Technology, media & telecommunications

Why it’s time for a 5G reality check

Chris West Chris West

Every time I go to the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress, this year in Barcelona, I’m staggered by its monumental size. The main exhibition area at Fira alone stretches for around 1km (not even counting the nearby conference centre that hosted the start-ups). And it has to be of such massive scale just to accommodate the event’s 108,000 visitors and 2,300 exhibiting companies.

It really brings home what an important industry we’re part of.

A maturing market for the mobile sector

But this year, I caught a distinct whiff of elephant in the room. The GSMA themselves set the tone by releasing figures suggesting that the mobile sector is maturing. While data usage continues to sky-rocket, mobile revenues are expected to flatten out over the next few years in developed and developing markets, driven downwards by forces including ever-fiercer competition, new OTT players and regulatory change.

By way of response, exhibitors at the event highlighted the role of the IoT as the spark to reignite sector growth. Among the vast range of potential applications showcased at the event, we saw amazing virtual reality demonstrations like Ericsson’s remote surgery pilot. Connected cars were a recurrent theme, as demonstrated by manufacturers including Mercedes, Jaguar and Ford, vendors like Huawei and Ericsson, and operators such as Vodafone. Smart city applications were also on show from cities such as Barcelona, Dubai, Moscow, Dublin and Shanghai.

At the other end of the spectrum, we saw very low bit-rate applications too, including the theft-alert devices currently being installed to protect Barcelona’s manhole covers.

5G as the key enabler

What all these opportunities have in common is that 5G is universally seen as a key enabler over the long term. And this is where that elephant comes into clearer focus.

First, there will not even be an agreed global 5G standard in place until 2019/2020. And in the meantime many operators are still rolling out their 4G networks, at enormous expense. They will need to be convinced of the commercial opportunity and gain a deep understanding of the migration path for their existing networks, before making any commitment to yet another round of network capex.

That’s not all. With the direction of travel clearly pushing more intelligence back out to the edge of the network, significant concerns are emerging about 5G’s security environment as well.

Preparing to grasp the opportunities of 5G

This is not to say that operators should not be thinking about the opportunities of 5G. Merely that it is too early for many to consider investing in it for some time yet. In the meantime, it’s not surprising that many operators are instead focusing on opportunities to cut their costs and boost margins.

And opportunities abound. Emerging examples we have seen include the implementation of NFV (Network Function Virtualisation) and SDN (Software Defined Networking) technologies in the core network, both of which were trailed at the 2016 Mobile World Congress. Multi-vendor cloud-based virtualisation also has a key role to play.

In the RAN (Radio Access Network), implementing elastic RAN and SDRAN (Software-Defined RAN) is another opportunity with significant cost-saving potential. The same can be said of the ongoing digitisation of back-office processes in the BSS (Business Support Systems) and the OSS (Operational Support Systems).

Boosting operator margins

At Grant Thornton, too, we are already helping operators to prepare for 5G through the concurrent implementation of a wide range of existing solutions. This does not always mean using new and (so far) unproven technologies. For example, helping clients to review and enhance their existing operating models is giving a significant boost to margin for several companies.

We’re also enabling clients to improve the effectiveness of their operations, with a particular focus on the finance function, to optimise back-office systems and processes and prevent leakage across the value chain.

We’re addressing governance and network issues too, with a strong emphasis on cyber security. And we’re helping them understand the cost-saving potential of new digitisation technologies, including distributed ledger/Blockchain.

Even the support we give clients in implementing enhanced tax strategies has a role to play, enabling them to reduce costs by realising the opportunities afforded by factors like the UK’s Apprentice Levy.

Getting set for the gold rush…

So there’s much that operators can do in advance to prepare for 5G. As I’ve already said, until the standard is out, we cannot see much direct investment in 5G by operators – despite vendors promoting applications for all they are worth.

But investing in efficiency today will deliver a lead in preparation for 2019/20, when the publication of standards means the 5G gold rush will really start.

Find out more about my insights from the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress, or see how we could help your business prepare for 5G.