Operators prepare the road for travellers’ 5G roaming journeys

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The rollout of 5G roaming is set to radically transform the connected experiences of tourists and business travellers. But it’s not just subscribers who will benefit.

If carriers look beyond national borders and embrace the global 5G roaming opportunity, they can unlock a host of new revenue streams, encompassing everything from low latency unified communications tool enablement to high quality video content, writes Mikaël Schachne, chief marketing officer and vice president of mobility and IoT, BICS.

Establishing roaming for users of cellular networks has always been a demanding challenge, but one that has been offset by the ability to generate significant revenues. Juniper Research, for example, estimated operator revenues generated from mobile data roaming to have hit $42 billion in 2018, and that’s before 5G roaming arrives to stimulate revenues with the new services it will enable.

Roaming requires complex reconciliation of processes between the operators involved, and covers everything from setting the mechanisms for handover between networks, to apportioning revenues correctly and enabling accurate billing. Yet with 5G, roaming also presents an opportunity to offset the multi-billion-dollar investments operators are making in network infrastructure by opening the door to new services and new revenues.

A step change in technology

Mobile operators have already developed roaming concepts and processes to ensure seamless, high quality, fair and profitable transmission of traffic globally between operators. However, the arrival of 5G presents a step change in technology, alongside the well-understood inconsistencies in network deployment and operator business models.

5G is a software-driven landscape of shared platforms which support new techniques such as network slicing, and rely on operators’ virtual networks, along with edge computing resources and cloud infrastructure. It isn’t simply about measuring the data consumed on the traditional wireless network anymore; some, if not all, of these operator capabilities will be monetised too.

The headline figures of 10Gbps speed at one millisecond latency show the performance leap that 5G offers, especially when you consider that 4G offered speed of up to 1Gbps and latency of 200 milliseconds. But 5G isn’t just about providing a faster mobile internet. It’s also about enabling tailored connectivity for specific applications enabled via dedicated network slices – and monetising this.

Unlocking opportunity for subscribers and businesses

For business travellers, 5G-enabled applications include high-quality video for collaboration tools and enablement of high frequency stock trading. For tourists, 5G might be used for uploading 8K video, or amusing themselves with low latency gaming.

Much of the current focus is on 5G roaming for the ‘things’ and devices that make up the Internet of Things (IoT). These undoubtedly will generate vast amounts of data traffic and place requirements for security, low latency and high device density on networks. However, travellers who roam will demand broadly similar network attributes and, from a customer experience point of view, human customers will be more vocal than connected machines.

Let’s not pretend that 5G is fully-deployed today, but instead accept that deployment is established and will continue rapidly during the coming years. As it does so, it’ll also drive customer expectations: subscribers will expect the same 5G capabilities and service they’ve become familiar with in their home country, wherever in the world they roam.

Changing behaviour requires a change in approach

User behaviour is changing because 4G has enabled good roaming experiences for data-intensive applications. BICS reported an increase in data roaming of more than 95% in 2018 as users continued to access applications such as Instagram, Google Maps and email while abroad. Based on this, we expect a similar demand profile to emerge as 5G becomes more widely available.

This changing consumption, coupled with initiatives such as the European Union’s Roam Like At Home (RLAH) to make roaming more affordable, is seeding the ground for greater utilisation of mobile networks by users when they travel. With an estimated 20% of European subscribers still to take advantage of the 2017 RLAH legislation, BICS predicts that global 4G LTE roaming growth is likely to increase at 40-50% year-on-year, with knowledge amongst subscribers increasing, and operators offering more competitive packages.

Towards a global 5G future

Earlier this year saw the launch of the world’s first intercontinental live 5G data roaming service, between Europe and Asia, marking a major milestone on the road to establishing 5G roaming across the globe. The 5G roaming service, between Swiss operator Swisscom and South Korea’s SK Telecom, provides 5G data connectivity between the two continents, with the operators using BICS’ 5G global IPX network.

This (along with several intra-regional 5G roaming offerings in Europe and others in North America and Asia) demonstrates that in spite of the complexities, mobile operators see the revenue opportunities and are preparing for 5G roaming on a massive scale. This will connect not only machines and the IoT, but also business and leisure travellers with all the rich experiences of the 5G world.