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Will open platforms save the MNOs, or kill them?

On the road to 5G, mobile operators face all kinds of dilemmas which did not afflict their 3G or 4G strategies. One is what to do about shared spectrum. Now that cellular technologies, not just WiFi, have moved outside exclusively owned bands, MNOs could access a rich store of affordable airwaves, without having to take on the wild west of the WiFi market. But once Qualcomm pushed MulteFire, which allows LTE to run in shared spectrum without a licensed-band anchor, there was the daunting prospect of the MNOs’ chief source of power, their spectrum assets, being eroded, with the barriers to entry for alternative wireless operators being lowered significantly.

The other dilemma concerns open architectures. Open interfaces and even open source platforms have attracted considerable interest and investment from large MNOs in initiatives such as Facebook’s Telecom Infra Project, OpenStack, and the Linux Foundation’s various telecoms-oriented projects. These offer the prospect of a more competitive supplier landscape in which new entrants can be supported alongside the major OEMs – or even replace them – in a multivendor, interoperable environment. That would slash costs and allow MNOs to access a richer pool of innovation and rapid development.

But ironically, they are seeking the kind of open ecosystem which WiFi has always enjoyed, and which has enabled service providers of many kinds to chip away at the MNOs’ control of wireless communications of all kinds. And if WiFi-first MVNOs, municipal WiFi hotzones and cablecos armed with WiFi homespots have all challenged the MNO model, this will get far worse in the 5G era. Then, we expect large numbers of service providers to take advantage of the new enablers of non-MNO cellular networks – from shared spectrum to commoditized small cells to virtualized local packet cores – and build optimized sub-nets which will address the areas where traditional operators have failed to make a business case work, notably  enterprise, in-building and critically available connectivity.

So will the emerging open platforms transform the MNOs’ cost base and enable them to make a business case in these areas at last, or will they see old and new vendors offering solutions which will allow new providers to seize the new revenue streams that 5G is expected to enable, in industrial, city, transport, critical comms and IoT markets?

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