The buzz around 5G continued at this year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) with clear indication that what was once an evolution, has now become a race.  As much as the industry claims to be tired of hearing about 5G, we were genuinely inspired by the innovation being showcased at the event. Notably two testbed projects in which we’ve played a key role – here in the UK and in Europe – both looking at the benefits and challenges of 5G in transport.

The AutoAir project is a UK government funded testbed looking at a neutral host-based small cell solution for transportation networks in the UK. There was no doubting the geek appeal of the McLaren supercar on display in the GSMA innovation hall, the perfect conversation starter for discussion around 5G and connected autonomous vehicles (CAVs).

MWC was an opportunity for the AutoAir consortium partners to share views and expertise with the wider industry. For Real Wireless it was wider discussions about our work on radio network dimensioning and the use of our techno-economic analysis tools to support our neutral host business model validation work. Commercial viability is crucial for realisation of this vision on the road and rail routes of the UK and internationally.

We were also delighted to support our partners demonstrating the results and opportunities coming out of  testbeds running as part of the 5G-MoNArch project, led by Nokia. The team showcased the results of the Hamburg sea port testbed, which walked away with the Industry Partnership Award at the Global Mobile Awards 2019 (GLOMOs). The award recognised the work of Hamburg Port Authority (HPA), Deutsche Telekom & Nokia for the first large scale industrial commercial 5G trial at the third largest container port in Europe. The three partners deployed a 5G network in the 8,000-hectare Port of Hamburg originally as a proof of concept testbed and now as an operational network.

What next for 5G?

A lot happening at this year’s Mobile World Congress could move from talking point to centre stage by the time MWC 2020 comes around. Relationships are being forged with industry verticals. System integrators and neutral hosts are working on using private LTE networks to deliver customer applications and finding approaches that assure data security and privacy on site. A 5G ecosystem is coming into being.

Network disaggregation – along with its implications for both vendors and service providers – was a big talking point at MWC. So was neutral hosting, which has moved from being a sensitive subject in the presence of any MNO to becoming the go-to solution for cellular in-building coverage in the medium term, and even outdoor in the run-up to 5G densification. But the wider connectivity demand and context challenge of 5G needs more discussion.

Right now service providers are aware of the need for capacity through densification and more spectrum. Making the choice between macro network investment or deployment of small cells in cities is still fundamental to MNOs success, but individual operators still struggle with the business case for deployment. So they – and others – are coming to us for advice and information on how neutral hosting could help.

Of course with denser networks come faster and better services – if regulatory authorities are willing to enable this. Outdoor deployment can be hampered by legacy-based regulatory processes used for the old macro networks. Fragmented rules on equipment sizes and power, meanwhile, could undermine the drive to develop products that are universally applicable across multiple regions. In some areas, the undoubted appeal of densification as a way of, for example, driving smart city initiatives could be completely undermined by a chaotic regulatory environment.

Not surprisingly therefore, the efforts of Real Wireless to encourage greater discussion about harmonisation and simplification of the rules around deployment have struck a chord.

Operators are looking at all of this activity very closely with an eye to opportunities to monetise services and applications. With that in mind, as we said earlier, relationships are being forged with industry verticals, some of those discussions were clearly happening at MWC as relationships could open future revenues for operators. But for tier one operators in particular getting enough vertical revenue to sustain the scale of their current businesses is not going to be easy to realise.

Yes, as MWC showed, a 5G ecosystem is coming into being, but the unavoidable – and still unanswered – questions are: when will a viable 5G business model emerge for operators – especially tier one operators? Will verticals provide some or all of it? And if so, how? These are important – and urgent – topics, which we will address in much more detail in our next blog later this month.

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