March 05, 2018

Mobile World Congress 2018 - 5G Pockets Within LTE

By Hartmut Leuschner
Wireless infrastructure vendors may not generate any meaningful revenue from 5G equipment until 2021 or 2022 because of long-term trials, during which equipment is provided mostly for free, and because nationwide 5G launches stretch over many years, according to attendees at Mobile World Congress.

Enhanced 4G With Pockets of 5G
This year's Mobile World Congress did not lack 5G announcements, with almost all large operators announcing trials and partnerships. However, when it comes to forecasting meaningful revenues from the new technology, comments were more subdued. "Of course we cannot spend capex like crazy and promise an ROI in maybe 10 years to our investors," said a procurement manager for a U.S. network operator, who hinted at a step-by-step approach. "At first you will see some mobile broadband solutions. But what for? If you are bullish, you could say you can stream 4K movies, and if you are bearish, you could argue this is only for streaming 4K movies, and who is willing to pay that extra $50-$100 a month? Then afterward, you will see some industry-specific solutions in automotive and healthcare." A group innovation manager at a European operator said he believes that "for a long time, there will be an enhanced 4G network with pockets of 5G in specific use cases."

LTE Advanced Fast Enough
A source from a global operator said he does not believe broad deployments of 5G handsets will happen any time soon. "There are no 5G networks and no realistic use cases for 5G smartphones aside from some virtual reality content. We are also not running out of capacity, and most people don't need ultra-high reliability or ultra-low latency either," the source said. Members of the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) forum said one should not underestimate the capabilities of existing LTE networks, pointing to Qualcomm Inc.'s recent release of the X24 modem for LTE networks that might appear in smartphones by 2019. "I have a hard time [believing] they can achieve the 2GB per second as advertised; it is fast enough for most consumer needs," one NGMN member said, admitting there are not even 4G networks available that could transport 2GB per second. A network component supplier said although 5G currently occupies all headlines, the real change could happen on the other side of the spectrum. "I see more and more carriers who want to turn off 3G and concentrate solely of 4G. The problem: So many consumers have a top 4G phone but are still using their old 3G SIM card inside."  

New Trend: Private Networks
While carriers at MWC heavily promoted small-cell usage in their networks, sources said the domestic and enterprise small-cell market has not taken off as expected, with even Cisco Systems Inc., which was previously bullish on this sector, pulling out. Sources argued that although small cells have improved customer experience, it has not lead to higher carrier revenues. According to sources, new opportunities are starting to emerge based on private networks, such as Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) in the United States. CBRS uses shared spectrum at 3.5GHz, which is ideally suited for in-building small cells. CBRS is now regarded as a significant driver for small-cells CAPX, benefiting vendors such as Airspan Networks Inc. and ip.access Ltd. Sources also pointed to an emerging trend for small-cell vendors themselves buying up spectrum and becoming service providers. For example, Airspan has bought spectrum in Ireland and offers a service called ‘Dense Air,’ which uses licensed spectrum dedicated to small cells for densification/extension deployments. At the conference Airspan announced it would use its 4G and 5G small cells to offer services to mobile carriers on a global basis. Airspan is also a surprise bidder in the United Kingdom for 5G-oriented spectrum in the 2.3GHz and 2.4GHz bands as it seeks to expand its private cellular networks, according to sources.

Contributors: Paul Ridgewell

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