There’s no getting around the fact that the recent global economic slowdown has chilled 5G commitments and rollouts. The timing and scope of a number of unforeseen events have placed hurdle after hurdle in the way of ambitious 5G deployment plans—first, the global pandemic; then the shutdowns that snarled supply chains; then acute inflationary pressures; then concerns in the United States over possible interference with aircraft radar systems; then a spike in energy costs triggered in part by war in Ukraine.
5G requires significant capital to deploy and significant power consumption to operate. In an average world economy, these costs can be recouped by increased performance premiums from subscribers—but as we all know, this is not an average economy and subscribers are facing their own cost-reduction pressures, too.
The result is a steady cadence of stories describing delayed 5G rollouts and scaled-back plans from mobile network operators. But I’m not here to dwell on the downsides we’re all familiar with—because what I see in the year ahead for 5G gives me reason for great optimism.
5G is delayed, but not derailed
Two big developments that are already in motion (and are likely to gain momentum in 2024) are the cost-reducing simplification of 5G sites, and the emergence of new, game-changing business use cases that will leverage the unique capabilities available from 5G networks.
Together, these two factors are likely to bring new energy and enthusiasm to the technology that’s expected to remain the foundation of wireless connectivity for at least the next ten—or even twenty—years. For that reason, I think this coming year will confirm that 5G may be delayed but is by no means derailed.
Simplification and cost reduction
The first phases of 5G deployments supported non-standalone (NSA) networks that could leverage existing LTE networks for mobility and signaling, leveraging the benefits of accelerated rollouts this approach provided. But this also increased the complexity involved in site design, and in wireless networks, “complexity” is really just another term for “cost.”
The overlaid NSA network architecture forced compromises that kept the technology from living up to the considerable hype that surrounded its debut. Going forward, to truly streamline and simplify network architecture, MNOs can’t rely on the designs of earlier network technologies any longer—and thanks to a number of recent innovations in the industry, they won’t have to. Some of these complexity- and cost-reducing measures include:
- New antenna designs that combine both active and passive RF technologies in a streamlined, turnkey form factor. Not only do such antennas reduce the bulk and weight of tower-top deployments, but they also increase MNOs’ network design flexibility because both 5G and LTE networks can operate, literally, side-by-side with little or no performance hit. These integrated designs also reduce wind loading on tower tops, potentially eliminating the need for costly structural upgrades to support the additional 5G components and consequently reducing upgrade costs by tens of thousands of dollars per site.
- Right-sizing 5G buildouts can better balance cost against revenue when MNOs switch from the most expensive, highest performing 64T64R M-MIMO solutions to more economical 32T32R M-MIMO on macro sites, which reduces deployment cost without compromising 5G services as currently demanded. It’s also possible to take these savings further with an optimized 8T8R passive solution as a serviceable alternative to M-MIMO used in 64T64R and 32T32R at the macro level, and 16T16R used in small cell deployments.
- Transitioning the 5G network from an NSA architecture to a standalone (SA) architecture, as the penetration of 5G devices increases and high value use cases emerge. This enables the network to progress towards a cloud native implementation, reducing equipment costs on each site, and it also enables AI-based improvements in network power consumption and service delivery (e.g. though the implementation of network slicing).
Together, these new and emerging improvements are aimed directly at 5G deployment cost challenges to make it easier for MNOs to begin, resume or accelerate their rollouts.
Of course, even a smarter, more modest CapEx investment isn’t justified if the market won’t bear the cost of adopting the new capabilities. Fortunately, the second big factor that will come to the fore in 2024 could help solve that side of the equation as well.
New 5G business use cases—private networks
The unique performance attributes of 5G are many—its incredible speed, its vast capacity and its ultra-low latency, for starters. Yet in some ways, it seems 5G performance has managed to outrun some of the demand it fills; 1 ms latency is an incredible specification, but those applications where it’s truly needed are very few as of today. There’s no doubt that high performance drives high demand applications, and it will take some time for those applications to reach market.
Still, in the here and now, there are new business use cases emerging where 5G is not only preferable, but essential as a technology platform—even if they don’t require 1 ms latency. Consider, for instance, rising interest in private wireless networks in enterprises, large public venues, travel hubs and other large indoor, outdoor and combined indoor/outdoor locations with high levels of network traffic.
5G deployments gain their capacity and throughput advantages over LTE by using a combination of higher frequency spectrum and more capable radios (M-MIMO). It’s not by accident that the first 5G installations have been directed at more urban environments where high traffic density is most effectively served by the network. Yet, due to its link budget constraints, 5G has trouble connecting from outdoor macro sites to subscribers who are located indoors, where most traffic originates. Indoor small cell and DAS solutions can overcome this, backhauling indoor traffic to the core network, but another kind of discrete 5G network has emerged as well—the private 5G network.
With an in-house 5G network, the enterprise (or airport, or hospital, or stadium) can provide 5G connectivity with security and privacy that go beyond that provided by ordinary Wi-Fi®. Users can take advantage of 5G speed and capacity—indoors, where it’s otherwise difficult to guarantee—while also leveraging the security of end-to-end encryption for their voice, email, text and online activities on their connected devices.
In fact, the security advantage of private 5G networks is only going to improve in the years ahead. Looking beyond 2024, the anticipated arrival of quantum-safe cryptography (QSC)—perhaps five or ten years away—stands to elevate the encryption strength immeasurably, while also rendering current encryption methods obsolete. For this reason the GSMA formed the Quantum Safe Telecom Network Task Force last year with the goal of establishing a strong regulatory standard for the use of such encryption in the future.
Private 5G networks stand to become one of the most exciting new business use cases for 5G, and the market is still in its infancy. 2024 will certainly yield significant growth in interest—and investment—in this secure, high-performance technology.
A brighter year ahead for 5G
An unlikely combination of global economic and political turmoil may have caused 5G rollouts to slow, but by no means can it be said that they have stopped. The technology simply has too much promise and too many advantages to be kept down for long. Bringing these networks into the market will be helped this year by cost-reducing simplifications in site architecture and emerging interest in private 5G networks.
As the foundation for wireless networks for at least the next decade as 6G development continues, it simply doesn’t make sense to assume the current headwinds will keep 5G from its full potential much longer. Rather, those shifting winds are likely to start filling our sails in 2024, leading us to new destinations that are only now coming into focus.
This article was first published in Lightwave.
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