5G is still a few years away so why should operators care about it now?

At first glance, it seems ridiculous to expect mobile operators to start devoting attention to 5G now. 3G, let alone 4G, coverage remains incomplete in many markets, 5G standards have not been completed and even the most enthusiastic backers of the technology don’t expect commercial deployments to begin for a few more years.

However, as you look more deeply at what 5G represents, it becomes clear that this is not simply another network technology upgrade that will follow the established pattern of 2G to 3G to 4G to 4.5G deployments.

The capabilities of 5G are so transformative that they will enable mobile operators to enter new customer segments across many different vertical industries. Being first to market is potentially worth billions of dollars to mobile operators so devoting attention and creating a 5G strategy now makes sense. However, the new opportunities become real in a very different connectivity and technology landscape to what has gone before.

3G and 4G were human communications designed to connect the planet’s five billion people. 5G will connect humans and machines and, if the projections are to believed machine and sensor connections will outnumber human connections by a factor of 10, with more than 50 billion machine connections routinely predicted for the early 2020s. Of course, many of these machine to machine (M2M) or Internet of Things (IoT) connections don’t require the high bandwidth or low latency that 5G offers, many only need 2G or 3G cellular capacity, or even low power radio network connections to perform perfectly.

Equally, uses cases that are currently defined for 5G such as NGMN, METIS and others can be delivered to at least some extent by existing 4G technologies. The real value of 5G starts to become apparent here because of the significant step up in performance 5G provides.

If you consider that 5G will provide ten times the bandwidth to ten times the number of connections with latency of less than 2 milliseconds, doors start to open for the introduction of high bandwidth services such as 4K and 360-degree video as well as augmented and virtual reality applications. The robustness and resilience of the technology also makes it suited for mission critical ultra high availability services such as remote surgery and connected car and assisted driving applications.

A further benefit is the scalability and flexibility of 5G. As the first large-scale technology to be deployed in a virtualized way, 5G networks will be able to alter functions according to demand, shifting from supporting HD video at a consumer peak time to supporting IoT applications as required. This makes the network more cost efficient and makes some services which would not be viable with LTE on cost grounds to be enabled by 5G.

The capability to support specific use cases through network slicing and maximised utilisation of a 5G network brings down the cost of operation to a level that enables many new types of services and the servitization of traditional product-centric industries, all of which can be backed by tailored service level agreements. This opens huge new markets to mobile operators but to address those, operators need not only to roll-out 5G capacity but also to understand the new techniques of virtualisation and network slicing as well as the new business models and complex interactions across an entirely new value chain.

The more accurate question is not whether right now is too early to be considering 5G but whether, in fact, you’re already late in your preparations to be first to market with 5G. Nokia 5G Acceleration Services are focused to address the 5G challenge to help CSPs define their tailored journeys to 5G.

This blog was written by Helmut Schober, who leads the 5G Services programme at Nokia, and Vikas Dhingra, a consultant at Bell Labs Consulting, now part of Nokia.