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5 March 2019

5G is here, now we must get to ‘true 5G’ – top 10 themes of MWC 2019

So another Mobile World Congress is over. As usual, we endured the jostling, the lines and the hype to trawl the stands and interview the key executives, in order to spot the real trends, issues and challenges among the glossy demoes and fixed-grin optimism.

MWC is always a strange mixture of a new beginning – Sunday night is really New Year’s Eve for the mobile industry; and Groundhog Day – most stands in the same locations as before, with remarkably similar messages. The 2019 production leaned more to the latter, with very few major announcements or big surprises. Even the Samsung 5G smartphone had been pre-launched the week before in South Korea, and on the network and MNO fronts, most of the news was an evolution of a 5G story that has been developing over the past couple of years at least.

The biggest attention-grabber was Rakuten, the Japanese ecommerce giant which is launching as a mobile operator. It had already revealed most of the partners for its ground-breaking greenfield network, but it still injected a welcome dose of novelty with its charismatic CTO Tareq Amin and its reception at the iconic FC Barcelona ground (Rakuten sponsors the team).

Every attendee will leave Barcelona with a different set of highlights and lowlights and a different take on what the announcements and discussions mean for business in the year ahead. At Wireless Watch, we focused on deployment and business model realities for operators – traditional and new – which are having to make hard decisions about their 5G strategy (in its broadest sense) and the investment priorities for the years ahead.

In that context, these are the key trends which, for us, dominated conversation and debate in Barcelona, and which will be constant themes of our analysys in the year ahead. Some of them will be analyzed in greater depth in this issue, and our second MWC special edition, to be published at the end of the week. Others will require further investigation and will be followed up in the weeks ahead.

  • Everything moves to the edge

The notion that edge computing could help to nail down that elusive 5G business case was a strong theme, underpinning related hot topics such as private and enterprise cellular (far more likely to attract investment with local cloud compute integrated). Almost every element in the cellular network value chain had an edge angle. Chip vendors were boasting of full cloud-to-edge-to cellsite platforms (Intel, Marvell, ARM). Operators were describing their edge strategies (Deutsche Telekom via its MobiledgeX subsidiary; Orange and Telefónica). The cloud giants were insisting, in the MNOs’ greatest gathering, that they would play nicely with operators rather than steal their lunch (Microsoft Azure announced alliances with AT&T and with Telefónica). And while the IT equipment vendors trumpeted their edge servers as a way to get into the heart of the telco’s networks, neutral host infrastructure providers like Equinix also talked up a welcome extension to their model.

  • Devices do not bring the challenge, or the excitement, of previous generations

When 3G was new, it was a largely disappointing experience, especially when it came to its ‘killer app’, video messaging. There was a memorable exchange at MWC (when it was still called 3GSM) between Vodafone and Nokia, each blaming the other for the anti-climax. Vodafone said the device industry hadn’t stepped up; the handset makers said the operators hadn’t tuned their networks up appropriately. There was a sense that there would always be a gap between a new network and the devices being available, affordable and optimized (a few years later, the first iPhone was 2G-only and created terrible challenges for AT&T’s network). At the start of 4G, shortage of early devices was also a major issue for eager consumers and for the operators’ business cases. One of the problems that beset WiMAX’s bid to be an alternative 4G standard was a lack of smartphones; there was a lag before LTE had a wide array of handsets, including the essential iPhone. In 5G, that challenge has largely disappeared. At a time when live 5G network can still be counted on one hand, and are mainly supporting fixed wireless, there are already several big-name smartphones, and quite a few cheaper ones from emerging market brands, promised by the end of the year. These will not be first-wave devices with limited functionality – if anything, they will be over-engineered for the initial 5G networks, full of virtual reality and AI capabilities. Of course, prices will have to come down (especially for those odd folding phones) and the iPhone won’t arrive until 2020, but the 5G experience is starting to move beyond the handset to goggles and robots and cars. There isn’t the same sense of excitement about the first 5G smartphones as there was in 4G – even the 5G iPhone will not, we expect, attract the same level of buzz as the first 4G models did.

  • There’s a reality check on ‘true 5G’, with vRAN and cloud-native still largely AWOL

Now that there is some 5G equipment in the field, there is also a dilution of the hype about the network’s capabilities, and a strong (and necessary) reality check. Just how different is first generation, Release 15, Non-Standalone 5G New Radio (NR) going to be, compared to enhanced LTE-Advanced? Not very, admitted most of the big OEMs, who were remarkably honest about their need to push 5G sales even though the real promise of the technology will only be fulfilled in a few years’ time. The main difference that the mobile broadband-focused Rel15 makes is to enable the use of higher frequency spectrum, but most operators outside the USA do not have access to that yet, or still have plenty of spare capacity in their 4G-oriented bands such as 2.5 GHz. There are capabilities that will make 5G truly different, and enable it to deliver disruptive business cases based on slicing, low latency IoT and edge computing. But these need several developments to gather pace:

  • deployment of a fully cloud-native 5G core with Standalone NR, even if LTE will also need to be integrated for years
  • a fully virtualized RAN platform in which operators have confidence, and which they can deploy without spending vast sums on integrators
  • Release 16 and even 17 standards, to deliver the ultra-low latency and other IoT-focused enhancements; and juast as importantly, support for unlicensed spectrum. Hopefully the 3GPP will be bolder in Rel16 than it was in Rel15 and adopt non-OFDMA waveforms for some use cases.

Only when these developments are mainstream, and deployable in the main network, not just in specialist zones or trials, will true 5G be with us.

  • Whether it succeeds or not, Rakuten is showing the way to a new value chain

There was huge buzz around the Japanese greenfield MNO. True to its roots as an Amazon-style ecommerce and cloud provider, it is building its network entirely in its cloud, integrating many of the key elements with other MNOs know they will need to achieve ‘true 5G’ (see above), but which are far harder to deploy for operators with legacy equipment and services to consider, and existing assets to sweat. Rakuten may succeed or fail in the challenging Japanese market, but it does not want to be a traditional MNO – its network is mainly to extend mobile usage of its services, such as finance. And it is certainly pointing the way to the network procurement of the future with a virtualized RAN, cloud-native core, integrated edge cloud and open RAN interfaces. It will be spending a lot on integrating all this – it certainly highlights that the much-coveted open multivendor network is complex and expensive to deploy. It has Cisco, Nokia, Altiostar, Intel, Netcracker and other non-public suppliers involved, with TechMahindra to integrate it all.

  • 5G automation shines a light on testing firms, if they embrace AI

Test and measurement firms are rarely considered the most exciting things at MWC, but they have interesting opportunities as operators start to work out the economics of 5G and realize that end-to-end automation is essential to justify the investment. Along with network optimization players and others in the service assurance chain, the testing companies are banking on the MNOs taking a vendor-neutral approach. The operators currently spend large sums on physical planning and optimization, often with the OEMs – a lot of talk with the independents was about whether, when those processes are automated, the spending will be shifted away from the network vendors.

  • The Internet of Things will stay with LTE (or even 2G) for a long time

The Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G are talked about in the same breath so often that it is easy to think they are fully inter-dependent. There was plenty of wireless IoT in Barcelona (see Wireless Watch’s sister service, Rethink IoT, for the full round-up). But increasingly it is clear that very few IoT applications require 5G, certainly in its Release 15 form; and that the business case for 5G-based IoT services that need real time video or ultra-critical response has not yet been made. The enterprise will make the 5G case, but in the first phase this will be more about optimized networks for existing processes rather than full IoT. Operators and vendors all accepted there was a lengthy roadmap for IoT based on NB-IoT, unlicensed options like LoRa and even GSM.

  • Vodafone’s attack shows how enterprise 5G threatens the MNOs

One of the developments that will hasten the migration to 5G IoT will be the availability of shared or specialized spectrum, so that enterprises can control their own networks where they have very demanding or mission critical requirements. Although most MNOs have failed to support strong enterprise systems, especially indoors, and have rather thin plans to do so in 5G, they are still threatened by any attempt by the enterprise ecosystem to do mobile themselves. Vodafone used its keynote spot to lash out at the idea of awarding licensed spectrum to industrial groups or integrators, as Germany plans to do for its auto and Industrie 4.0 sector. This just highlighted that the MNOs can’t have it all ways – either they make the enterprise case and invest in it, or they stay away from it and let other deployers roll out 5G for specific industries or use cases.

  • After a phase of consolidation, chip suppliers are assembling full platforms

The semiconductor industry has gone through a phase of intense consolidation as companies seek economies of scale and broader platforms for key emerging markets such as 5G. Broadcom’s failure to acquire Qualcomm did prevent another giant being formed, able to address virtually every aspect of the mobile chain (as well as many other industries). But Marvell, courtesy of its Cavium purchase, now has a strong end-to-end offering from edge to cloud and small cell to macrosite, with processors that are well optimized for demanding workloads like 5G virtualized RAN. ARM has been filling in gaps at the edge to offer its licensees options for every part of the telco cloud and network, as it looks to increase its infrastructure business. And Intel, which has been acquiring companies like Altera to surround its processors with specialist chips such as FPGAs, is also fleshing out its range, adding a 5G base station platform and no doubt casting around for its next acquisition – switch-chips being an obvious weakness compared to Broadcom.

  • Open network initiatives start to look real

At last year’s MWC, the ORAN Alliance was formed from the merger of the xRAN Forum and the Cloud-RAN Alliance; while the Facebook-baced Telecom Infra Project (TIP) was still in its early stages. This year, both groups are starting to deliver real technology and specifications, making the dream of an open, interoperable RAN more achievable. Reluctantly perhaps, but some of the big vendors are signing up – notably Nokia and Samsung, but even Ericsson – and a few operators, such as Rakuten, are using the open fronthaul interfaces which the two groups are separately developing. Challenger vendors, like ALtiostar and JMA Wireless, know these open specs are their route into the RAN, leveraging operators’ painful progress towards a virtualized network to push their platforms, with the safety blanket of a mix-and-match interface if things go wrong.

  • Despite political threats, Chinese OEMs shine in 5G innovation

While a great deal of chatter was about the threat to Huawei and ZTE from further government restrictions on them in 5G networks, even their major rivals were subdued at the prospect – fearful that, if MNOs find themselves with only two or three suppliers, they will find the 5G business case even harder to make and will slow down their plans. The GSMA undoubtedly used the governmental section of MWC to push its own solution – a common industry security framework – and to support its members’ lobbying to be given the freedom to select their own suppliers and keep price competition and innovation alive. The technologies the Chinese vendors showed off made it clear that, for MNOs, this not just about driving down 5G costs. They also want access to some of the technologies where Huawei and/or ZTE have taken a clear lead, from Massive MIMO arrays to the full service-based architecture, from dynamic spectrum systems to self-driving networks.

  • And finally, robots and drones – they were everywhere.

Our personal favorite was ZTE’s robot music band, with robots playing drums and duetting on a piano.