A Time for Pragmatism: Wireless Industry Trends in 2018

A Time for Pragmatism: Wireless Industry Trends in 2018 Image Credit: CommScope

In Asia Pacific, there has been much speculation about the arrival of 5G, but to take a pragmatic approach is to recognize the importance of the current 4G networks in the region. It is clear that 4G is going to continue to be the main technology driving infocom technology infrastructure and will likely serve to fulfill the majority of requirements today in the region.

Rapidly developing markets such as India, Indonesia, Vietnam and Malaysia are still trying to move from 3G to 4G and that is likely to continue into 2018. We will expect fewer 3G users in most of these countries, as investment in 4G continues to increase.

5G on the other hand will not be “brand new,” but rather an extension of 4G. While 5G will take some time to be a generally accepted standard in the marketplace, the arrival of 5G will be a game changer for the industry. However, this is something we are more likely to see in late 2018 in technologically advanced nations in the region; where Japan and China are already seeing significant advances in 5G deployment.

If you are familiar with the “hype cycle”, you will know that new technologies go through a process when they first emerge. Initial excitement leads to over-inflated expectations, which ultimately crashes before the hard work of getting to widespread adoption occurs (if it does). When I look at 5G, we certainly have seen the early irrational exuberance of all the wonderful things 5G will do. We also have passed through the depression that occurs when we realize, “Hey, this is going to be tough to pull off.” But we are now on the upswing, and I expect 2018 will be a productive time when we really start sorting out what’s possible from the hype. Reality hits when 3GPP finalizes the non-standalone 5G New Radio standard, enabling further developments.

2018 will be a time for pragmatism, a time to get down to what’s really possible. We are already seeing the spirit of experimentation among service providers, as test beds and trials build steam. All of this testing makes it clear that 5G is bringing new market dynamics and opportunities, but significant challenges need to be surmounted. While densification, virtualization, optimization and simplification of networks will continue to define the goals of network operator deployments, I see the following three areas as key in 2018.

#1: Convergence toward new business models, use cases

Network convergence of wireless and wireline is real. Traditional wireline people are coming into wireless, bringing expertise in fiber connectivity. Many operators are focused on driving fiber deeper into their networks to enable Centralized or Cloud RAN (C-RAN) architectures and large-scale small cell deployments that bring the fiber hop-off point closer to subscribers.

MSOs and neutral host companies with existing fiber networks are monetizing them by selling access for small cell backhaul. Some are even building their own small cell networks and leasing them out to wireless operators. Unlikely partnerships are forming between cable companies, wireless providers and neutral hosts. Market dynamics are in flux which, of course, can create anxiety but also points toward new opportunities.

There’s also convergence of licensed and unlicensed spectrum as new frequencies like 3.5 GHz, one of the global 5G bands open up. Manufacturers could deploy a private LTE network in 3.5 GHz to wirelessly control robotics in a factory. Or a neutral host could deploy an LTE network in a stadium or shopping mall and sell capacity to service providers. Lots of new business cases and use cases being talked about in 3.5 GHz.

Navin Vohra,
Vice President, Service Provider, Asia Pacific,

#2: The road to 5G is paved with LTE

For the traditional cellular market, the goal of enhanced mobile broadband is still being driven by LTE evolution. With carrier aggregation proven and deployed in the field, LTE is reaching very high speeds with 100 Mbps+ downloads and uploads. In fact, “Gigabit” LTE sites are already appearing. LTE latency is often below 20 milliseconds in many parts of the network. For years to come, LTE will continue to be foundational and the underpinning network of the “network-of-networks” that 5G promises. Someday, 5G will become the primary macro network technology, but it will likely start as a capacity enhancement for demanding areas with high concentrations of users as well as driving new use cases for vertical applications.

5G will definitely be used for the Internet of Things (IoT) and very low latency applications. These use cases will first appear in applications such as industrial manufacturing with robotic manufacturing coordinated wirelessly with ultra-low latency. The real promise of 5G is a combination of high speeds, low latency and low power devices. Architectural changes in 5G will enable operators to select fronthaul options that optimize for best latency or throughput performance. We’ll see these coming in stages, with specific use cases based on vertical markets. Cellular mobility, logistics, manufacturing and healthcare will all have their specific requirements.

#3: Real movement to standardize and speed small cell deployments

The whole industry has been talking about this challenge for a while, but small cells are still just too hard to deploy. Site acquisition is a huge challenge. We’re starting to see larger volume projects, but it still takes longer than anyone wants. Zoning processes that last 12 months or more are just too long. We expect 2018 is real movement on nationwide efforts to standardize and speed small cell deployments. Let’s agree on a common set of siting rules, nationalize roles and compress timelines for the plotting cycle of new sites.

Everyone also knows about the challenges of millimeter wave bands. Signal distortion is rampant in the higher frequencies. Fixed wireless access in mmWave is a good case for the use of Massive MIMO and active antennas. We expect to see active antennas emerge in 2018 for bands above 6 GHz for fixed wireless and low mobility applications. That said, traditional antennas with multiband and beamforming capabilities are still fundamental to wireless networks. This also is a site acquisition issue, more specifically a tower space acquisition issue. Towers are crowded. If operators want to add new spectrum or technologies, they need to find space. Typically, this means antenna replacements that support existing frequency bands plus add the new ones. Any device that goes on a tower today must be fit for multiple purposes and future-ready.

#4: More changes for service providers in 2018

Of course, many other technological discussions are ongoing in the wireless world. Managing the complexities posed by the IoT is one such example. In Asia, we are already seeing large scale deployments of IoT devices mainly by China Mobile and China Unicorn. Outside of China, it is more of a “mixed” application in the region. Clearly, we will see greater integration as adoption becomes more widespread in these countries.

We will be seeing consolidation amongst telecommunications service providers here in the region, with most countries capped out at 3 to 4 service providers. With the consolidation, we will see them making greater strides to improve operational efficiency and implement new technologies.

Ultimately, this year we will see significant progress in defining 5G both as and for real-world implementations. The initial hype has deflated, a necessary step towards the practical discernment of how we all are going to make 5G a reality. 5G isn’t here yet, but it’s fun figuring out how to make it happen, although it might end up happening at a different time for the various countries in the region.

About The Author:
Navin Vohra is the Vice President for Service Provider, CommScope. He is responsible for all business in the telecommunications space including mobility and fixed line. A 29-year veteran in telecommunications, Navin previously was Vice President, Wireless Sales for Asia Pacific, CommScope. Navin joins CommScope from UTStarcom India, where he was the Director of Business Development and Head of Operations. Prior to that, he has worked for and contributed significantly to industry leaders such as Lucent, AT&T India, and Siemens. Navin holds a Bachelor of Engineering, Electronics and Communication degree from Delhi Institute of Technology, and a MBA from the Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad.


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