We're only weeks away from the launch of the first commercial 5G services in the US -- albeit based on Verizon's proprietary specifications -- but the industry is still years away, some suggest more than a decade away, from knowing exactly what sort of impact the widespread availability of an expansive portfolio of 5G-enabled services will have on the communications landscape. (See Verizon to Launch Fixed 5G Service on Oct. 1.)
While it'll be exciting to see how Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ)'s 5G-like fixed wireless broadband services perform come October, such a service doesn't even scratch the surface of 5G's potential: Only when network operators have addressed a very broad range of networking, IT and operational challenges will they be ready to unleash the Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) applications (such as industrial robot automation) that will really put next-generation networking to the test.
That range of networking, IT and operational concerns might be a little broader than many people realize: An access network on steroids and some devices housing some hot-out-the-fab components won't get any operator very far. That's why we've put together a Light Reading guide to the technologies and processes that operators need to address (we've counted 20) if they're to realize 5G's full potential. (See Piecing Together the 5G Big Picture.)
But that doesn't mean every operator needs to invest money, people and time in every single piece of the 5G Big Picture puzzle: Only a very few will have the resources to even try to do everything themselves, but even for the likes of China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL) and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) that doesn't seem like a viable idea.
To cover all the bases for 5G, network operators are going to need partners to help fill in some of the gaps. Edge computing looks like a very clear example -- some operators will be able build out some of their own distributed cloud facilities using existing real estate such as cell sites, central offices and even street cabinets, but it's very likely they will need to strike partnerships and alliances to share assets and access wholesale facilities.
And the processing of the terabytes of data that will be generated on their networks? Who has the capabilities to identify the useful data, analyse it and apply the appropriate machine-learning tools to extract maximum value? Telcos that try to do that themselves would be beyond ambitious.
Then there's the hosting of virtual network functions (VNFs) -- those key elements are not going to reside solely within an operator's private cloud domain.
It's hard to imagine that operators will not be forging significant relationships with the web-scale giants such as Amazon Web Services Inc. and Microsoft Azure to fulfil their data processing and cloud hosting needs, and those companies are ramping up their telco-facing partnership teams and managed service offerings. Pride will need to be put aside, and trust will need to be built and earned.
Like never before, going solo is simply not going to be an option for communications service providers in a 5G world and that's going to require a whole heap of legacy pig-headedness to be left behind.
— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading