Have we finally found a killer app for 5G?

I spent two interesting days at the TechXLR8 event in London last week, figuring out what’s changed in the 5G world since last year. Turns out VR is more than a distraction and that maybe we’ve been looking in the wrong place.

This time last year we were at least clear what 5G was. We had enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) for faster mobile broadband, with ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (uRLL) and massive machine-type communications (mMTC) making the Internet of Things/Everything (IoT/E), and Smart X applications technically feasible. We also had network slicing so that we could finely tailor the network to fit the application.

Where are we now? I arrived with a number of questions I wanted answers to, with the top one being the same as it always is for any complex engineering project…

…How are we doing on timescales?

The key point is that work on the technical standards needed to deliver eMBB is accelerating, but at the expense of uRLL and mMTC. This is because the industry is ready to invest in technology it knows and understands, and technically, the path for 5G NR (New Radio) seems pretty clear. Listening to Qualcomm, Nokia and BT, it looks like we are well on the way to a standard and, of course, we all understand the business case for mobile broadband. But the decision to prioritize investment in the tried and tested business model begs the next big question…

…Who’s paying for it?

Many speakers stated we are well past the “build it and they will come” investment model – a point we at TM Forum have been making for some time. Our members have been consistently saying that the opportunity for new revenue comes from the complex new business models around IoT/E and Smart X, not from simply enhancing existing business. Now clearly 5G eMBB will give us more capacity and speed, which should enable operators to reduce costs and maintain premium price points for some time. That leads me to the next question…

…How much better will 5G Mobile Broadband be?

There was much discussion of Massive MIMO, mmWave, beamforming and all the other technologies, but now we have some trial results. I’ll spare you the mathematics of Shannon Hartley, but suffice it to say that we are really pushing the limits of physics here. If you compare 5G trials to the best that commercial 4G offerings can deliver, you really only see 2X improvement in most practical cases.

That is alarming. Assuming we believe the trusty Cisco VNI index* is a good snapshot and predictor, we will outgrow 5G at roughly the time we launch it. If we look beyond the trials and think about practical deployments there are yet more concerns. Arquiva looked at the feasibility of deploying 5G in the UK, and again I’ll spare you the technological details, but it seems that the availability of dark fiber for fronthaul and backhaul is a major issue, and an expansive one to solve.

Technologies like mmWave promise huge capacity increases (because they use high frequencies), but they have very short range (increasing the need for dark fiber), and its coverage within buildings is very poor. Huawei made an interesting presentation about indoor solutions, including the idea of a neutral host, where a building’s owner or other third party owns the base station which is then offered as a service to the network operator. The impact of these limitations depends on what the use cases are going to be, which takes us to the next big question…

…What will be the killer use case?

Speakers from Vodafone, Telenor and Deutsche Telekom all said they were focusing on the long-term use cases around IoT, but the most specific use case that everybody gets excited about is remote surgery. Now nobody is suggesting this will be a daily reality by 2019, but it does fire the collective imagination about 5G’s possibilities, as well as some heightened concerns around the possibilities of ill-intentioned parties manipulating all kinds of industrial practices remotely.

All that said, where is the mass-market use case that will drive rapid take up? Well, when BT recently piloted VR coverage of the UEFA Champions League [soccer]  final, about a quarter of million of the six and a half million possible viewers took the company up on the offer. Now that does have potential. Walking around TechXLR8 it was easy to see that VR has mass appeal; in some areas, I felt like I was the only one not wearing a VR headset.

Talking to Nokia about VR is interesting. Current technology transmits the entire 360 view, but the viewer only looks at a fraction of it, the next phase is to have the headset report the viewing angle back to the server so it can provide only the area in view that moment, giving a 10X reduction in bandwidth needed. Trials have shown that we’ll need less than 5ms round trip latency for this, not something LTE and a centralized server can do today, but the combo of 5G NR and some edge computing are only two years from delivering, allegedly.

Where is this all leading?

As I left the event, I thought maybe we are seeing a “killer app” emerge that can be served by the imminent 5G technology, which then made me wonder what we need on the business side to make it work?

If sports coverage is the VR use case, we will need some complex commercial relationships with promoters, rights holders and advertisers – unless we let OTT providers take the lion’s share of the revenue. If we want to deliver this service efficiently indoors, we will need some equally complex relationships with neutral host owners such as major pub and bar chains and venue owners.

So, I find myself coming full circle: Last year it seemed the business opportunity for 5G would be in IoT, or something like smart cars, and that we would need to develop tools and standards for ecosystem partnering and platform business models to monetize that opportunity. Now, while it seems that the immediate business opportunity has changed, it still needs ecosystem partnering and platform business models, just with a different group of players than I was thinking about last year.

Perhaps this is the real point to take away. Nobody can predict what the opportunities will be or when they will arrive, so the thing we need more than anything else is to become agile businesses that are ready to seize the opportunities. How? By adopting processes that can rapidly adapt and support systems to onboard new functions in hours, and scale up and scale down shared resources in response to unpredictable demand.

This week I am back at my desk at the Forum, helping our members work to develop collaborative solutions to address exactly those challenges. Would be delighted to hear from you.

* The Cisco Visual Networking Index (VNI) forecasts the growth of global Internet traffic and broadband trends for mobile and fixed networks, and has been running for many years with considerable accuracy.

Get some further insight in our new report 5G: Is platform the killer use case? All employees of TM Forum member companies can download it free by registering on our website, and non-members will soon be able to download an executive summary or purchase the full report.


    About The Author

    Barry has 20 years’ experience in the ever-changing communications industry. He has held senior positions with large corporations such as Motorola, where he led their GSM Infrastructure product management team, through to startup companies such as location intelligence specialist Arieso, where he was part of the executive team that grew the business through to successful acquisition. At TM Forum Barry has been instrumental in driving the new vision for the digital ecosystem and is now focused on leading the Agile Business & IT program to create the TM Forum vision for the Digital Operations Center of the Future.

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