What can the UK learn from China to bolster its 5G market – and ensure its success?

Vendors and operators across the UK are currently looking towards China, which is on track to launch commercial 5G networks by 2020, and is expected to become the world’s largest 5G market by 2025.

A recent report from GSMA Intelligence and the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology (CAICT) revealed that after 5G networks are commercially deployed in 2020, following a two-year phased testing period, the number of 5G connections in China are expected to reach 428 million by 2025. This will account for an astonishing two in five (39%) of the 1.1 billion 5G connections expected across the globe by this point in time.

The promises of 5G

In the first instance, it’s expected that China’s 5G networks will be largely focused on boosting the capacity of the country’s existing 4G networks, in order to support increasing demands for mobile data traffic. In addition, it will enable enhanced mobile broadband services such as Ultra-HD video, augmented reality and virtual reality. The new services and applications made possible by 5G will undoubtedly require mobile devices with greater capabilities than those currently on the market so, it’s reasonable to predict that smartphones will be the primary means of interfacing with 5G, certainly at launch.

However, the promises of 5G go well beyond high data rate, spectral efficiency, ultra-low latency, or massive sensor networks. The fundamental appeal of 5G lies in the fact that the entire infrastructure acts as a cohesive platform for innovative applications and is tuned to flex with demand – providing services tailored to their unique characteristics.

5G is set to go beyond consumer grade applications in the future, with the enterprise space expected to represent the largest revenue opportunity for operators. Indeed, Chinese operators are already collaborating with the broader mobile ecosystem, and different industry vertical players.

The need for open interfaces

While spectrum allocation and new business cases to identify incremental revenue opportunities are key elements to realising the full potential of 5G, so too, will the investment protection in the radio infrastructure be a key consideration for the pace of adoption. A flexible, innovative and open sourced Radio Access Network (RAN) is a key cornerstone for the evolution to 5G.

By providing a software-defined, Cloud-RAN solution based on open interfaces, communications service providers can bring about much lower cost radio infrastructure, using an open software based model upon common hardware.

Historically, the RAN we have today was intended to be open, but is, in reality, controlled by a group of three vendors. As the sector continues to develop, however, people are looking for alternative suppliers that can bring something new to the mix. Key players such as Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei all have the same way of thinking, and the industry needs a contender that can utilise a software model in the radio world to prioritise enterprise and densification.

This has resulted in a lot of pressure on suppliers to open up interfaces that’s effectively been controlling the growth of the industry, and even the radiotechnology itself. Unfortunately, this current vendor control is causing suboptimal use of spectrum prohibiting, innovation in radio, antenna technology, and cell tower placement, and is also resulting in increased cost per user in any business plan for 5G. In an attempt to avoid this, the xRAN group has been formed to ensure operators and regulators have better use of resources to benefit customers when the interface is open. As the radio access network equipment market in its current form continues to decline, Service Providers may be better off looking towards more disruptive players in the xRAN space than the old key players that are struggling with profitability and cost control.

It’s also worth noting that the current 3GPP standardization process, with its challenges in compatibility, is dominated by these large players so it comes as no surprise, that we’ve seen the growth of working groups and bodies outside of 3GPP for faster development of open standards such as XRAN, TIP and ONAP. We have to take care to strive for technical diversity and guard against standards fragmentation in the quest for open standards that will produce an economic opportunity to the “greater” vendor community.

Regardless, China (along with the USA) appears to be leading the way in developing and implementing 5G networks, and looks likely to dominate the market in only a few years after rollout.

Operators and vendors in the UK and the rest of the world should learn from China, and focus their attention on technology services that will maximise efficiency and generate revenue in the 5G era.

To get 5G working though, we need to maximise bandwidth by pushing open interfaces across the network through software defined techniques.  

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