5G Networks in 2020: Show Me, Don't Tell Me
For 5G in 2020, we're now at the "show me, don't tell me" stage. This isn't the time to amplify grand visions and hype future services that are still years from being technically and commercially viable. It's the moment to set about scaling up the 5G ecosystem in earnest to generate product volume in network technology, devices and chipsets and to demonstrate to enterprises and consumers that 5G really can make a difference to them.
The five major 5G network themes I identify for 2020 are:
1. Extending 5G coverage – This is the single biggest challenge and I'm excited about the potential for progress. The good news is there are lots of options -- from low-band frequencies (including dynamic spectrum sharing), small cell densification, and in-building systems, through to RAN software features such as downlink carrier aggregation -- that can improve coverage. This is going to cost a lot of money, however, so it's about being smart and bold in RAN choices.
2. Standalone (SA) 5G and 5G core – Advanced operators will introduce 5G SA (standalone), alongside non-standalone (NSA), with the first commercial terminals available from mid-year. We generally expect 5G core to be deployed on NFV infrastructure using virtual network functions (VNFs), with cloud-native network functions (CNFs) starting to make an appearance later this year. It's probably too soon to go full "cloud native" on a 5G core production deployment.
3. Transport network investment – Operators have started investing in 5G-specific transport, most obviously by upgrading the backhaul connections to cell sites to 10 Gbit/s or higher and by running fiber to small cells. In 2020 we should also start to see transport network architectures that can support fronthaul, network slicing and edge connectivity, all areas of significant network planning research in recent years.
4. Cloud and edge – US operators, in particular, are emphasizing the importance of edge computing for 5G and are highlighting their nascent edge infrastructure deployments. Everyone is watching to see what that means in practice for application performance. In the meantime, expect the wave of partnerships between operators and cloud companies to continue. I can see this emerging as quite a dynamic part of the market, albeit focused more on announcements than actual services and revenues at this stage.
5. Proving the end-to-end architecture – It's important for the industry to demonstrate a working end-to-end 5G architecture that is capable of supporting at least some of the advanced services envisioned for 5G. Ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC) services and network slicing are of particular interest and it would be encouraging if the industry can get beyond the proof-of-concept phase in 2020 and into small-scale pilots in the field.
On the standards front, expect to hear quite a bit about 3GPP Release 17 work, which has just been approved but which is not scheduled to be completed until second half 2021. And remember, work on Release 16 specifications is still ongoing and not set to "freeze" until March 2020: Expect R16 to make a major impact from 2021 onwards.
To take stock, the industry has sold a great story on 5G and started fast in 2019. Now, in 2020, the sector needs to stick to plan, not waver in its commitment, and start to scale 5G in every dimension.
— Gabriel Brown, Principal Analyst, Mobile Networks & 5G, Heavy Reading