5G set to be the focus of innovation

By the end of 2021, GSMA Intelligence forecasts that 5G will be commercially launched by nearly 200 operators in more than 70 countries, resulting in almost 640 million 5G connections. While 4G will support the bulk of mobile broadband users, operators are focusing their capex and technology innovation strategies on 5G.

As a break from previous network generations, the adoption of 5G gives operators an opportunity to introduce new technologies, and to do things differently in their networks. Indeed, 77% of operators think it likely that they will use 5G as a trigger for introducing open RAN (see Network Transformation 2021). We will also see new network innovations and strategies in 2022 framed within the context of 5G, particularly as 5G SA networks ramp up.

Open RAN matures but is likely to disappoint many

If 2022 sees continuing 5G momentum, and a majority of operators see 5G as an opportunity to introduce open RAN, it is a foregone conclusion that open RAN will remain one of the highest profile network technologies of 2022. With open RAN still in its infancy, we can expect a year of continued learnings, driven by new testing labs (funded by government or industry), supplier partnerships and operator deployments that deliver best practices and signal where open RAN makes sense (as well as where it doesn’t). However, after several years of heightened expectations, progress is unlikely to live up to the expectations of many industry watchers. Against a massive installed base of proprietary RAN gear, it will take open RAN years to make a dent.

Telco cloud continues its move from if to how

The question of how telcos would compete in the cloud was largely answered in 2021, even before TelcoDR announced its $1 billion transformation fund focused on telco cloud. Hyperscaler partnerships demonstrated a role for the public cloud while maintaining private cloud assets. Edge computing acquisitions and deployments made it clear that operators would be just one part of the edge ecosystem. The recognition that public and private clouds, along with central and edge clouds, will all be integrated, promises continuing momentum behind public cloud partnerships

as well as hybrid cloud management solutions, and a push on how operators can ensure public cloud solutions meet operational and performance requirements.

Radios and antennas become trendy

5G and new RAN technologies are nothing without the spectrum to enable them. Hence, we have seen C-band auctions in the US, mmWave momentum, and global discussions on the best use of the 6 GHz band. Building on the record 33 (2G/3G) network sunsets planned for 2021, the 14 expected in 2022 will represent slowing – yet still impressive – activity, and the second biggest year for 3G sunsets between 2015 and 2025. Of course, more announcements and commitments may still come throughout 2022. Supporting 5G in all of these bands – old and new – will require new radio development and antenna innovations that ensure coverage in higher frequencies is not constrained to the point where deploying them is uneconomical.

6G divides the industry

In early 2021, Samsung claimed a 5G “speed record”, reaching 5.23 Gbps using dual connectivity across 4G and 5G. While the limits of 5G are constantly evolving, this compares to an expected peak data rate for 6G of 1 Tbps, or 200× the high end of today’s 5G. There are clearly big aspirations for 6G, as evidenced by operator announcements, vendor messaging and 6G conferences in 2021. There are also strong and differing views on various aspects of 6G, including that spectrum should dominate the 6G tech agenda, that we need to focus on use cases versus technology, and that it is just too early to care. As 6G messaging ramps up in 2022, we will see these divisions play out – potentially widened by regional positioning on 6G R&D dominance.

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