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5G Is Coming, but When?

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(Image: Pixabay)

5G is coming, and while it is ultimately going to have a massive impact on nearly every aspect of our lives, the introduction of 5G will take many years to unfold. Understanding how and when the new capabilities of 5G will impact a particular area of our lives can be hard to understand. This is an area that many IT managers are considering for their businesses. Planning for 5G will be challenging. The reason: 5G will bring a significant change in the range of business models and services offered by mobile network operators (MNO)s to residential and business consumers. We are therefore entering a period of flux as these are gradually introduced.

Compared to previous 4G data-based services, 5G explodes the mobile world into a potentially vast array of different service types and business models.

Initial 5G standards, the so-called non-standalone (NSA) variant of the 5G specifications, enable MNOs to start rolling out 5G enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) services. These services use new 5G radio capabilities but maintain the current 4G core. Essentially, these services are souped-up 4G services providing higher speed data services, generally known as “5G phase 1”. MNOs across the globe are in the early stages of rolling out these initial 5G phase 1 services. The services offer higher speeds than previous 4G services but with underlying service specifications and business models that are mostly the same as 4G services.

The next step for 5G is the expansion of the work within the standards bodies to bring the initial standardization of full 5G capabilities, in phase 2. Within the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the predominant standards body for mobile standards, this forms the bulk of the Release 16 specification which is currently underway and due to be completed in March 2020. This will enable system vendors, and ultimately MNOs, to build systems and then networks that support the broader range of 5G services and business models. Standardization work is an ongoing process. 5G specifications will continue to evolve for many years as technology and networking functionality continue to evolve and mature, enabling ever more advanced 5G services and business models.  

Opening up 5G with Phase 2

The key advance with the second phase of 5G is that mobile networks will open up to a significant broadening of services beyond voice and highspeed data. Massive machine-type communications will broaden the capabilities of mobile networks to address massive IoT applications with up to tens of thousands of connected devices per cell. Ultra-reliable low-latency communication brings a drop in round-trip service latency from 10 milliseconds to just 1 ms opening up 5G networks to a whole range of new applications. These new capabilities will bring expanded service offerings from MNOs that specifically address business and industrial customers, bringing a raft of extended applications for IT managers to handle.

There is still considerable uncertainty as to which new services and the timescales of when they will be available. Yet, many MNOs have publicized broad timelines with initial 5G phase 1 services entering the market in 2019-2020 and initial phase 2 services from 2022-2023 onwards.  

The Impact of 5G on IT Managers

The initial rollout of 5G phase 1 services mainly impacts the radio aspects of the mobile network with investments primarily targeting new 5G cell sites, with more modest investments in the backhaul transport network and back-office IT systems. IT managers will be able to take advantage of higher-speed mobile data services. However, other than increasing speeds and data usage, interaction with MNOs will largely continue as it did in the pre-5G era. However, the introduction of 5G phase 2 services brings the potential for radical changes in the interaction between MNOs and business customers that IT managers will need to prepare for.

The introduction of lower latency services and other more advanced networking functionality will shift MNO investments from the radio to the new 5G core, the underlying optical networking-based transport network, and the back-office management and control systems. This will bring significant changes in the relationship between IT managers and their MNO partners. To address challenges such as reducing other overall round trip latency, new capabilities such as multi-access edge compute (MEC) will be introduced. These capabilities bring storage and compute functions at new locations between the cell tower and the core that can be used to support services for the business community. Furthermore, to address the varying transport performance requirements for new services, MNOs will introduce new network slicing technology to nail up bandwidth and MEC resources within the transport to support specific service classes.

All of this requires sophisticated software-defined networking (SDN)-based network orchestration and cognitive networking capabilities that will automate many aspects of dynamic network control. Using standard open application programming interfaces (API)s to enable direct interaction with 3rd party systems, this new control environment will potentially open up many new opportunities for IT managers to streamline their interaction with MNO partners as they embrace 5G.

In summary, initial 5G services may not drastically impact IT managers, but the advanced services that 5G will ultimately bring will have a huge impact on many organizations. The advanced 5G-based services and business models that will be offered in the near future will require IT managers to build strong partnerships with MNOs to fully embrace the changes in automation and control of their services.