This was supposed to be the year of 5G. But, like almost everything else in our lives, it was overshadowed by a global pandemic.
COVID-19 slowed the adoption of 5G as the world hit pause in mid-March. But work continues on the fifth-generation mobile wireless standard, and earlier this summer we finally saw the release of new specifications (which had been delayed at the start of the pandemic).
Investment is expected to rebound in 2021, according to Gartner, driven by a shift from 4G/LTE to 5G. While overall spending on wireless will dip this year (due to the aforementioned pandemic), the research firm expects worldwide 5G network infrastructure spending to almost double this year.
Gartner also expects 95 per cent of the population in mature markets (including North America) will have 5G coverage by 2023. Samsung and a few others are already talking about 6G, which will be driven by artificial intelligence, connected machines, digital twins and even hi-fi mobile holograms.
But first, let’s get back to 5G.
Release 6 addresses latency
While 5G is often associated with the consumer market, it will play a transformative role in enterprises—not just for connectivity, but to deploy managed services. Indeed, ABI Research has been saying the future of 5G lies with enterprises, not the consumer market.
But enterprise adoption was delayed earlier this year when the 3GPP standards body was sidelined by COVID. Release 16—which addresses latency standards and mandates 99.999% uptime—was due in March. For obvious reasons, that didn’t happen.
But fast-forward to June, and 3GPP completed Release 16, including the second phase of specifications that provide capabilities for massive IoT (mMTC) and critical communications (URLLC).
“Subsequent releases will further expand the capabilities for mMTC and URLLC, providing solutions for different verticals such as automotive, transport, industry and health,” according to the Next Generation Mobile Network (NGMN) alliance in its second 5G White Paper released in July.
New enterprise use cases
In other words, while the initial focus was enhanced mobile broadband, 5G is also expected to drive new business models and use cases for low-latency communications and massive machine-type communications.
“These capabilities, along with such features as virtualisation, cloudification, edge computing, network slicing and autonomic management, will provide the flexibility, agility and resilience needed to deliver solutions for a wide range of industry segments,” says NGMN in the whitepaper.
Take the healthcare industry, for example. Today, healthcare workers use a lot of wired medical equipment (which is reliable, but not flexible). NGMN says there’s “an increasing need to provide remote health assistance, in particular to assist the fragile and elderly or to manage emergency situations.”
More flexible wireless connections would allow for wide-area continuous coverage for ambulances (and the ability to send live, high-quality video in real time to hospitals) or collecting vital signs from the wearable devices of patients or the elderly, “helping remote medical staff make timely treatment decisions and administer medication remotely,” says to the whitepaper.
Indeed, ABI Research points out that China has illustrated—during a global pandemic—how 5G can fulfill enterprise network requirements in healthcare. China Mobile deployed 5G in Wuhan’s Huoshenshan hospital, which was rapidly built to handle the outbreak, providing reliable, high-speed connectivity for data collection, remote diagnosis and remote monitoring. Thailand is even piloting 5G-connected robots for treating patients.
New 5G paradigms ahead
NGMN’s 5G vision revolves around a cloud-native business model, which “may involve a hybrid cloud model consisting of flexible arrangements of private clouds and public clouds, for example in partnership with one or more hyper-scale cloud providers.”
This is accompanied with “new paradigms such as service-based architecture and open interfaces, disaggregation and distribution of intelligence all the way to the edge of the network, separation of control and user planes and software-defined networking, containerisation of micro-services, automation and AI-based operation, orchestration and network slicing.”
But to fully benefit, NGMN warns that industry needs to avoid fragmentation by adopting global standards with open, interoperable interfaces and application programming interfaces.
Indeed, new O-RAN (open radio access network) and vRAN (virtualized RAN) “could disrupt current vendor-lock-in and promote 5G adoption by providing cost-efficient and agile 5G products in the future,” according to Gartner.
We’ve learned a lot during this time (like the joy of sweatpants and the importance of family), but we’ve also seen how 5G will play a significant role for enterprises—not just consumers—in the years to come.