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3 May 2022

Spectrum and open platforms must extend beyond telecoms to achieve 5G vision

Special Report: Multi-industry 5G

The big difference between 5G and other options, such as 4G or WiFi, is supposed to be its versatility. One common set of radio standards would support not just faster mobile broadband speeds, but other capabilities such as ultra-low latency and massive device density. Migration of networks to the cloud, and application of AI analytics, network slicing and the 5G core, would build further flexibility on top of the radio. The result would be networks that could be optimized for a wide range of use cases, vertical sectors and deployers. Common cloud-based platforms would make it possible for new network operators, especially in private enterprise scenarios, to complement the MNOs, and some even hope that open network initiatives will diversify the supply chain.

That is the vision, and there has been some progress towards it, though in most markets these are baby steps compared to the roadmap set out for 5G in the late 2010s. Private cellular networks are proliferating but are still dominated by 4G; neutral host models are in their infancy outside of passive infrastructure and transport networks; the future ascendancy of an open multivendor RAN is still speculative.

The requirements of demanding enterprise applications – often part of operational technology (OT) transformation programmes or Industry 4.0 initiatives – are starting to drive demand for 5G networks that are designed and deployed with specific use cases in mind. However, most enterprises are still working to firm up the business case for large-scale 5G adoption, and one of the risks is that solutions that are too vertical-specific will lack scale and become siloed and expensive. In a world where many industries from different verticals need to integrate their supply chains and work closely together, fragmentation at technology or deployment model level is a great fear.

The solution lies in applying the idea of common platforms and open foundations well beyond telecoms alone. In telecoms, at least above the 3GPP radio level, these open ideas are relatively novel. They are becoming powerful and influential, but if they remain confined to telecoms, they will mainly benefit forward-looking MNOs and their suppliers, but not the diversity of enterprises they aim to target.

There are four elements to the solution which are highlighted in the developments covered in our special report today (see items below):

  • More flexible and open spectrum is needed, not on a country basis as in the German industrial wireless scheme, but on a harmonized basis (regional or even global) to support economies of scale in the ecosystem, and efficiency for multinational businesses and their partners. Many enterprises are calling for this at European Union level, for instance, while Dish is working on a neutral host, sliced network that can support private 5G in a mixture of licensed and unlicensed spectrum.
  • Foundational technologies that live above spectrum diversity, notably the 5G core, need to be developed and deployed in the most flexible, modular and configurable way possible, so that vertical-specific use cases and slices can be provisioned automatically without having to invest in significant specialized development. This flexible, enterprise-oriented approach to the 5G core is a great hope for non-RAN vendors hoping to gain a bigger role in 5G, from giants like Cisco to challengers like Athonet.
  • Suppliers must invest in foundational 5G capabilities that can be applied by deployers to many use cases, industrial and consumer, as Verizon’s collaboration with Oracle is targeting. This will also ease the technical burden on non-telco deployers, including active network neutral hosts, whose expertise may be in the business model rather than the technology.
  • Industry-specific standards, such as the utility sector’s Open Metering System, need to be aligned and integrated with telecoms standards and platforms, to create open ecosystems and developer platforms that apply 5G in a common way to any vertical or specific system.

Such solutions require significant collaboration between stakeholders and standards initiatives in telecoms and in other industries, but the rising number of partnerships and trials that are emerging is a sign of a real appetite for progress. This multi-industry platform may not fully develop until the 6G era, but milestones such as the USA’s CBRS spectrum scheme, or the launch of open disaggregated 5G cores and RANs, are all contributing to a key goal – ensuring that 5G is not just for telcos.