5G Technology: The Revolutionary Evolution of Wireless
When the development of 5G technology began, the world had imagined what the network's increased speeds, lower latency and massive IoT connectivity could bring to life. Full-length movie downloads in the blink of an eye. An ultra-dependable connection that allows vehicles to safely change lanes, slow down and travel along the highway with minimal human intervention. Strong, secure coverage that keeps dozens of your IoT devices constantly connected without requiring much power.
Needless to say, we are not performing remote surgeries or sitting behind the wheel of fully autonomous vehicles — yet. While our vision of 5G's applications has shifted a bit in recent years, the expansion of capabilities within 5G's "toolbox" have only pushed the boundaries of its possibilities.
To find out how telecommunications companies are putting these capabilities to work and what 5G challenges they face in deploying them, Jabil partnered with SIS International Research to field an online survey to 193 telecommunications stakeholders responsible for strategy, planning, technology evaluation, development, operations, engineering and product management. All participants are directly involved in development, implementation or adoption of 5G technologies at leading telecommunications companies.
Here is what concerns, excites and intrigues leaders from across the telecommunications industry about the state of 5G.
5G is on the Cusp of Transforming Communications
The rollout of 5G connectivity is, at last, picking up speed — and at record pace. According to the mobile industry organization GSMA, the total number of 5G connections will surpass one billion by the end of 2022. By 18 months after its launch, 5G accounted for 5.5% of all wireless connections globally; 3G and 4G made up only about 2.2% of wireless connections at the same point after their respective launches.
Most respondents believe that 5G is within our grasp, if it hasn't already arrived. Nearly two-thirds (64%) said 5G will be mainstream in the next one to three years, while 14% think it already is mainstream. Another 19% said it could take three to five years, aligning with GSMA's finding that 5G will account for one-fifth of total mobile connections by the end of 2025.
According to respondents, a varied selection of use cases will drive 5G adoption in the near term. Fixed wireless, like 5G "boxes" that businesses or individual customers can use to support or replace traditional Wi-Fi, is the top need driving broad uptake; 43% of respondents said it will drive adoption in the next two years, while 37% said it will do so in three to five years. Telecommunications providers are already investigating how fixed wireless can be used to provide residents of rural and underserved markets with improved internet service.
The industrial internet of things (IIoT), which will empower Industry 4.0 and the factory of the future, will also drive 5G adoption in the next two years, according to 39% of respondents, and in the next three to five, according to 41% of respondents. Faster or better video (29%), smart cities (27%), virtual presence and collaboration (26%) and healthcare (26%) are other strong use cases our respondents indicated could push 5G adoption in the next two years.
Aside from when 5G will arrive, perhaps the next-biggest question is how much 5G will improve upon 4G's capabilities. And as 5G's underlying technologies, spectrum and hardware have been developed in the past three years, its revolutionary potential has come into focus.
Almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents said they expect 5G will be a superior technology that will dramatically transform telecommunications, up from 49% in 2018. Only 34% said they expect 5G to deliver incremental advances over 4G that will create some changes for telecommunications, a drop from the 51% who had more doubts about the network's power in 2018.
As telecommunications leaders have gained clarity on the extent of 5G's powers, they have also come to understand who will have the opportunity to harness that potential first and for what purposes.
Businesses Will Benefit from 5G Connectivity First
Much of the 5G conversation has centered around the "killer app." What will it be? Who will create it? Like streaming mobile video before it, how will it change the way we communicate?
An overwhelming 87% expect business applications will adopt 5G solutions first. A little over 60% believe enterprise applications and personal applications could lead adoption of the new network, but less than a third (32%) expect healthcare applications to pioneer 5G usage.
Similarly, 58% said they believe business applications will benefit most from the "killer app," with personal applications (20%), enterprise applications (18%) and healthcare applications (4%) falling far behind.
We've already seen examples of business applications that 5G could only further — like Meta's Horizon Workrooms that leverage Oculus virtual reality headsets and edge computing that offloads data loads from a centralized site and speeds up processing of individual devices. Survey respondents had a few other ideas. Close to a quarter of respondents (22%) said financial services is the industry with the most potential to be impacted by 5G solutions, such as improved financial data management and more accessible high-frequency trading.
With the "what" and "where" of 5G resolved, a critical question still requires answers: How do we develop the technology, business model and operations necessary to deploy 5G on a massive scale?
Technical Challenges Have Been Resolved, But Business and Tactical Challenges Remain in 5G Deployment
Over the past four years, telecommunications companies have gained a much stronger grasp on 5G technology and the logistical challenges it presents. Their 5G expertise has grown, and there is a better understanding of 5G's value proposition within the telecommunications market. In 2018, 53% of respondents said 5G's complexity compared to previous generations made implementation challenging; in 2021, only 20% said the same, even though 5G may look more complex on paper today.
Now, the challenges shift from understanding and developing the technology to deploying it and communicating that value to customers. Among our respondents, business challenges are the most difficult 5G challenges to solve. Nearly one-third (31%) said developing a 5G business model is their biggest hurdle, while only 19% said operational challenges and 18% said technology challenges are most pressing.
Of potential business challenges, creating subscription models for 5G has been difficult for the largest number of respondents (31%). 5G has only begun to roll out on a global basis since 2020, with most networks launching throughout late 2021 and early 2022; according to Opensignal's February 2022 analysis of 100 wireless markets, 75 of those countries saw their 5G network launch for smartphone users after mid-2020, or it has not been launched by multiple carriers yet. Telecommunications companies are still in the process of determining how to wrap 5G service into existing wireless plans and how much consumers are willing to pay for promised (but so-far unseen) speeds and reliability.
However, respondents see a clearer path forward today than they did in our previous survey. In 2018, 50% said subscription models were a challenge for them, while 94% faced some type of business model challenge overall — compared to 68% in 2021.
Additionally, nearly one-third of respondents face some type of physical challenge to deploying 5G. Proper positioning of 5G radios is critical to the network's functioning, and 32% of respondents said determining that placement is a major challenge. The 5G band with the fastest speeds, millimeter wave (mmWave), cannot pass through solid walls, and mid-band, or C-band, is only intended for well-populated urban and suburban areas where users are close to multiple base stations. A similar 30% said they lack back-end infrastructure to support the radio network.
Of the technology challenges that remain, availability of spectrum is the most pressing for nearly a third (32%) of respondents. That hurdle is likely to lessen over the next year to 18 months. A wide swath of mid-band spectrum awarded in the United States' record-breaking 2021 auction was deployed in January 2022, and more spectrum auctions are expected throughout the year in places like India, Hong Kong, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Sweden.
Thanks to the work done by software developers, electronics manufacturers, telecommunications companies and more over the past few years to understand the technology underpinning 5G, there has never been a network technology standard that is so complex yet can be made so accessible to so many. The key to making that possible is Open RAN.
Open RAN Will Be an Important Piece of the 5G Story
Open radio access network, or Open RAN, is the disaggregation of hardware and software via open interfaces and cloudification, creating a more level playing field for anyone to develop 5G technologies. Open RAN is furthered by groups like the O-RAN Alliance, founded in 2018 by some of the world's largest telecommunications companies, who are working to bring network operators, vendors and researchers together to improve and extend Open RAN standards and software to ultimately improve the 5G user experience.
More than half (55%) of Jabil's survey respondents are seriously considering an Open RAN strategy for their companies, while 22% already have one in place. Along similar lines, 57% said Open RAN will be ready for deployment within the next two years, and 15% believe it's ready now.
One of Open RAN's value propositions is that the creation of a shared 5G infrastructure and toolbox can bring down costs for individual telecommunications companies. A strong 81% of respondents believe the adoption of Open RAN will reduce capital expenditures (CAPEX), while 85% believe it will lead to reduced operating expenditures (OPEX).
The deployment of Open RAN networks sometimes comes with speedbumps, including network performance variability — dropped calls, throughput issues and the like. More than half (55%) of respondents believe these issues will happen occasionally with the rollout of a new Open RAN network, while almost a quarter (24%) expect they will happen often with deployment. Only 3% expect networks to function as expected every time Open RAN is launched. Still, the financial and operational benefits of Open RAN are worth the growing pains to the majority of companies. Close to two-thirds (64%) said they'd be willing to accept the higher incidence rate for the benefits of Open RAN. More than a quarter (26%) hedged slightly, saying they were somewhat willing to accept the tradeoffs, while 10% were not at all willing to accept lesser performance.
Because Open RAN allows non-traditional companies to enter the telecommunications market for the first time, telcos have more supplier options than ever before; in some cases, they may even become suppliers themselves. To take advantage of this increased supplier selection, 64% of respondents said they'd be willing to accept the network performance variation that may accompany Open RAN during deployment.
Some of the biggest "non-traditional" companies entering the telecommunications market are household names whose products we use every day. Companies who made their name making the device you're reading this article on, the social media apps you use to stay in touch with your friends and family and the e-commerce platform where you buy pet supplies are all investing in 5G solutions. But how will they fit into this existing, and evolving, ecosystem?
5G Will Foster Partnerships Between Telecommunications Companies and Software and Web Service Providers
The vast array of technologies within the 5G toolbox has opened the door to new players in the telecommunications market. Its breadth of capabilities could mean creativity in how those services are delivered to consumers, too.
More than half of respondents (59%) strongly agree that the transition to 5G will create opportunities for new telecommunications companies, and 53% strongly agreed 5G will deliver new business models as well as new technology. Already, software and web service providers like Microsoft, Google and Amazon have begun leveraging technologies like Open RAN to host their own virtual networks and create mobile network solutions that can be used by others (like telecommunications companies) on the open network. The vast majority of respondents, 93%, believe 5G will foster partnerships between traditional cellular service providers and software or web service companies.
However, on the role these companies play within Open RAN itself, respondents were split. More than half of respondents (56%) said they don't see a fit for hyperscalers like Amazon Web Services and Microsoft in their Open RAN strategy, while 44% said they have a place in their roadmap. Companies seriously considering an Open RAN strategy are almost evenly divided — 48% yes and 52% no — about hyperscalers fitting in. Those with a strategy already in place, on the other hand, are more certain that hyperscalers will play a role, with 67% responding affirmatively.
This breaking with tradition fits into the telecommunications market's overall progression. The market is transitioning from a linear model, where technology flowed from component suppliers to electronics manufacturing service (EMS) providers and on to cellular service providers, and is replaced by the network model, where technology providers work in tandem with cellular service providers, EMS and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Companies will cooperate and compete at the same time.
Still, 5G is in its early stages, and it remains to be seen how this new ecosystem will enhance connectivity, create novel business models and improve network performance. Innovation, creativity and friendly competition will be key to elevating 5G from a "nice-to-have" to a critical communication tool.
Download the 5G Technology Trends Survey Report
Insights from 193 telecommunications decision-makers on 5G adoption, predictions, opportunities and challenges.