The first phase of 5G buildout is now well under way in major markets around the world. The big mobile service providers, and some new entrants as well, are in the midst of their first 5G deployments. While the initial implementations are of non-stand-alone (NSA) 5G, which takes advantage of existing 4G core networks, fully virtualised/cloudnative or standalone (SA) 5G is also on the drawing board.
Meanwhile, cybersecurity remains one of the primary concerns of mobile service providers. Carriers believe that 5G security and the hypercritical IoT-related use cases that will run on it should be fundamental to network design and deployment. These are among the key findings of a survey on mobile service providers published recently by the Business Performance Innovation Network in partnership with A10 Networks. A similar survey of mobile operators was conducted in the past year as well.
Respondents to the recent survey indicated that there has been significant progress in commercial deployments over the past 12 months. In the survey conducted a year ago, 26 per cent of the respondents said that they were moving rapidly towards commercial deployment. This year, 45 per cent say the same. Three quarters of all respondents now say their companies are at least in pilot testing. Moreover, 71 per cent say they will begin commercial deployments in the next 18 months, of which 32 per cent have either already begun or will start network buildouts in 2020.
Most early adopters are concentrating first on implementing the approved NSA 5G standard. Nevertheless, some are planning to move directly to SA 5G and many (35 per cent) are already proactively planning for it. Major carriers including T- Mobile, AT&T and Verizon are reportedly planning to deploy SA 5G in the next year or so.
Cloudification and cloud-native infrastructure
While NSA 5G shares existing core network infrastructure with 4G, SA will require a whole new network core that fully utilises a cloud-native, service-based architecture with virtualised network functions and cloud-based, software-defined networking. SA 5G and the full cloudification of the network core will bring in significant advantages such as lower latency, faster delivery of new services and flexibility through network slicing, critical for many next-generation use cases and applications.
The move towards virtualisation of networks, in fact, is well under way. Around 95 per cent of survey respondents believe that virtualising network functions is very important (59 per cent) or important (36 per cent) to their plans for 5G. Three-quarters say they are well on their way or are making good progress towards virtualisation.
Operators also believe that the use of containers will be important for building out 5G. A significant majority is at least using software containers in trials. While only 7 per cent of the respondents say that their companies are moving rapidly towards full-scale adoption of containers, 12 per cent are making significant use of containers in specific areas. Another 52 per cent say that they are in the early-use and trial stage.
5G security tops the list
From huge upfront investments to major cybersecurity concerns, 5G networks present significant challenges and potential risks for operators and society at large. Respondents point to a wide range of 5G challenges. The top three are the heavy cost of network buildouts (59 per cent), network security (57 per cent), and the need to develop new technical skills (55 per cent). Another frequently mentioned challenge is the lack of 5G-enabled devices (42 per cent).
Security is cited by respondents as a top requirement for 5G networks, nearly on a par with network reach and coverage and just ahead of capacity and throughput. Virtually all respondents (98 per cent) expect growth in network traffic, connected devices and mission-critical IoT uses cases to significantly increase security and reliability concerns for 5G mobile operators.
New 5G use cases
During the first phase of 5G deployments, operators believe that enhanced mobile broadband, that is, high speed connectivity and better mobile connections, will be the main revenue drivers and service offerings for 5G. IoT use cases such as industrial automation and smart cities are also seen as opportunities for early 5G deployments. IoT use cases and devices are indeed growing rapidly. According to Gartner, enterprise and automotive IoT will grow to 5.8 billion end points in 2020, a 21 per cent increase from 2019.
Over the next few years, respondents see a variety of use cases becoming equal drivers for 5G. In fact, respondents predict that, in the next five to six years, smart cities, connected vehicles and high speed connectivity will be the main use cases driving 5G revenues and usage. Smart manufacturing will also continue to be a major driver of 5G usage.