What would happen if global smartphone usage shot up by 70%, almost overnight? Many mobile network operators met this question head on earlier this year and had little choice but to respond, as COVID-19 gripped the world. Suddenly, meetings over coffee were replaced with Zoom chats, the morning commute consisted of sitting down and logging on, and governments were instructing people to stay at home.
Not only were operators hit with a dramatic spike in volume, it came entirely out of left field. In a matter of days, demand boomed across cities and suburbs as millions took to working from home, creating enormous gaps in security as the networks came under increased load.
Given the economic squeeze caused by the pandemic, a number of operators are reassessing their infrastructure investment. So, what does this mean for the future of 5G?
Some operators have spoken out about how 5G can help weather the COVID-19 crisis. However, as it stands, some planned rollouts of 5G are experiencing delays. Like all businesses, operators themselves have had to adapt their workforces post-lockdown. This is delaying work that will impact near-term deployment. In the medium to long term, structural shifts in the supply chain – such as logistics and the sourcing of materials – will also have a direct impact on the rollout of new 5G radio sites. How this might delay the rollout of 5G is still unclear, but research from PwC suggests that any kind of delay could be extremely costly for operators.
Then, of course, there is Release 16 from 3GPP, the mobile broadband standards body – which has also experienced significant delays. This slowdown in the standardization process will likely impact large-scale market availability on the whole, particularly in high-value enterprise use cases.
But in the long term, the outlook remains very positive for 5G. Greenfield deployments are likely to be accelerated, driven by government mandates to ensure service availability under competition laws. 5G can also handle data faster and more cheaply, so finding takers to handle capacity should prove much easier. China and Asian markets seem to be maintaining their lead in terms of the speed of deployment, with North America and Europe not far behind.
Over time, thanks to 3GPP’s new standard, this crisis could provide operators worldwide with a unique opportunity to break out of their “silo” models and accelerate the adoption of open, multi-vendor technology that puts reliability, service and customer experience at the fore. How will this happen?
Forward-looking operators will work hard to squeeze every last drop of value from existing network infrastructure to serve and reassure their subscribers. In the medium term (3 to 5 years), operators will join everyone else in establishing their new normal, with a strong push toward artificial intelligence and automation to maintain network quality and continuity.
The long term is where things get interesting. Operators will almost certainly increase their 5G investment in open, virtualized networks to reduce operating costs and increase network capacity, making them far more adaptable and resilient in anticipation of future crises. This will be great news for consumers, most of whom should eventually see their levels of service and quality of experience increase.
Preparing for a post-COVID future
In a post-COVID world, communications executives will need to be proactive in how they adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. The pandemic has forced companies across the board to rewrite the near-term playbook, and the same applies to the telecoms industry.
Focus intently on both employees and subscribers – arguably, the two most important stakeholders. Use HR and talent management systems to help engineers during this time. Plan ahead and anticipate emerging risks. This might seem like stating the obvious, but be aware of engineer workloads and the allocation of site visits. As engineers and their family members may be forced to quarantine or self-isolate, inevitably workloads can get passed on to the limited number of engineers on duty.
Increase the use of performance analytics to enable faster responses to changes in consumer behaviour. Redefine customer segments in the context of the emerging new normal to add real value. Some operators have found it hard to balance the needs of engineers and to deliver a consistent subscriber quality of service when networks have been strained.
5G and beyond
Service providers are all at varying stages of adoption and deployment of 5G, with varying degrees of 5G readiness and coverage. In addition, most are deploying 5G at the same time as they are transforming their networks to take advantage of the significant benefits of virtualization.
The opportunity and challenge that operators face is how to prioritize and align their network investments to take advantage of the rapid innovation occurring in 5G while maintaining their transformation schedule. Network decision makers can accelerate their 5G programs and continue their transformation journey by deploying virtualized radio and fibre access networks. A key enabling strategy for telecom operators is the selection of key partners who can help with technology evaluation and selection, as well as provide end-to-end integration services to ensure these solutions fit into the operator’s overall network automation and orchestration strategy.