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17 May 2022

Innovations are flowing in the quest to solidify the 5G business case 

Special Report: 5G/6G innovations 


In the pre-commercial run-up to a new generation of mobile networks, a large number of innovative ideas inevitably surface, from large companies, start-ups and open initiatives. But while these can point the way to the future platforms, many fall by the wayside because they are not sufficiently robust when deployed for real, or they are not sufficiently aligned with a firm business case. 


A more interesting set of innovations may, then, be seen when the new generation, in this case 5G, is starting to be deployed at some scale, and the economics and technologies are better understood in the real world. And yet, there is still plenty of room for creativity and new ideas, because operators are only at the very start of the process of turning 5G into new use cases and business models, let alone re-architecting their primary networks around the cloud.  


These ideas can be just as interesting as those that emerge in the heady, pre-commercial days, but are generally better grounded in reality. In the current phase of 5G, there is the added stimulus that is coming from open networking initiatives, notably collaborative industry efforts related to Open RAN, private networks and new spectrum bands.  


In this issue we have selected four from a widening pool of interesting ideas that could, if they live up to their promises, significantly enhance 5G, or future 6G, return on investment and service models. There are many more, of course, and some of those will be highlighted in future editions, but this quartet represents the diversity of innovation coming from different types of stakeholders.  


Artemis pCell and Lightstorm represent the kind of creative, disruptive start-ups that can shake up established architectures and nudge the whole ecosystem towards a different approach with attractive economics. But the long battle for Artemis to commercialize its technology at scale demonstrates how hard it is for even the cleverest idea to be adopted, and the importance of having large vendor or operator support – something that may be a welcome effect of the Open RAN efforts, making it easier for large players to incorporate start-up innovations into their offerings via open frameworks. 


On the Open RAN front, we are highlighting AMD’s first efforts since it acquired Xilinx. The impact of an intensive phase of M&A in the telecoms world will be felt in the progress of new ideas. Mergers can stifle innovation by reducing the number of companies working on a particular challenge, but they can also put resources and global scale behind a strong technology. Xilinx was a leader in its FPGA market on its own, but in the Open RAN world, it was likely to be confined to specialist chips, while Intel or Qualcomm dictated the overall frameworks and platform evolution. With a rejuvenated AMD behind it, there is the opportunity to challenge Intel at every level of the emerging vRAN/Open RAN market. 


Samsung’s particular take on the 6G roadmap indicates how, while large equipment vendors will always have a huge influence on innovation and future standards, there may be more of these companies taking an active role in 5G-Advanced and 6G evolutions than were seen in the early 5G days. NEC, Google, Cisco and IBM are all, among others, likely to join the ranks of tier 1 OEMs that are driving mobile platforms forward, alongside the big four network suppliers (and of course, the ability of Huawei to have global influence may be constrained in the run-up to 6G). 


The combination of large vendors, from chip and equipment sectors, and smaller innovators, is essential to deliver the richest 5G and 6G platforms, capable of delivering the commercial benefits promised by new mobile standards.