Stephen Douglas, Head of 5G Strategy at Spirent Communications looks at 5G predictions for 2022.
- Dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) will grow during 2022, but new or reframed spectrum is needed sooner rather than later. Operators worldwide face stiff competition to provide as much 5G coverage in their markets, as quickly and cost efficiently as possible. To that end, expect more carriers to use DSS to raise their 5G profile with consumers. However, while DSS does ensure that more subscribers see that they’re connected to ‘5G’ on their handsets, it can’t deliver data speeds that most consumers associate with 5G. Gradually, more operators will recognise that this effort is not enough to compete with non-DSS 5G services. Ultimately, operators will begin undertaking the more onerous and expensive process of reallocating/re-farming spectrum, and expanding their cell site footprint.
- More operators will deploy standalone 5G core networks – and turn to hyperscalers for help. A few operators began deploying 5G SA networks in 2021, and those numbers will grow in 2022. What will be different is that many operators will be looking to partner with hyperscalers to do it, aiming to host cloud-native 5G core capabilities on cloud providers’ infrastructure. This process began in 2021, as operators began to grapple with just how challenging cloud-native infrastructure presents for traditional operations teams – and how much they can benefit from economies of scale by working with hyperscalers like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon.
- The industry will see significant growth in investment in AI/ML and automation. Based on testing, we see significant growth in AI/ML and automation to enhance network performance and fault management. In particular, more operators are investing in active testing and assurance systems to inject synthetic traffic into their networks to emulate real users and services, instead of relying on static, passive probes. And they’re seeking to pair these systems with AI/ML algorithms that can make good decisions in real time for where, when, and what to actively test to improve services or isolate faults, without requiring human intervention. We also expect to see early efforts in using AI/ML to enhance security, and in running testing workloads from public cloud.
- The first wave of telco edge cloud use cases will hit the market. 2021 saw the first fledgling edge cloud partnerships between operators and cloud providers or other third parties. In 2022 though, we’ll see these initial test runs get serious business attention and investment. Look for activity around two basic offerings: public cloud-hosted edge services, which will focus on consumer applications like gaming, augmented reality, and video content delivery; and private cloud-hosted edge offerings for enterprise and industrial use cases. In particular, expect to see commercial launches of private cloud edge services for security and video surveillance, as well as secure desktop-as-a-service offerings for home-based workers.
- So will private 5G networks. By mid-2022, expect to see a big push for private 5G networks for stadiums and other high-density venues. Testing over the last 18 months has revealed that the behaviour of 5G radio within these indoor environments actually provides much better coverage than anticipated, with a very small footprint. Already, a number of US stadiums have deployed indoor mmWave coverage using small cells, and found they could provide excellent coverage and performance (at speeds well over 1-Gbps, even reaching out to parking lots) for tens of thousands of users with just a handful of small cells, versus hundreds of Wi-Fi access points. These cases were proven in 2021 and should start to be deployed at scale next year.
- Latency will begin to replace data rates in the battle for the hearts and minds of telco customers. For decades, the race to win the mobile marketplace was all about delivering faster data rates than the competition. As operators begin to expand their focus on the enterprise and industrial sectors in 2022, that focus will begin to give way to latency. Expect more operators to invest in demonstrating to the market that their networks can not only deliver latencies as low as required, but can deliver those latencies consistently and deterministically enough to support mission-critical industrial applications.
- Open virtual RAN will go from pilot to production. Another incremental change in the coming year, Open vRAN will move from small-scale pilots to small- and medium-size live deployments. Based on testing, we expect to see early Open vRAN deployments in three key areas: rural regions, indoor, and non-dense urban deployments. All three are viewed as less risky than other types of deployments, either because they will not support mission-critical services, or because they will be able to fall back on the traditional macro network if needed. Some challenger service providers (Rakutan, DISH Network) may start rolling out live Open vRAN deployments in denser urban areas, but the major incumbents likely will hold off until 2023/2024.
- Momentum will continue building to accelerate some ‘Beyond 5G’ services. The service provider industry has already begun vision-setting in earnest for future wireless systems. As they do, many are searching for opportunities to bring some of those future technologies back within the umbrella of 5G architectures over the next eight years. Based on the testing we’re seeing, we expect to see these efforts in two major areas. First, integrating low-Earth orbiting satellite technology into the 5G system to enhance 5G coverage for specific use cases and specific areas of reach. Second, we’re seeing early testing efforts in the use of reconfigurable intelligent surfaces and meta-materials, with the goal of creating intelligent reflective surfaces that can direct or even amplify radio signals. These technologies, which likely won’t be integrated into 5G systems for several years, will help operators cover hard-to-reach areas by enabling RF signals to travel longer distances and avoid interference, reduce the required density of radio towers, and potentially reduce energy output and carbon emissions.