The world’s first mobile 5G networks were deployed two years ago and everyone in the industry is still searching, waiting for 5G to deliver on its promise. Stéphane Téral, chief analyst at LightCounting, said during a panel discussion at MWC Barcelona 2021:
Most of the 141 live 5G networks at the end of April 2021 were operating in 5g non-standalone (NSA) mode. “Don’t believe it means no strings attached. Actually it’s the contrary, those networks are 4G on steroids. They are anchored into LTE Advanced,” he said.
“We only have eight standalone (SA) networks in the world,” Téral added. “Those eight 5G networks are working purely with a 5G core, not attached anymore to a 4G core, so this is the 5G which we have to shoot for.”
Criticism of the current status of 5G hit another level when he and a group of analysts were pressed to explain why GSMA held multiple sessions on 6G during last week’s event. “We’re talking about 6G because we’re going to call 6G all the stuff we overpromised with 5G that we can deliver,” Téral said.
Peter Jarich, head of GSMA Intelligence, noted that marketing, international competitive interests, and the general buzzworthy-ness of 6G are all at play. Improvements in radio access network (RAN) energy efficiency, sustainability, security, and the use of new spectrum require long-term planning, he added.
“We need to start now to make sure that we can iron those things out so we don’t end up with Chinese 6G, and American 6G, and European 6G,” Jarich said. “We need to start early because as much as everyone is talking about this will be a 2030 phenomenon, that’s not true. We know there was 5G before 2020.”
Roland Montagne, principal analyst at IDATE DigiWorld, said it’s too early to discuss 6G in detail because 5G remains largely unfulfilled. 5G rollouts, spectrum auctions, and 3GPP standardization efforts are all delayed in the wake of the global pandemic, he said.
While almost every layer of 5G needs further development, many potential leaps in wireless technology remain unaddressed and are unlikely to impact 5G at scale, Téral explained.
5G Very Unimpressive So Far
“We need to deliver and remember 3G under delivered, 4G over delivered; 5G very unimpressed so far. Let’s not forget that 5G is the first G that we cannot identify with a new waveform. We’re still in the OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing) domain,” he said, pinning the blame for that on geopolitics.
Massive multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) and polar codes are “the only new things we have in 5G,” he said. New waveforms “would have been fantastic candidates to actually really boost spectral efficiencies and cut the latency to one millisecond. So we still have a long way to go.”
Meanwhile, 5G network operators remain on the hunt for new revenue streams from 5G and haven’t yet cracked the code, the analysts noted.
5G Enterprise Opportunity Remains Unfulfilled
“We all know that one of the hopes for 5G was that it would help the telco industry move into the enterprise more,” Jarich said, adding that 83% of operator CEOs surveyed by GSMA Intelligence said they expected enterprises to be the revenue upside from 5G.
Camille Mendler, chief analyst at Omdia, said the network operator business model has changed from connectivity to a quality of experience and digital enablement for businesses. “In point of fact, I think that service providers have a lot of work to do,” she said. “Even when talking about a small enterprise or a very large enterprise, these are sophisticated digital buyers and telcos have needed to improve their engagement.”
The COVID-19 crisis “has actually made them think more concretely about investments that they need to make to deliver digital experiences from prospecting to buying to managing services, and there’s still frankly a lot of work to be done,” Mendler added.
Mobile edge computing remains a critical part of mobile network operator’s enterprise strategy, but there’s scant agreement about what the edge is, where it resides, and why enterprises need it.
‘Edge Is Everything and Anything to Everyone’
“Edge is everything and anything to everyone, so everyone has an edge story. It’s everywhere from in the public cloud, to in the device, to in the enterprise where it kind of just looks like a server. Depending on who you are, you can kind of call it everything,” Jarich said.
Téral, underlining his point about other unused technologies that could boost spectral efficiency and lower latencies, said “everybody’s talking about the edge, but no one has a clear definition about edge so that’s pretty shaky. That’s a problem.”
Enterprises want access to mobile edge computing insofar as the requirements they’re seeking in network performance and latency, Mendler explained. “They know what they want in terms of performance. They want five milliseconds, they want less. We need to adjust to a world of near-zero latency and that’s what’s going to drive value, and the dollars are there,” she said.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in enterprise, but I think many people misunderstand where the opportunity is. We’re not going to recoup investments on 5G if we’re thinking just about ports, or we’re just thinking about airlines, or we’re just thinking about transportation,” Mendler continued. “99% of the world’s businesses are small businesses, and until we solve the equation of how to sell 5G services to those small businesses, I think we need to be concerned about return on investment, profits, and growth.”
Security Challenges Threaten Enterprise Push
Operators have also thus far failed to address enterprise security requirements, threatening the scope of the 5G opportunity, she explained. Security was a rare topic of discussion throughout the event.
“If service providers want to do more for enterprises, they need to reduce risk, and one way to reduce risk is to provide a single view of the truth. And the reality is, amongst enterprises that buy multiple services from telcos, eight out of 10 do not have a single view of the truth,” Mendler said. “I know this sounds like a dumb issue, but it’s critical for security and risk management. If you’re running from one portal to another portal to manage different telco services, and telcos are trying to sell more digital services to enterprises, you’re complicating and adding more risk. So that is a piece of housekeeping that must be addressed right now.”
Mendler also highlighted yet another 5G promise that has to ripen. Looking ahead to GSMA’s next annual bash that kicks off Feb. 28, 2022 in Barcelona, Mendler said she wants to see real examples of network slicing: slices of a 5G network that an operator is selling to an enterprise.