5G hype promotes the idea of a revolutionary leap forward, when in fact...

via Flickr © bengrey (CC BY-SA 2.0)

via Flickr © bengrey (CC BY-SA 2.0)

  • ..many mobile broadband users will probably be happy with incrementally faster speeds and better latency
  • Which is what they’re going to get anyway 

Network sharing and all its various flavours has been getting attention. Just this week Chinese vendor ZTE announced that it's completing something called a 5G ‘co-build, co-share verification’ to launch the world’s first such network for non-standalone 5G. The verification means the network and its construction conforms with an accepted framework which governs such arrangements.

The network is, claims ZTE, “is based on the real 5G commercial network environment, and covers the basic functions of network selection and anchor carrier triggering, network management functions of rights management and northbound interface in the DT environment, as well as multi-dimensional deep network sharing capability verification, such as multi-vendor, multi-operator mobility.”

The end result is a co-build co-share mode capable of providing the broadband multi-operator 5G services on the same 5G base station, and reasonably allocating spectrum resources based on user and service requirements. 

Essentially, it’s all about saving money and there’s been a lot of it going on around the world as operators look to align their capital and operational costs with the revenues they expect to enjoy from the move to 5G.

The last month alone has seen several sharing announcements in Europe. In  the UK mobile operators agreed to a sharing scheme to get long-awaited blanket rural coverage off the ground (see - Have the four UK telcos solved the rural coverage conundrum?).

In Germany, writhing under what they claim is a raft of unfair burdens and requirements, Germany’s big three operators have agreed in principle to build and share new mobile towers in a bid to meet rural coverage obligations. (see - German telcos partner to plug rural notspots, moan again about auction).

And in Belgium just yesterday came news of a potentially spoiling move by Telenet which pulled out of a three operator JV designed to manage shared infrastructure and promptly lodged a complaint with the Belgian competition authority to slow the deal (see - Telenet threatens to spoil Proximus and Orange's network-sharing fun).

There are clearly competition issues when it comes to network sharing but we can expect what is essentially an incremental investment approach -  disguised by marketing as a revolutionary one - to continue and various sorts of sharing arrangement to be pursued.  

A report from Rethink Research director, Caroline Gabriel (www.rethinkresearch.biz) from earlier this year, points out that mobile operators have built their success to now on outdoor networks because back in 2G/3G days most mobile calls were conducted outside the home or office. Once we hit 4G and people really started to use their phones indoors for data,  the model started to creak. 

But early 5G deployment, she claims, shows that operators are still in outdoor mode while most of the traffic growth is going to take place indoors. 

Their initial response has been to gingerly edge their way into 5G by attaching the first wave of 5G New Radios, operating at 3.x GHz, to the LTE masts and infrastructure providing just enough juice to keep outdoor 4G going for a few more years with extra spectrum and bandwidth. 

Clearly their whole approach is designed to keep the show on the road while keeping investment down and, after all, it may be the best strategy for many mobile broadband users who don’t necessarily want to pay for extra for speed and data volume that they don’t actually need. Improved latency would be nice though. 

The ReThink Research report points out that “LTE has plenty of performance life in it, and could well be upgraded or expanded multiple times to enhance the outdoor, wide area network. 

“This is the network the MNOs understand best, and where they have the best skills and expertise to bring to bear – from negotiating the best deals with suppliers to planning and optimizing the cells."

That’s why they’ve gone for 5G New Radio (NR), but on the same LTE sites, and using the LTE core in 5G NR’s Non-Standalone (NSA) mode.

So with some careful investment in much lower cost and more standardised equipment (such as the deals being pursued for open and standardised RAN equipment by the likes of Vodafone) mobile operators might be able to stay ahead of the data wave without going overboard on technology spend. 

And after all, if users really want to consume their broadband by the gigabit, many operators have a good deal on fibre broadband that they’d like to talk about.

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