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The most newsworthy stories in wireless today are all about 5G. In 2019, we enter a cautious, early adoption phase of this next generation of wireless technology. A small number of users will get a first taste of 5G in specific geographic locations, using specific applications, none of which are ubiquitous or cost-optimized.
It’s not. 5G is here (albeit in small doses)! All the hype and irrational exuberance of a few years ago is turning into initial pilot deployments. It’s an exciting time, especially for those of us in the trenches of 5G development. Here are some of the major trends driving 5G innovation today.
Private networks look enticing for new markets
Mobile network operators spend a lot of time waiting for others – waiting for power companies to bring electricity to new sites, municipal planners to approve small cell locations, and in some cases, backhaul providers to hook up metro cells. These inhibitions on agile deployment increase operator interest in indoor private networks where site access, power and backhaul already exist. 5G is an enabler for service providers and neutral hosts to deploy private networks with highly reliable indoor wireless.
Private networks could give neutral hosts stronger plays in key vertical markets such as business enterprise, healthcare and manufacturing. For example, a business might utilize a private network offering from a neutral host for a totally wireless office space that offers higher quality and more reliability than WiFi.
No longer tethered to desk phones and LAN cabling, employees’ mobile devices would join the company’s wireless LAN as they enter the building, which is the same network their laptops run on. The enterprise saves on infrastructure costs while enabling wireless location and tracking services. When the employee leaves work, their mobile device snaps back onto the outside cellular network, provided by the same operator.
The Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum in the U.S. will help enable such private networks in 5G. The wireless operators or neutral hosts would host and manage these like an IT infrastructure, providing much more scale than traditional telecom networks. Private networks are one of the leading visions for 5G.
Enhanced mobile (and fixed wireless) broadband
Future visions aside, mobile broadband is fundamentally what the wireless industry is all about. Enhanced mobile broadband is about making it even better. In 4G, LTE laid the foundation for exceptional mobile data speeds, and its LTE Advanced-Pro evolution will continue to be the workhorse of the industry, even as 5G emerges. We will continue to see investment in LTE for many years with 4G and 5G co-existing in the future. We will also continue to see more and more new spectrum open up to enable continued mobile broadband growth.
But 5G will enable service providers to keep up with the intense subscriber demand for more wireless bandwidth by adding capacity to their networks. Technologically, achieving 5G performance requires providers to eliminate network bottlenecks by adding more small cells, more fiber and mobile edge computing to their networks. The industry has been most successful with deploying and utilizing more fiber. Many operators worldwide are committed to a fiber-heavy and fiber-deep future.
The deployment of outdoor small cells is proving more challenging due to zoning delays. But these metro cell deployments are increasing despite these issues, and we expect them to continue accelerating in urban and suburban areas, with the goal of bringing the fiber hop-off point as close to the user as possible. Mobile edge computing (MEC) is a bit of a laggard. This model envisions computing resources being brought out from central offices to Cloud-RAN (C-RAN) hubs closer to or at cell sites. What is occurring first is the actual build of the C-RAN hubs and centralizing of some radio capabilities. The next step will be an upgrade to MEC with more radio functions virtualized, which is a few years away.
Fixed wireless access, however, has emerged as among the first 5G applications to be deployed. FWA enables wireless carriers to compete for more share in the residential broadband market. 5G speeds are fast enough that FWA can be used for streaming home internet traffic, including over-the-top video. So, in addition to going to a traditional cable TV provider, you could have the choice to go to a wireless provider for home internet and television plus wireless voice services. The first commercial services of FWA are becoming available in countries around the globe, including Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. We expect it will take until 2020 or so for widespread deployment of mobile and fixed 5G broadband, with the technologies hitting maturity around 2025.
Open interfaces will enable more 5G innovation
Operators are also beginning to show preference for more open networks where they can have more flexibility to launch unique types of services. When we start talking about developing new markets with private networks or the Internet of Things (IoT), we also need more innovators in a more empowered ecosystem. We no longer can rely on just a few large players in wireless. We need small- and medium-sized companies to go after these vertical markets.
Open RAN is the way to get there. Open RAN is the mobile industry’s equivalent of open source. The way we can take chipsets to build a multitude of different devices is the same way we need open RAN interfaces and building blocks to create a multitude of networks. Open RAN will enable a service creation environment that can help realize the more advanced 5G use cases. IoT platforms for a healthcare system, or autonomous robots for a manufacturing facility, or a fully wireless and connected smart city require a multitude of innovators across industries, which open interfaces make possible.
The ORAN Alliance, which promotes Open RAN standards, is making significant headway in realizing this vision. One of its key principles is to lead the industry toward open, interoperable interfaces, RAN virtualization and big data-enabled RAN intelligence. The future of 5G will be more open and innovative if we are to realize the truly remarkable applications envisioned.
The wireless future is limitless
When it comes to connecting devices to the network, wireless has obviously won. Now we need to see how far 5G can take it. As fixed wireless access penetrates residential markets, and open interfaces in 5G networks promise to make new vertical markets more accessible, the possibilities are endless. This year we will see the first glimpses of 5G. But what might come in years following is more, better and faster. The 5G future continues to shine brightly ahead.
And make sure to visit us during Mobile World Congress in Barcelona Feb. 25-28, 2019.