With the promise of Gigabit speeds available across mobile networks, 5G will enable nearly limitless possibilities, revolutionizing economies through innovations in automotive, manufacturing, energy, utilities and healthcare, among other industries. In fact, we have yet to foresee all the possible use cases that will be empowered once 5G technology matures. Consider the fact that Uber could not have been envisioned before 4G technology became available, and now rideshare companies have enduringly transformed the transportation industry worldwide.
However, before 5G devices come to the mainstream market, there are still many technical hurdles to overcome, such as form factor, battery life and complex algorithms for accurate beam tracking. Therefore, the first use cases will be limited by default, as consumers await delivery of new 5G handsets.
As mobile network operators (MNOs) allocate significant budgets to deploying 5G networks, they are under tremendous pressure to start delivering 5G services as soon as possible. So what are the use cases that we can realistically expect to see in the near term? And more importantly, how will service providers monetize them to start realizing return on their investments?
Massive Opportunity, Massive Challenges
The broad capabilities of 5G technology can be classified in three main categories: Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC), Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), and Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communications (URLLC). Together, these capabilities offer considerable potential for the advancement of innovative use cases, including autonomous vehicles, telemedicine, massive Internet of Things (IoT) services, smart homes and augmented/ virtual reality (AR/VR).
In advance of delivering these varied use cases, mobile service providers must ensure that their networks can seamlessly support all the different technical requirements — latency, speed, density, resiliency — in one larger network. 5G networks will need to be dynamic enough to support diverse, cloud-based, latency-sensitive applications while maintaining co-existence with current 4G and LTE technologies.
Moreover, demand for 5G services will stretch capacity to the limits, resulting in a transport rate more than ten times greater than 4G. Before mobile service providers can fully evolve to 5G, they will need to build out robust, x-haul transport networks capable of scaling to support billions of connected devices, while significantly reducing latency at the edge.
On the Horizon
In the near term, as MNOs build out their transport networks and await mass availability of 5G devices sometime in 2020 or later, fixed wireless access (FWA) is the first 5G use case that is seeing widespread adoption. Industry analysts anticipate that this access technology will see considerable growth over the next decade. In fact, 5G fixed wireless is expected to become a predominant method for delivery of broadband services to both residential subscribers and small to medium businesses, particularly in remote areas where FTTx is lacking. We’re already beginning to see these services take shape with rollouts by the likes of AT&T and Verizon.
Fixed wireless broadband creates an early advantage for MNOs and new mobile market entrants to leverage the 5G radio interface (NR) in the short term. For incumbent operators, FWA service can be enabled relatively quickly through network densification overlaid on the existing 4G network. Recent infrastructure advancements, such as integrated ultra-high density distribution antenna systems and low-power millimeter wave (mmWave) circuits, offer a short-cut to increasing capacity and spectral efficiencies in 5G NR communications. These systems can be connected directly to existing backhaul, enabling MNOs to get up and running quickly with fixed wireless services, without incurring excessive CapEx costs.
The capability to overlay 5G NR capacity on a legacy network provides an easy entry to the high-speed broadband market. Profitable, new services can be delivered over mmWave spectrum to fixed customer premises equipment (CPE) devices, which the service provider can lease to consumer and enterprise subscribers along with the broadband service. This approach also offers opportunities to support private enterprise networks or share in the lucrative smart home market. Plus, 5G fixed wireless can be used to offer high-speed Wi-Fi services in public spaces as well.
Monetizing FWA provides 5G revenue in the short term — offsetting the ongoing investment needed to extend fiber reach and address last mile challenges that are critical to widespread 5G deployment. This is particularly beneficial for those MNOs that have not yet completed their migration from 3G to 4G, or have not fully monetized their 4G networks.
Clarity of Vision
As mobile networks transition to ubiquitous connectivity and cloud-based control plane architectures with real-time responsiveness, and eMBB matures sufficiently to enable peak speeds up to 20 Gb/s, service providers will be able to support a vast diversity of new use cases. The 5G era will usher in immersive experiences that have yet to be imagined. But in order to meet the speed, latency and density requirements of diverse and demanding 5G services,these next-generation networks will need greater scalability, reliability and performance all the way to the edge.
That evolution won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, fixed wireless access built on 5G technology offers MNOs a ripe, tantalizing ‘low-hanging fruit’ to start delivering commercial 5G services. This strategy not only positions them to be first across the finish line, but it also allows them to start realizing return on their 5G investment to maintain forward momentum for the long-haul.
Femi Adeyemi, Ph.D., is Lead Wireless Solutions Architect for Fujitsu Network Communications. He has more than 20 years of experience in wireless technology and product strategy.