Industry Voices—Blaber: 5G momentum impossible to ignore

Geoff Blaber

Much has changed since the 2019 5G Summit in Barcelona. A global pandemic has had a dramatic impact on people’s lives and transformed our thinking about the importance of connectivity. This was the starting point for Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon’s opening keynote for the virtual 5G Summit, stating that “under normal circumstances, it would have taken five to 10 years for everyone to recognize the potential and benefits of 5G. Today, we’re actively shaping this future.” While 5G has its critics, it’s impossible to ignore the momentum and potential it holds.

Amon stated that 90 operators have now launched 5G in 40 countries with over 300 investing in the technology. Qualcomm expects 750 million 5G smartphones to ship in 2022 compared to over 900 million forecasted by CCS Insight. By 2025 Qualcomm expects 5G connections to reach nearly 3 billion globally, consistent with CCS Insight’s expectation of 3.6 billion.

This growth is considerable, and the breadth of areas covered during Qualcomm’s keynote underlines why the industry is accelerating commitment ahead of that seen in the 4G transition. Inevitably, challenges such as spectrum availability and coverage must be addressed. Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) is playing an important role here, allowing 4G and 5G to utilize the same spectrum and reducing reliance on dedicated 5G spectrum. Qualcomm highlighted how AT&T and Verizon are now deploying DSS in the U.S., Claro in Brazil and Deutsche Telekom to deliver 5G to over 50% of the population in Germany.

This combined with carrier aggregation is providing a level of flexibility and quality of service that wasn’t available in the 3G to 4G transition. DSS and carrier aggregation provide operators with options in terms of how to deploy and establish a 5G network which will be developed and enhanced over time. For those with rich troves of dedicated mid-band spectrum, DSS isn’t a requirement. For others with limited or no 5G spectrum, DSS is critical to getting 5G underway. Carrier aggregation will be used by all to boost data rates with Amon describing 2021 as “the year of 5G carrier aggregation deployments.”

This was an important point arising from the opening keynote that often gets overlooked. 5G is a journey and the network will evolve and enable new capabilities in the same way as 4G did. A good example is the transition to a standalone 5G core network which has been announced by T-Mobile with others following into 2021. Similarly, mmWave is seeing steady momentum with over 125 operators investing to deploy 5G as part of an approach that balances capacity, speed and coverage using low, mid and high band spectrum – the layer cake as T-Mobile describes it.

These developments led by the shift to standalone will provide a new level of flexibility and enable many of the capabilities and low latency use cases at the edge which have been long promised. This is part of a broader transformation of the radio access network (RAN) through virtualization which Qualcomm is now expanding its portfolio to address with new RAN platform offerings. As Deutsche Telekom SVP for Technology Innovation Arash Ashouriha stated, “Open RAN is about opening up the ecosystem and creating a standards based interoperable marketplace.” Qualcomm’s announcement builds on its modem and RF heritage in devices and brings that to the network. This transformation is a key building block for 5G and as Microsoft’s Jason Zander (EVP Microsoft Azure) stated, “operators transition to a more flexible and scalable infrastructure has new potential for service innovation.”

5G is a platform

The last 18 months have been sowing the seeds for the maturation of 5G we’ll see in 2021 and beyond. The next 12 months will see 5G start to move from an air interface layered on top of 4G to a platform. This applies both to how the network is architected using open interfaces and commercial “off the shelf” hardware as well as the building blocks it establishes for 5G apps and services. It is this transition which will begin to enable the more interesting use cases which are in focus at the 5G Summit.

“Extending the walls of the enterprise” to the “walls of our homes” and how 5G will help smooth the transition in where and how we work was a key focal point of the keynote. This is consistent with our view that edge computing for enterprise applications will be the beachhead for the most interesting, innovative and lucrative 5G services. This spans opportunities in automotive, 5G connected PCs, private networks, time sensitive networking, edge computing for industrial and consumer use cases, indoor mmWave and fixed wireless access.

Qualcomm spans all these and has conviction in their realization. This is not just because of the capabilities it has available or in development. The 4G / 5G Summit has long demonstrated the breadth and diversity of the ecosystem. The keynote alone included senior speakers from Deutsche Telekom, Microsoft Azure, Nio Co, Reliance Jio, Samsung, Sophos, Verizon and VMware. In the age of 5G, broad-based partnerships will be the critical factors for success with solutions requiring involvement from a wide range of partners well beyond the traditional realms of mobile. A rising tide floats all boats and cooperation has never been more important to move the vision of 5G and edge computing from conference to reality.

Geoff Blaber is vice president of research for the Americas at CCS Insight. Based in California, Blaber heads CCS Insight’s Americas business and supports the range of clients located in this territory. Blaber's research focus spans a broad spectrum of mobility and technology, including the lead role in semiconductors. He is a well-known member of the analyst community and provides regular commentary to leading news organizations such as Reuters, the Financial Times and The Economist. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffblaber.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.