Since CGI's last blog on this topic over a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted the 5G deployment cycle. In particular because of the global economic crisis and the altered use of connectivity, both at individual and community level, which has pushed providers to innovate in their offering and prioritise customer experience.
As we know, the pandemic has affected almost every aspect of people’s life, like work, education, health, retail, entertainment, and most of these social and economic disruptions have highlighted the importance of connectivity in a socially distanced world and how 5G is becoming a big part of the solutions and strategies to solve these problems.
During 2019 and 2020, mobile operators in the UK, as well as in several markets across Europe, launched initial 5G services reliant on 4G networks and were expecting an evolution to 5G stand-alone. Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck, causing significant supply chain issues worldwide that ultimately affected the 5G rollout. It is only now in 2021 that the first E2E 5G Standalone networks, completely independent to 4G, are being commercially announced in Europe offering additional features and capabilities, but it will take several year to become a global reality.
At the same time, COVID-19 has confirmed the importance of digitisation and automation for industry, with private networks being an enabler to reach these goals. 5G private networks will enable transformation where clients have large demands on data that cannot be met by public networks. On the other hand, the pandemic has slowed down enterprises in undertaking projects, finalising commercial agreements, closing sales opportunities, and, on a practical level, deploying 5G infrastructure. There are a number of proof of concept trials underway from manufacturing to smart city use cases. Next step is to prove them at large scale and 2021 is the year when the ecosystem will eventually consolidate and 5G private network strategies are put in place.
All these use cases will be enabled through the use of the UK’s 5G spectrum bands. The UK telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has now completed the second 5G spectrum auction , with all four of the nation’s mobile operators securing additional spectrum. From the private network perspective, Ofcom has offered a choice of spectrum bands that support mobile technology through local licencing since December 2019 . All of this should be a big help for 5G public and private rollouts, however Ofcom has yet to release any of the millimeter Wave (mmW) bands.
Another important piece of 5G deployments is an increasing movement in the industry to develop Open Radio Access Networks (RAN), focused on the development and delivery of RAN equipment based on open standards and open architectures, which translate into a more agile, flexible, and cost-saving mobile network. As part of the UK Governments’ strategy to encourage greater diversity in the telecoms supply chain, a neutral host Open RAN testbed will be built funded as part of the DCMS 5G Testbeds and Trials Programme .
We saw important efforts from government, industry and academy to neutralise 5G conspiracy theories one year ago. In order to accelerate 5G transition it is essential to reach wider population acceptance, meaning that additional initiatives are needed to educate and explain next-generation telecommunications benefits and how telecoms are addressing societal challenges, delivering long-term sustainable goals as net zero carbon emissions and the contribution to further United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
It is expected that 4G will continue to dominate mobile technology at least until 2025, as 5G begins to take its share of the market . 5G will not only improve connectivity, it will also address several pressing needs accelerated for a post-COVID world. As an example, 5G technology is a critical enabler for healthcare transformation. It drives remote patient monitoring, delivering better patient outcomes, as well as cost savings. It improves telemedicine and telehealth, which are already a reality accelerated by the pandemic; and it powers connected hospital and ambulance services, which is not possible with legacy connectivity, enabling flexibility on response by scaling healthcare capacity.
At CGI we are combining our experience with human centered design, system integration and operational support to help clients to unlock the business transformation underpinned by 5G capabilities and benefits.