan to buck the trend of focusing on 5G capacity first, by deploying a full coverage 5G platform in 600 MHz spectrum, which looked set to be the world’s biggest 5G network in terms of its reach, in 2019 and 2020.

These are not the only examples of ambitious operators which have had to step on the brakes, and temporary hitches in the early days of a new technology are to be expected – and may not have a long-term effect. Indeed, we have often argued that the notion of a ‘5G race’ is damaging because it pressurizes operators – egged on by their governments and suppliers – to scramble to deploy networks that have not been fully thought out, and may not be fully justified by commercial demand.

But these developments do act as a cautionary tale against being too short-termist, when 5G success is certainly a long game. An MNO which waits a couple of years before deploying at scale may have a more solid business case worked out, but may also be able to access a second wave of technologies, enhanced by more advanced tests and trials of emerging software architectures, and by the next releases of standards. Already, work by NGMN and 3GPP is delivering advances that should improve the economics and ease of roll-out of 5G networks.

Even more important than the work by those established standards bodies, however, is progress towards enabling a fully cloud-native 5G network that really can be deployed, optimized, adjusted and maintained just like any other web-scale application, using standard cloud infrastructure, developer and operations processes, and with a path to full automation.

North American vRAN efforts which Nokia discussed last week, as well as the activities of Rakuten, Reliance Jio, Three UK and other cloud early movers, are important, however limited and halting their initial progress may be. Other operators, and vendors, will learn from their successes and mistakes and that experience will feed into open source initiatives and real world roll-outs. The operators – old or new – which persevere with a full cloud-native vision, despite the challenges, will win the long race (perhaps a decade long), well after some of the hares have fallen by the wayside.