It’s no secret that telcos around the world did an absolutely fantastic job in keeping us all connected, productive and entertained through the crisis. Generally, their networks worked flawlessly even though this event crept up on them without any warning. But rather than flaunt the success, it seems they are going on their humble way. Why? Now, suspended in time as we are, there are choices to be made. Businesses of all types need to adapt and quickly. Change isn't optional. They are at an inflection point where they can revert back or galvanize real, meaningful change in terms of business models, services, and monetization.
As an industry, we can no longer say “we need five years to exact real change or transformation.” Now is the time because people, enterprises, societies are primed for digital transformation, now.
I am disappointed so many of the 5G discussions today mirror those from seven months ago. How can that be, since this event has changed the trajectory for 5G? COVID-19 has triggered an evolution in our collective thinking, with all of us more aware of the interdependencies among us as people, as communities, as nations in tackling and responding to this challenge. We have reconsidered what really matters most to us— the way we work, the way we learn, the way we connect with our friends and loved ones.
For these reasons, 5G has to be touted as a revolution in telecommunications and not just because of its speed, lower latency, or broadband capabilities —although these in themselves are game changers — but rather because of the Cloud and the eSim factor. The application, distribution and multiplicity of uses for eSims will be the enabler of the IoT explosion, and the capability of 5G to manage all of this is the real revolution. The possibilities are boundless and there appears to be no shortage of ideas to exploit the 5G capabilities.
For telcos, it will mean letting go of some past obstacles to forge ahead. Yes, your OSS/BSS have hamstrung you; yes, people’s mindsets weren’t ready yet. Sure, enterprises didn’t believe in new use cases. But now they do! We all need what only you can offer, and you have the brainpower to do as the scientific community is in rallying to condense 10 years of vaccine development into perhaps one year.
Rather than look at 5G through a pre-crisis lens, we have to realize the use cases we thought would lead the way no longer matter as much, and the use cases we thought would trail might be the ones that lead. Our perspectives have to truly change.
Consider how pre-crisis we thought voice was “dying,” and now it’s reborn as a comfort app, helping all of us to connect in a more human way during this era of physical distancing. Voice is up with call volumes increasing about 25 percent and call durations about 33 percent. As a result, operators are no longer looking to reduce their investment in fixed line, but rather to maintain and perhaps even grow it. As people work, learn, and seek entertainment at home, they grow more dependent on fixed lines, and the operators’ networks have unquestionably been reliable, secure and sustainable throughout. Even as traffic patterns have changed, networks have worked remarkably well, with traffic distribution spread much more evenly throughout the day from the evening peaks, making much more efficient use of network resources.
Pre-crisis, we also thought enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) would be a fixed mobile replacement, long predicted to be an early deployment strategy for 5G. But the past few months shows this is unlikely to be the focus, in the short term at least. The major questions are “Will we return to working and learning as we did before? Will we carry on as we are now? Or, will we live a hybrid of both? I suspect the answer is the latter. We will someday go back to seeing large crowds of people, packed on trains, streaming their favorite shows, music or podcasts on their afternoon commutes from work. And drivers will once again need real-time congestion updates in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
But for now, the more important use cases for 5G and IoT will have to do with other things, such as the logistics for the transport of goods during periods when manufacturers and factories are slowed or limited by employees sheltering in place. Or perhaps IoT and smart city use cases that have more to do with the delivery of healthcare services, public safety and smart utilities rather than traffic congestion management or in-car entertainment. Online medicine will also continue to grow during the pandemic, and as wearables like smart watches evolve to provide personal health information, 5G will become the medium to collect, analyze and direct pertinent information to the medical world.
Will telcos step up to the plate and offer SLAs to consumers who are working from home, or who are steeped in virtual learning from home. This is a must-have in our new normal, as “the internet was down” will become the new “dog-ate-my-homework” and enterprises and consumers alike will want there to be some accountability and be willing to pay for it.
For enterprises, 5G’s impact may shift more toward security and network management amid more widely dispersed workforces and complex digital ecosystems, driving the early use of edge computing to support real-time applications like augmented reality (AR) and IoT-connected sensors. Enterprises will also consider how the combination of 5G-enabled networks, collaborative platforms and applications will continue to improve not only their employees’ and customers’ lives despite disruption, but the planet as a whole. Already they see a profound impact on the measurement, monitoring and control of CO2 emissions, wildlife forest management, sea levels, weather, and drinking water. What can 5G in the context of our “new normal” truly accomplish?
Other questions to ask revolve around customers’ changing locations. Borderless homes and offices are freeing certain demographics of people to move away from densely populated locations toward the suburbs and even rural areas. Should this shift change where 5G investment is concentrated, or the timing of it?
5G’s ability to improve mobile broadband and support the IoT made it an ideal investment for densely populated cities and urban settings where small cells could be deployed. But if the people and businesses telcos initially wanted to target with 5G move out to areas covered by 4G, what should they do? How will demographic shifts affect the rightful demand for universal coverage?
As these questions are asked, telcos will have to reassess network configurations, as well as the spectrum and sites needed to meet consumer and enterprise connectivity demands. Similarly, enterprises will have to reassess what they’ll need from networks and also from the communications-driven tools on which they rely to keep their employees productive and service outcomes positive.
And last but not least, we must all recognize that 5G networks have become as essential as water and electricity to global social and economic development. Broadband networks support public health and safety, crisis management, financial markets, supply chains, and so much more. As networks become national assets, what impact will there be on competition, regulation and net neutrality? Also, how can we address the digital divide, particularly with the aforementioned demographic shift from cities to suburbs and rural areas so that everyone has access to the benefits of 5G technology.
These are just some of the questions operators and all of us in the industry should be asking when determining how the path toward 5G should change. The answers to these questions will guide our evolution within the revolution, informing decisions about where 5G networks will be needed, and what products and services should ride on top of those networks to help people keep in touch with loved ones and to optimally work, learn and thrive in increasingly virtual settings.
If 4G is any indication—not considered extraordinary until the transformation happened on top of it from the likes of Uber and YouTube—there is so much we can do with 5G during these historic and unprecedented times. There is tremendous opportunity to exact meaningful change in the areas that matter most to all of us.
We are in the middle of a true telecommunications transformation, beyond the vague concept that had been discussed for years in numerous papers and endless conferences. The crisis has imposed this transformation on the industry and so far, it’s been superbly handled on the fly. But now we must accelerate the pace of this imposed transformation and reevaluate with urgency the network strategies and application strategies, across the OSS/BSS world, to reflect this rapid change toward the new digital world. If we don’t, someone else will.
Please feel free comment below as I want to hear people’s thoughts and start a conversation on this.