Last week’s Mobile World Congress Los Angeles (MWC LA) was inevitably preoccupied with the progress of 5G so far, given that the four major US operators all have commercial services. There was considerable focus on the realities of 5G, with the hype phase almost over in the USA, and attendees more interested in how MNOs planned to navigate the choppy waters ahead – in technical terms, as they looked at difficult migrations to the next generation of 5G standards and to new, cloud-based architectures; and in commercial terms, as they reach for a business model that does not rely on the unforgiving world of mobile broadband, where even US operators are seeing their legendary ARPUs eroded by new competition and consumer unwillingness to pay.
On the technical front, AT&T is often the star of shows like this, but in LA, Verizon took a higher profile, describing its near term plans – shifting entirely to a fully standards-based network, refining its fixed wireless offering – as well as its medium term strategies for architecture (edge computing, dynamic spectrum sharing and other technologies), and for business cases, with the main focus on industrial markets.
It was clear from all the MNOs that they are grappling in earnest with the question of how best to monetize 5G and extend their revenue model beyond consumers. While the show floor featured a heavy dose of mixed reality (XR), and Verizon was discussing its activities in this area, most of the conference discussions by MNO executives were far more interested in industrial than consumer use cases. This seemed especially urgent with the shadow of the cable operators, whose recent financial results highlighted their aggressive plans for mobile services, hanging over the debates.
In general, the operators struck a cautious note about the challenges of the full 5G architecture, with its roadmap to cloud-native platforms from core to RAN to transport, and its promise of embracing open source technology. The dose of realism was intensified by Nokia – both the news that its latest financial results had suffered as a result of 5G trends (see separate items), and a plea from its VP of software to slow down 5G roll-out until they could be sure they had addressed security risks.
Mary O’Neill warned that there was a race to get 5G out there “faster, faster, faster”, but this risked compromises in security and other areas of robust design. She said: “It’s easier to build security in from day one in the architecture, rather than having to patch it in later.”
Such warnings helped to create a valuable environment of realism and considered discussion at the show, by contrast with some events in recent years which have over-simplified the 5G migration and the complexities of the business case.
From these discussions, and particularly in a number of areas where Verizon was taking a lead in terms of public debate, a set of key enablers emerged, which will help to achieve a true 5G architecture in the years ahead, and so be able to support a wide diversity of use cases and enterprise services. Prominent among them were
- improved indoor systems
- dynamic spectrum techniques to maximise usage and ease migration
- the use of graphical processor units (GPUs) to accelerate progress to flexible, virtualized RANs
- the integration of edge computing with localized RANs
- and the application of open source technologies.