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5G trends to watch in 2021

Omdia's Chris Nicoll provides an overview of how changes in the core of the mobile network will help 5G networks advance and new services emerge.

Chris Nicoll

December 30, 2020

4 Min Read
5G trends to watch in 2021

Next year will be an interesting one in the telecom industry and the trends we will see in 2021 set the stage for how well 5G will succeed.

For 5G to live up to its billing as being more than just fast 4G, several things will need to happen. Let's focus on the mobile core as a critical inflection point for the industry. The RAN delivers the speed and coverage determining what services can be supported – the "how much" and "where." The network's core provides the "what" – the critical services and features providing the expected added value of 5G.

Work continues with LTE – one of the few technologies to live up to its name: Long Term Evolution. Telefonica Germany announced this month that it had improved its 4G coverage to reach 98% of the German population and 5G NSA, which relies on the 4G network for signaling and control, remains the most popular strategy to deploy early 5G services.

However, it is 5G that will drive most of the anticipation and activity in 2021.

Trends to watch in 2021:

  • The mobile core becomes the multi-service hub for mobile networks, serving as a key integration point for mobile networks by supporting 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G services. The Asia-Pacific region's (APAC) need for Multi-G support drives early deployments of a single core to support 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G services, with most of the developed world concentrating on 4G and 5G integration.

  • Private networks utilize cloud providers including AWS, Azure and Google Cloud for their mobile core. Questions on performance, pricing and data security/regulatory adherence must be addressed before broad-based MNO usage appears.

  • Off the Shelf (OTS) hardware options for virtualized and cloud solutions increase, adding acceleration and AI capabilities in addition to general purpose (HP2) processing. Increasingly customizable OTS platforms drive a balancing and rationalization of purpose-built, virtualized and cloud-native solutions.

  • 5G Core (5GC) deployments pick up speed in 2021, with more networks opting to deploy multi-mode cores supporting 4G, 5G NSA and 5G SA. The impact of COVID-19 and the shift to distributed network services expand the use case for SA's network slicing and lower latency services. Transport network operations software will need to be upgraded to support slicing orchestration, providing a ripple effect to network investment.

  • Advanced 5G services such as gaming, virtual reality (VR), and automated applications (robotics, vehicles) see broader trials, POC and deployments in 2021, with commercial success still TBD. Specific markets, such as Japan and South Korea, see commercial success with gaming, and autonomous vehicles in Japan and China, but widespread commercial success is still elusive.

Figure 1: 'Small-Cell Cellular Antennas at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis' by Tony Webster is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. "Small-Cell Cellular Antennas at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis" by Tony Webster is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0.

More trends to watch:

  • Few advanced services are available nationwide. Regional or city-based services (such as Verizon's Ultra-Wide Band 5G) continue in 2021 with MEC, Network Slicing and URLLC services rolling out in a controlled, focused manner. Nationwide services will be VPN-like with more limited SLAs and KPIs.

    • The push toward "open" continues in 2021 but does not necessarily represent operators adding multiple new players. The logistics and cost of testing, integration, operation, training and licensing also represent barriers to bringing in numerous new vendors and this will continue. However, the current environment provides the groundwork for future expansion of suppliers as the open ecosystem matures and overcomes many of the existing barriers.

    • Security becomes a heightened requirement as 5G becomes more pervasive, opening up faster avenues for cyber attacks. Securing hybrid virtualized, open and cloudified structures requires an overlay security apparatus, which should drive a new market for network, platform and application security oversight and management.

    5G is still in the build-out phase in much of the world. Few networks outside of South Korea have commercialized the unique services expected of 5G, including gigabit connections, ultra-low latency and massive IoT connections. The changes that will be trending in 2021 for the network – especially the mobile core – lay the groundwork for the 5G networks that will live up to the hype and appear in 2022/2023 and beyond.

    — Chris Nicoll, Sr. Principal Analyst, Omdia

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About the Author(s)

Chris Nicoll

Principal Analyst, Omdia

ACG working with mobile, security, IoT and infrastructure vendors and operators on their market and messaging strategy, with a focus on 4G, 5G, IoT and non-cellular wireless technology development and deployment.  Mr. Nicoll's focus for over 35 years has been global, pulling experiences, best practices, trials and tests from around the world to apply to local-market needs. Mr. Nicoll has a technical background designing terrestrial and satellite-based voice and data networks around the globe as well as market positioning and competitive response experience.  He applies his knowledge to messaging and competitive positioning, communications, technology and market strategy via workshops, presentations, white papers and articles across a wide array of topics including Connected Car, 5G, IoT, 4G, Small Cells, Wi-Fi, and Security. Mr. Nicoll has been a part of leading successful teams at Tymnet, Netrix, Current Analysis, Lucent, Alcatel-Lucent, Yankee Group and Analysys Mason. Mr. Nicoll holds a B.S. in Communications from Florida State University.

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