Mobile & Telecoms

Predicting a 5G future

We’re very fortunate to share an office with the team at CCS Insight, a leading group of analysts with fingers in multiple technological pies. Billed as a specialist technology market intelligence and advisory firm, CCS Insight has built an impressive client list, served by a team of global experts in mobile devices and wearables, IoT, 5G, enterprise IT and more. So, you can see why we were so delighted to have them move in…

Last Thursday, CCS held its annual Predictions event in London. You know how much a PR person loves a good prediction, right? The only difference here, is that the CCS team is probably held more tightly to account on the accuracy, validity and shrewdness of its predictions. This has never really been an issue to mere PR folk… Right or wrong, they always provide the catalyst for a good story.

Predictably (sorry…), the agenda was built around emerging technologies dominating the technology landscape – mobile devices and OS, 5G, AI, cloud computing, extended reality (VR and AR) and IoT. CCS experts in each topic area stood up and had a highly educated stab at what they think 2020 and beyond holds for the evolution of each sector. In addition, the forecasting team at CCS also decided to attempt to predict what might happen over the next decade – because 12 months just doesn’t provide enough of a challenge.

So, what stood out for me? Well, as you can see, quite a lot…

U.S. versus China, beware the wounded animal

The ongoing technology arms race between the U.S. and China is nothing new. It has been written about at length, especially since the U.S. declared war on Huawei and restricted Chinese access to Google and its Android OS. What I hadn’t really considered however, and what I found fascinating, was Ben Wood’s predictions around where the political tensions between the two countries might lead. The phrase ‘beware the wounded animal’ is well known, but as Ben pointed out, encouraging China to innovate itself out of a tight fix could have long term consequences for Donald Trump’s short-term focused administration.

In reaction to the U.S. technology snub, for example, Huawei has been heavily incentivising development in its Harmony OS. In fact, Ben predicted that sustained development in Harmony would become a ‘cost of doing business in China’ for OEMs, app developers and digital service providers – essentially setting the technological rules on how Chinese users would be served content and services. He then referenced the aggressive rise of the Chinese messaging platform and marketplace, WeChat, as an illustration of what the Chinese can achieve when left to their own devices.

China to surpass US leadership in AI by 2022

Ben reflected on enormous levels of investment that China is pouring into AI. He cited a figure of more than $100 billion over the next five years and reflected on the fact that China already has more than 1 billion smartphones in use from which to harvest data. I have always been cynical of the U.S. tech persecution of the Chinese, suspecting that there were bigger political motivations to stifling its global progress. If you look at China’s acceleration in 5G, AI and cloud, alongside the predicted growth of its economy over the next ten years, there are plenty of reasons to explain why the U.S. might want to slow China down. Especially given Trump’s undisputed nationalistic agenda.

By the end of 2020, no phone company can claim to be truly global

As a natural outcome of tech nationalism, seen in the U.S. and elsewhere, technology companies will increasingly face restrictions in terms of the countries they can operate within. The simple truth, as CCS pointed out, is that technology platforms have tremendous influence and national governments want to try and control them as best they can. At the same time, technology companies are increasingly facing a backlash for any perceived political interference in other countries. The national agendas of leading countries will continue to raise suspicions regarding the motives of technology platforms and lead to more exclusions outside of U.S. companies in China and vice versa. No one technology platform will have a completely global presence by the end of next year.

The 5G ‘techlash’ is most definitely a ‘thing’

Given the ‘steady’ nature of 5G deployment in the UK, I have been slightly shielded from the 5G ‘techlash’ that has impacted 5G infrastructure deployment. Again, Ben cited several examples from around the world of 5G base stations being vandalised because of health concerns surrounding the use of high frequency spectrum (including millimetre wave). Although Ben was quick to dismiss these concerns (as 5G is predominantly a sub 6Mhz technology), the issue was also brought up by Sunrise CEO, Olaf Swantee, late in the day as a major inhibitor to his 5G build out in Switzerland.

Neural interface technologies terrify me to my very soul

I think Ben Wood feels the same as me, as he reflected on the investments being made in this area by some very notable people and companies. Facebook has acquired neural interface start-up CTRL Labs for its ‘mind reading’ wristband – it actually reads signals from the human brain and converts them so they can be read by computers. Elon Musk’s Neuralink is implanting devices into the human brain, allowing them to control phones or computers. Who knows where it will all end, but the CCS team feels brain/computer interfaces will be introduced and used by 2027, so watch out.

Europe might not be trailing the world in 5G after all

CCS’s Kester Mann reflected on the first full year of 5G deployment and adoption. South Korea, the U.S. and Switzerland took most of the plaudits as you’d expect. Kester did, however, acknowledge that Europe currently has 17 live 5G networks and was ahead in terms of the allocation of mid-band spectrum. Now if you believe the bluster coming from the T-Mobile/Sprint merger in the U.S., you could be forgiven for believing that mid-band spectrum is a 5G gamechanger (and not just because the two operators in question have it). So maybe, like T-Mobile and Sprint (subject to regulatory approval), European operators are on the cusp of the fastest 5G network deployment crusade since, well, 4G.

5G: from unlimited to speed-based pricing

Kester reflected on the existing 5G business case, especially given most operators launching 5G are not charging a major premium for it. He suspects that most operators will move to speed-based pricing for 5G, in the same way as fixed broadband providers, by 2021. He added that this could pave the way for additional tariff innovation when low-latency capabilities are offered when standalone 5G infrastructure is more mature. VR and gaming will likely be the key use case to drive low latency 5G services in the short term.

Amazon to buy unlicensed 5G spectrum to support its internal operations by 2021

Kester’s prediction builds on growing traction for private cellular 5G networks being built by global enterprises to speed up their operations. Amazon is known to be testing unlicensed 5G spectrum as a way to improve its warehouse management and global logistics. While Kester doesn’t believe Amazon has a desire to become an operator in its own right, the efficiencies it can achieve by owning and using its own spectrum will be too great to ignore and countless other organisations will follow suit.

Broadcast is one of the most compelling use cases for 5G network slicing

Kester believes that media companies will be one of the first to take advantage of 5G network slicing for broadcast purposes, by 2023. Guaranteeing spectrum for the uninterruptable broadcast of live events, not just sport, will radically reduce the costs associated with their coverage. In all likelihood, such a use case will require fully standalone 5G to make happen, but it has exciting implications.

Truly exciting 5G revenue won’t be visible until 2025

This is perhaps not a major surprise, though there are plenty of vendors and operators out there that will encourage us to think differently. CCS’s forecasting team, led by Marina Koytcheva and Fiona Vanier, expects 5G smartphones and consumer services to take precedent for the next five years while the supporting architecture is built to enable more exciting enterprise 5G services at scale.

Extended reality devices will become commonplace by 2023, with nearly 200 million in use globally

Smart glasses are intended to become a major category, with augmented reality capabilities included in regular glasses. Given that between a quarter and a third of the world’s population currently wear glasses, the possibilities are endless.

There are many more predictions that I could mention – I literally wrote pages and pages of notes (in my complimentary CCS notebook using my CCS branded pen). There were also special guests from the likes of Amazon, Qualcomm and Chinese OEM, TCL. The convergence of the IT world and mobile continues to gather incredible pace – collaboration is very much the new 5G mantra, AR and VR provide the excitement, AI brings the intelligence and cloud provides the supporting scale.

Now we wait to see how much of it will actually come true.

Written by Paul Nolan


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