As industry lauds 5G potential, businesses will need to justify investment

It is pipped to become the dominant mobile technology in 2029, but 5G adoption amongst enterprises will require strong use cases to justify the necessary investments as well as collaboration across the entire ecosystem. 

With countries such as Singapore already running pilots across several verticals, 5G deployments are expected to ramp up as more networks are rolled out this year. 

In fact, 5G connections will double over the next two years, with new network deployments expected in more than 30 countries this year alone, said industry group GSMA. Of the new networks slated for rollout in 2023, 15 are anticipated to be 5G standalone networks. As of January 2023, there are 229 commercial 5G networks running worldwide. There also are more than 700 smartphone models currently available in the market. 

The next-generation telecommunications network is projected to bypass 4G in 2029 to become the dominant mobile technology, with adoption at more than 85% in the world’s top 5G markets by 2030, according to GSMA’s annual Global Mobile Economy report. The number of 5G connections is on track to reach 1.5 billion this year, before hitting a projected 5 billion by 2030, 

5G will add almost $1 trillion to the global economy in 2030, with the services and manufacturing sectors gaining the most value at 46% and 33%, respectively. 

In addition, the majority of operators expect private wireless networks to account for up to 20% of their total enterprise revenue, spurred by improvements in 5G capabilities. Consumer connections are projected to have exceeded 1 billion by the end of 2022 and will hit 1.5 billion this year, before reaching 2 billion by end-2025. 

Growth for operators, though, is anticipated to come from the enterprise market, which will be the main driver of 5G revenue growth over the next decade, GSMA said. This customer segment currently contributes, on average, 30% of overall revenue for major operators and this figure is likely to grow as organisations continue their digitalisation efforts. 

Edge computing and IoT (Internet of Things) also provide further opportunities for 5G, with 12% of operators already offering private wireless products and services. This will grow with a wider range of IoT deployments expected this year, GSMA said. 

But while there will be many 5G opportunities on the enterprise side, exploring business cases that produce desired outcomes is a key challenge, said Guannan Lu, an analyst at Forrester. Most manufacturers, for instance, use fixed networks.

“Building 5G applications requires investments for network upgrades and integrations. Without explicit business values, such investment is hard to justify,” Lu said. “In addition, the delivery of solutions lacks a standard approach, which makes use cases hard to replicate. 5G vendors need to co-innovate with customers on a wide range of use cases and streamline their existing offerings.” 

According to Bill Rojas, IDC’s Asia-Pacific adjunct research director, industry use cases will be driven by both mobile operators as well as systems integrators and vertical specialists. Early adopters will come from manufacturing, logistics, transportation, and smart city applications, added Rojas, who is based in Hong Kong.

Market players such as Huawei Technologies have identified key sectors such as healthcare and maritime, offering vertical-specific 5G products and services. Huawei, for instance, is working with Tianjin Port Group to build a digital twin of the port and introduce more automation and intelligence. The collaboration encompasses the construction of new automated terminals as well as the upgrading of traditional ones. 

Singapore finds use cases, should explore private networks

In Singapore, commercial adoption in the enterprise space is accelerating, with use cases that include automated quality inspection, powered by computer visualisation, at manufacturing sites. 

As the first country to be fully covered by standalone 5G, Singapore’s rollout of its 5G infrastructure provides a critical foundation with essential services to drive the country’s digital innovation, said Charlie Dai, Forrester’s vice president and research director. 

Autonomous vehicles with low-latency IoT connectivity also are deployed for logistics and port operations, while data analytics are streamed at the edge with distributed data storage to support real-time decision making. 

There also are opportunities for the country to expand its 5G deployments in public infrastructures, such as smart city surveillance and monitoring, traffic congestion management, and smart streetlights, said Rojas.

Asked about challenges Singapore could face in driving the adoption of 5G, he noted that applications and use cases that require network slicing or URLLC (Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications), such as augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR), will need a dense 5G network that works on the ground, in all urban areas.  

Handset prices for network slice-enabled devices also have to be in a suitable mid-range segment to drive wider adoption, he said. “Edge computing assets will become important in a similar timeline as AR/VR and network slicing adoption,” he added. 

Dai also stressed the importance of timing in fuel 5G adoption. 

“5G will augment existing technologies rather than serve as a replacement technology,” he said. “Ensuring ROI (returns on investment) in 5G adoption, while managing the complexity of regulatory policies, business impact, and underlining technologies is critical. Regulators as well as business and technology leaders should take a holistic and comprehensive approach to align the priorities, focusing on the right platforms, practices, and partners to become future-fit.”

Noting that 5G adoption still is at its exploration stage, Lu said the entire 5G ecosystem will be crucial, encompassing regulators and standard bodies, 5G infrastructure vendors, software and hardware providers, and mobile manufacturers. 

To successfully navigate China’s 5G market, for instance, he recommended decision makers on the buyer- and vendor-side to be realistic, especially under the pressures of a potential economic recession. 

Rojas also suggested Singapore’s industry regulator, Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA), seek out views from the industry to determine if there was need to allocate dedicated spectrum for private networks. 

He noted that mobile network operators in the country were required to build 5G standalone networks that enabled network slicing and URLLC. Hence, building private networks using these operators’ spectrum could be a priority as well as delivering network slicing in the macro network. 

“The industry would have to convince the regulator that they need their own private network spectrum. In a tight [land] area such as Singapore, there could be a case made for mmWave [to facilitate] private networks,” Rojas said. 

The IDC analyst noted that Hong Kong, for instance, has created a licensing regime to support several flavours of private networks. Its regulators in 2021 issued a more restricted version of its wireless broadband service (LWBS) license that was intended only for private use. It did not licensees to publish public tariffs, offer billing and metering accuracy, or manage service contracts as were required of providers of public telecommunication services. 

M1 CEO Manjot Singh Mann believed unlicensed private 5G networks had low relevance and applicability in Singapore. “Locally, M1 is already developing and deploying end-to-end 5G solutions that businesses from different industries can readily adopt,” Mann said. “High QoS (quality of service) and enhanced data security are better managed with carrier-grade solutions at scale with network providers. As such, there isn’t an urgent need for unlicensed private 5G networks.”

The Singapore telco is working with Gardens by the Bay, amongst others, to provide 5G-powered metaverse experiences at the tourist attraction’s indoor venues. It also recently inked a partnership with the National Heritage Board to provide 5G connectivity and edge computing products and services to the National Museum of Singapore and Children’s Museum Singapore (CMSG).

But while 5G adoption amongst consumers is climbing, Mann noted that the enterprise segment will see accelerated growth in adoption and is where the value of 5G lies. M1, to date, has conducted more than 15 5G use cases and partnerships.

“With all the trials we have conducted over the years, we are now at an inflection point for 5G solutions to take off,” he said. “These 5G solutions are no longer just experimental use cases, but are commercially viable and scalable solutions ready for businesses to adopt, deploy, and scale. Once more commercial solutions are readily available, further support and grants from the government will likely be able to further accelerate 5G adoption.” 

He also underscored the importance of industry collaboration. “One way to continue to boost 5G adoption is through partnerships to co-create 5G solutions and showcase real results,” Mann said. 

Easing developer access to drive 5G innovation 

Industry teamwork also seemed to be the key theme this week at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. 

GSMA at the show introduced an API (application programming interface) framework that it said would provide developers “universal access” to operator networks. Called GSMA Open Gateway, the initiative currently is supported by 21 mobile operators worldwide, including Singapore’s Singtel, Australia’s Telstra, China Mobile, South Korea’s KT, Japan’s KDDI, Deutsche Telekom, Swisscom, and India’s Bharti Airtel. 

Open Gateway APIs are developed and published in open source project CAMARA, which is led by Linux Foundation with GSMA’s collaboration. It aims to ease the flow of APIs and access between telcos and developers as well as cloud providers. 

Eight APIs are available at launch, including SIM Swap, Edge Site Selection and Routing, and Number Verification (SMS 2FA). These can be used to facilitate services such as autonomous vehicles, drones, fleet management and incident reporting, and immersive online games. 

More APIs will be added throughout the year, according to GSMA. 

Speaking at the congress, GSMA Board Chair José María Álvarez-Palette said the Open Gateway initiative will enable single points of access to ultra-broadband networks and provide a catalyst for immersive and Web3 technologies. 

“By federating open network APIs and applying the roaming concept of interoperability, mobile operators and cloud services will be truly integrated,” Álvarez-Palette said. “Collaboration amongst telecom operators and cloud providers is crucial in this new digital ecosystem.” 

He added that future digital services will be enabled through telecommunication networks, shared through any device and at any time, with full interoperability and real-time computing. 

Network traffic will accelerate amidst further data growth over the next decade, driven by emerging technologies such as Web3 and artificial intelligence (AI). This will lead to challenges related to speed, mobility, security, and privacy, putting focus on network latency, storage capacity, compute, and personalisation services. 

The underlying infrastructure then must facilitate all of that, encompassing cloud and edge computing technologies that are programmable and delivered with low latency, Álvarez-Pallete said, urging telcos to step up and “transform”. 

A traditional telecom network is no longer sufficient. Instead, a “massively decentralised, distributed supercomputer” will be needed, with open interfaces and standard APIs playing a key role, he said, pointing to the Open Gateway initiative. 

“We are living in extraordinary times, in which digital technology is the foundation that underpins the economy and our society,” he added. “[The mobile industry] will continue this journey and prove a catalyst for immersive technologies like the metaverse and Web3 to fulfil their potential.”

Based in Singapore, Eileen Yu reported for ZDNET from Mobile World Congress 2023 in Barcelona, Spain, on the invitation of Huawei Technologies. 

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