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In a year that's been rife with unprecedented challenges, one bright spot for consumers and mobile carriers in 2020 was the global debut of next-generation wireless 5G technology.

After more than a decade in development, 5G finally arrived and promised to revolutionize research, manufacturing, medicine, collaboration, communications, and every other sector of business or technology. The launch of 5G service – with its multi-Gbps speeds, ultra-low latency, and expanded network capacity – brings with it the vision of a future where mobile connectivity will be able to power advanced applications that streamline and solve complex problems.

An audacious debut

Following years of hype, 5G is finally commercially available, at least in some urban areas. Current statistics from Ookla's 5G Map, which tracks rollouts in cities across the globe, puts the number of global 5G operators worldwide at 150.

Beginning in mid-2019 and accelerating in 2020, the industry saw 5G networks launch in the U.S., Korea, and China. According to GSMA Intelligence's Global 5G Landscape report, there will be 410 operators in 123 markets by 2025. By that time, 5G will account for 1.8 billion global connections, with North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific markets making up 90 percent of that volume.

In addition to network rollouts, 2020 has been a big year for developments in connectivity as well, says Alok Shah, vice president of strategy, business development, and marketing for the Networks Division of Samsung Electronics America. "We also saw the introduction of new technologies like RAN virtualization, dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), and indoor 5G solutions, which are allowing operators to provide more efficiency, flexibility and scalability to their customers while also opening up new service opportunities like enterprise private networks," Shah said.

As a powerful advance in mobile technology, 5G is predicted to have a sizable economic impact. According to GSMA Intelligence's 2020 Mobile Economy report, 5G technology is projected to add $2.2 trillion to the global economy over the next 15 years. Operators are expected to invest around $1.1 trillion worldwide between 2020 and 2025 in mobile capex, of which 80 percent will be in 5G networks.

Rolling out 5G

Work is underway to expand 5G networks in the United States. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon, for example, have been racing to rebuild their networks at the edge in order to enable the low-latencies and ultra-high-speeds that 5G promises.

Robert Boyanovsky, vice president of mobility and IoT at AT&T Business, says the company is "doubling down" on edge solutions as part of its 5G plans. "We recognized the role that edge compute would have in creating everything from smart factories to smart cities," he says.

With 5G now available in nearly 50 countries, the next several years will be focused on the work necessary to bring the promise of this new mobile standard to fruition.

In the coming year, that means broadening coverage and more spectrum allocation, notably in the U.S., where the major carriers are all using different spectrum bands for their networks. Verizon uses millimeter wave (mmWave); T-Mobile uses lower-band frequencies; and AT&T uses a combination. Indeed, the FCC's December C-band spectrum auction will spur new competition amongst the operators for the all-important mid-band spectrum and wil help determine what U.S. mobile networks use.

"We believe that spectrum is going to be key in 2021," says Samsung's Shah. He also noted that for a 5G network to reach its full potential it needs the "right balance" of low, mid, and high-band spectrum.

"While the U.S. has made progress in simplifying and improving efficiency in cell site process across municipalities and local governments, this area continues to hamper progress in the industry’s ability to build consistent network coverage at a reasonable pace," says Shah. "Continued improvement to normalizing local rules, processes and pricing will help communities get access to 5G and the latest network technologies."

In addition to spectrum acquisition, the next several years will also see continued infrastructure upgrades to deliver standalone 5G networks and services that go beyond enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), expanding into massive machine-type-communications (mMTC) and ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC), and broadening the possibility for new industrial use cases.

For those advanced use cases to materialize, the industry needs to forge new partnerships, said Patrick Waldemar, vice president, Telenor Research, in an interview with Component.

"Delivering valuable 5G services to the industry is not straightforward," he said. "It requires partnerships between industry domain experts, telecom and IT actors and co-creation between the partners and customers to create and develop the services. Waldemar says the need for such partnerships is "the most important change from previous mobile generations to experience the full potential and benefit of 5G."

Telenor, a Norwegian multinational telecommunications company, launched 5G commercially this year in Finland, Norway, and Sweden. In addition to the network rollouts, Waldemar says that Telenor saw progress in 2020 with partners in areas such as remote ultrasounds and remote monitoring in health care. It was also used for a fish-farming project deploying video surveillance to feed the fish.

According to Waldemar, the company's 5G focus for 2021 is on a continued network rollout in its Nordic and Asian business units, as well as turning some of its 5G pilots into mobile offerings, and continuing collaborative research efforts on industrial 5G services.

In terms of challenges, Waldemar says: "Currently we see potential barriers in several areas, such as within the maturity of the ecosystem needed for partnerships and co-creation of 5G services, within regulations and access to spectrum, and within access to cost-efficient sites to deliver future densification of the network."

An enterprise-level opportunity

GSMA Intelligence illuminates other hurdles in its Mobile Economy report: like the need for operators to evolve their networks while cutting costs; in addition to needing to diversify their revenue streams into media and IoT in order to "seek growth beyond core telecoms services."

"Initial 5G rollouts have for the most part served consumers providing faster internet to handsets and data terminals. This is far from the end game," says GSMA Intelligence's Matthew Iji, Director, Mobile Networks and Services. "For operators, the real revenue opportunity is in enterprise."

Samsung's Shah agrees: "There are several use cases around the globe that demonstrate the benefits of 5G in various enterprise verticals from manufacturing to healthcare and logistics," he says. "A number of enterprise applications require the ultra-low latency, reliability and capacity that only 5G can offer – consider fault detection in a manufacturing plant, real-time security analytics, and automated guided vehicles in a distribution center."

Enterprises, meanwhile, still need to be convinced of 5G's importance. GSMA Intelligence's Mobile Economy report predicts that this will happen when standalone 5G is deployed, and that the challenge for now is to "lay the foundations" to demonstrate the problems 5G will solve in the future.

New applications using 5G

As 5G continues to develop and progress, new applications will start to emerge across myriad industries. Telenor Research's Waldemar believes that the next five years will bring “communication solutions that enable us to make better use of health care resources, like remote operations and sensors enabling better use of hospital equipment.”

Verizon also provided a recent glimpse of new applications under development in the 5G Studio, an incubator launched with Newlab to support applications built on the carrier’s 5G Ultra Wideband network. Some of the next-generation apps under development include:

  • Exyn Technologies, a leader in intelligent autonomy that's using 5G to "provide near-real-time persistent data streams that weren't possible on 4G networks" with a plan to "unleash Exyn's robotic autonomy and data collection in traditionally communications-challenged environments."
  • Phantom Auto, an autonomous vehicle company that's leveraging 5G to "offer new features to address customers' network constraints as they scale their unmanned operations."
  • Ponto Care, a medical exam delivery service, that says it will use 5G to "enable doctors to remotely supervise and guide complex exams in near-real-time and high definition, allowing them to deliver comprehensive and safe care to patients that don't have easy access to well-equipped exam rooms."

Meanwhile, AT&T is powering a unique consumer experience with the first 5G-enabled stadium, in partnership with the Dallas Cowboys football team. The company recently announced upgrades to the stadium's features that will allow fans to "pose with the pros" through immersive, interactive columns that project image of their favorite players. Another new experience will let fans use smartphones to see real-time, live player stats via augmented reality projected over the field, among other features.

AT&T also worked in partnership with Samsung last year to create the first manufacturing-focused 5G Innovation Zone in America, located at Samsung's Austin Semiconductor facility. The 5G Innovation Zone incorporated use cases spanning automated material handling, health and safety, and augmented reality training.

"We used the 5G Innovation Zone as a place to examine use cases and business considerations but also as a means to educate other business leaders and local officials on the power and capabilities of 5G," says Shah.

Continuing to educate business and policy stakeholders about 5G's benefits will remain crucial. With all of this potential for enterprise transformation, GSMA Intelligence predicts that, by 2025, 5G will become the "first generation in the history of mobile to have a bigger impact on enterprise than consumers."

The GSMA report also projects that enterprise IoT connections will overtake consumer connections in 2024, almost tripling to reach 13.3 billion by 2025, over half of the expected 25 billion IoT connections; thus making 5G integral to near-future enterprise needs.

Time will tell, and hurdles abound. While 5G is still in its infancy, 2020 marked the year in which the next generation mobile technology made the leap from pipe dream to reality.

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