2021: it will be the year of 5G, all over again

2021: it will be the year of 5G, all over again

Anita Dohler NGMN.jpg

It is already the fastest growing mobile technology in history, but the success of 5G in 2021 depends, like so much else, on the Covid-19 pandemic. Alan Burkitt-Gray looks at the mobile industry’s forecasts

The New Year will be the year of 5G; but a year ago people were saying that about 2020, until the pandemic put a stop to everything. And Covid-19 has been a huge influence on the prospects for mobile networks — and will continue to be in 2021.

The GSMA, the industry’s trade body, representing operators and vendors, says the pandemic caused a negative impact of 4-8% in telecoms revenues, though this was half the overall impact on developed economies.

“Provided there is a gradual economic recovery in 2021, we expect activity in each of these areas to gather pace,” says the GSMA Intelligence’s head of research, Tim Hatt. That’s a sentence in which that proviso at the start is doing a lot of work.

I’m writing this in late December in ultra-locked-down London, when the idea of any sort of economic recovery is way off. We have to get rid of the virus first.

The GSMA says that, while 2020 saw some early slowdown in new 5G launches due to the pandemic, activity has recovered; 113 mobile operators have launched a 5G network in 48 countries.

The GSMA believes operators will spend $890 billion — that’s 80% of the sector’s capex — on 5G networks over the next five years. Consumer adoption of 5G will reach 20% of global mobile connections by 2025, says the industry organisation. “That said, adoption rates will be higher among countries at the forefront of 5G: the US, China, South Korea, Japan, the Gulf states, Australia and parts of Europe.”

But 2021? “The near-term outlook in 2021 depends, to a large extent, on the timing of an economic recovery from the pandemic given pressures on consumer incomes,” says the GSMA.

Prices are an issue. GSMA Intelligence says 37% of consumers intend to upgrade to 5G, compared to 30% in 2019. That “highlights the challenge for the mobile industry to convince the mass market of 5G’s value compared to 4G”. That is probably going to be an uphill task: people need to get out and actually see what you can get from 5G phones and apps.

According to data provided by Omdia to 5G Americas, the world added 225 million 5G subscribers between Q3 2019 and Q3 2020, a feat which required 4G LTE four years to attain. That allows 5G Americas to say that 5G “is the fastest growing mobile technology in history”. At the end of this year, there will be 236 million 5G subscribers, a growth of 66% in a single quarter.

One of the trends of the sad year of 2020 that will accelerate in 2021 and after is open radio access networks (O-RAN or open RAN). The spell of all-powerful vendors was broken when US suspicions led to a spreading blockade of Huawei and ZTE. Operators saw their choice limited to Ericsson in Sweden and Nokia in Finland.

Existing vendors, such as NEC, which has not been prominent since the days of 3G, leapt into the open RAN world, to be joined by smaller newcomers — perhaps bringing a new era of innovation to the industry.

The O-RAN Alliance has just signed a cooperation agreement with the industry organisation that for years has played a key steering role in moving from one generation to the next. The Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance are working together to promote what they call “the timely and successful delivery of 5G-based communication solutions for acceleration and adoption of open and intelligent RAN networks to the market with a global open ecosystem”.

They’ll start with activities related to transport for disaggregated RAN architectures, eventually expanding the collaboration to other areas.

Anita Döhler (pictured), CEO of the NGMN Alliance, says: “We are looking forward to a close co-operation with the O-RAN Alliance and to exchange our views on the RAN decomposition for 5G networks, in particular the various RAN functional splits and the transport requirements to support the various deployment options. As a wide number of industry activities are related to this subject, we also look to encourage industry alignment.”

One of the vendors likely to be challenged by the arrival of O-RAN is Ericsson, which has offered its own forecasts — not just for 2021, but for the next decade. Some of these are dull: “83% of consumers believe that smart signal locators will help guide users to optimal connectivity hotspots”.

But two are downright contradictory. Three quarters of people, says Ericsson, believe that so-called “privacy guardians” will help fool surveillance cameras and block unwanted electronic snooping. And yet almost the same number, 78%, predict electronic neighbourhood watch services will alert residents to any trespassers. So long as those intruders don’t carry privacy guardians, whatever they might be.

Don’t worry: 2030 is a long way off, and no one in December of that year is going to be looking back at forecasts from December 2020. After all, who predicted in December 2019 that the world would come to a standstill just a few weeks ahead?



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