The 5G window of opportunity for wireline carriers

via Flickr © cveres (CC BY-ND 2.0)

via Flickr © cveres (CC BY-ND 2.0)

  • The Cinderella's of the transformed network could still go to the 5G ball
  • They have skills and assets the wireless carriers don't possess
  • Convergence of wireless and wireline elements will provide a unified end-to-end 5G network
  • But the window of opportunity won't be open for long

With most of the hype and publicity surrounding the development and deployment of 5G networks swirling and coalescing around the world's wireless carriers, the fixed line telcos tend to be somewhat overlooked at present. However, the reality is that 5G really should, and ought to be, be a huge opportunity for wireline network operators as well.

One industry insider who says so is Iain Gillott, the president and founder of iGR, a market research organisation headquartered in Austin, Texas. iGR's primary focus is on the global wireless and mobile industry and Mr. Gillott says, "Wireless carriers are going to need small cells and fibre" for backhaul connectivity "and that is a significant opportunity" And that's not all. Mr Gillott also points out that savvy wireline network operators will also offer the edge computing capabilities and services that will be vital to the economic success of the myriad of low-latency apps that will be characteristic of 5G.

The point is, of course, that 5G is so much more than just a new(ish) set of wireless access technologies and it will fundamentally change how MNOs construct, operate, and manage mobile networks - from the Radio Access Network (RAN) to the data centre and everything in between. To take advantage of what may well be once-in-a-generation (and perhaps even a once-in-a-lifetime) opportunity fixed line operators are going to have to evolve too if they are to corner the market in the enablement and optimisation of end-to-end 5G performance and the high quality of experience that will be expected by mobile users paying a premium for 5G services.

Thus, if wireline infrastructure is to perform as it should in an upcoming era of denser infrastructure, ever-increasing traffic and low-latency services and apps it must evolve and avoid any likelihood of becoming the de facto bottleneck and strangulation point in 5G networks. If that happens, some internationally famous old telcos will pay the price and disappear from the scene. The optimum solution will be a managed convergence of wireless and wireline elements that will, together, provide a unified end-to-end 5G network.

It's 'make up your mind' time

Back at iGR, Iain Gillott is a committed fan of fibre and small cells for 5G. He says. "You can use mesh-networking and microwave but it's not going to last as well as fibre". As for small cells, network operators have, for several years past, been deploying them in LTE networks to provide enhanced coverage in areas of particularly high traffic. By definition, small cells can cover a smaller range than the traditional mobile macrocells and can therefore support a much denser cell site infrastructure. thus, says Gillott, network operators that have already deployed small cells to enhance LTE  capacity will be able to perform software upgrades that will enable the sites to support 5G.

Another factor driving the need for more fibre in 5G networks is 5G's ability to support low-latency in the sub-ten milliseconds range where the intent is to provide and support apps including virtual and augmented reality, autonomous vehicles and remote surgery. However such apps will require local processing; i.e. edge computing. Low-latency 5G apps needs must, will have to rely on cloud-based computing resources but network operators will not be able to provide such resources from a remote data centre, as they do at present.

For example, an app delivered from a remote data centre via LTE may have a round-trip latency of some 70 milliseconds but if that app is removed from the data centre and moved out to the network edge latency falls to 20 milliseconds or so. And, as Iain Gillott points out, “With 5G that goes to 10 milliseconds because of the radio protocol".

So, for wireline network operators the 5G opportunity is there in front of them. It may, as yet, not be fully defined or evident but then neither is much of 5G. The trick will be to weigh-up the opportunities 5G will present, make the necessary strategic decisions and follow the decided course of action through to success, There will be problems and setbacks along the way, but fortune favours the bold and if wireline telcos are are to remain relevant in the age of the transformed network they have no choice but to change - otherwise hey'll be out of business. It's as simple as that.

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