2020 was a tipping point for 5G, according to a new report from Spirent Communications, when the technology moved out of the lab and into commercial reality even as the world grappled with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Steve Douglas, Spirent’s head of 5G Strategy, said that the telecom industry is “keeping its sights firmly focused on 5G’s future, not in spite of the challenges of the pandemic, but because of them.” Douglas said that Spirent had a “phenomenal year” in 5G, which he said has become the biggest growth area within Spirent. The company reported more than 600 new 5G-related customer engagements, up 140% from the year prior. Observations and data from those engagements formed the basis of its 5G report and the trends it expects to see going forward.
“The big takeaway from our side was that we saw a huge change in temrs of where our engagements were coming from and it moved rapidly last year,” Douglas said. Prior to 2020, he explained, most of Spirent’s 5G engagements had been with network equipment manufacturers and device manufacturers and were primarily lab-focused — the sort of research and development that goes into getting equipment and devices ready for commercial use. “Last year heavily swung toward the service providers launching 5G and commercially running the networks,” he added, saying that there was an accompanying shift toward field-testing, network pre-turn-up and service assurance. In particular, he said that the service assurance growth was particularly strong in North America.
“We saw the American market very much move into a competitive stage last year, with the carriers really competing for consumer wallet, and so the net work performance and quality of experience became two of the biggest growth areas in terms of their interest areas that they were focusing on. And that was quite a big change,” Douglas said.
Comparatively, he said, focus in China was more on the rapid deployment nature, and so Spirent’s business there focused on supporting large-scale transport network roll-outs to cell sites and then edge capacity. Douglas also said that the Chinese 5G deployments tended to be industrial rather than consumer-focused.
“When we looked at the work that we were doing in China, a lot of that capacity and edge deployment rollouts was actually for the industrial sector, not for the consumer market,” Douglas said, adding that an area of focus in China was bringing over 400G Ethernet capacity to the edge of the network, and edge data center build-outs.
“That’s a huge volume of capacity to future-proof edge sites that is absolutely not needed today, and it certainly wouldn’t be needed even for best estimates for the consumer market, for the next number of years,” he said. “And it was clear, when we looked into the levels of testing that they were focusing on, they were testing most use cases toward big industry,” he added.
One area of challenges for 5G deployment that Spirent observed last year, Douglas said, was in moving toward Standalone 5G and a service-based architecture with containers. The complexity of the architecture was a challenge to service providers, he said, both because of “teething problems” of the architecture and its complexity, and having the necessary workforce skills to navigate those. He said that Spirent observed splits between whether vendors supported containers versus virtual machines, and even among those that supported containers, there were still orchestration issues that need to be ironed out.
Among the report’s other findings:
- While service provider engagements focused on service assurance and plans for Standalone 5G, Spirent said that network equipment manufacturers were putting their energy into 5G SA, 3GPP Release 16 implementation and transport network capabilities such 400G, network slicing, timing and synchronization and FlexE. Device vendors, meanwhile, were preoccupied with operator acceptance and location accuracy.
- Spirent said there was particular focus on Asia Pacific and North America to move quickly to 5G network cores, which will enable Standalone 5G. “Every major and significant emerging 5G core vendor uses Spirent’s core test and emulation solution to support this work,” the company said. “America was probaby the most advanced in terms of getting the 5g core initially deployed, even though it was on a limited scale,” Douglas added. In Europe, Spirent expects that the first 5G SA networks will also appear this year, but those will be “primarily limited to campus, private network and enterprise deployments,” according to the report.
- Spirent also observed that governments around the world, and notably, their militaries, are experimenting with 5G. Cloud hyperscalers are looking at edge partnerships with operators, and Open RAN efforts are gaining momentum in an attempt to diversify supply chains. Meanwhile, academia is already looking at exploring future use cases and even 6G.
Douglas expressed optimism that there is plenty of improvement of 5G systems that will occur across everything from Fixed Wireless Access to massive MIMO, to getting a better handle on the 5G core.
5G is moving quickly, from development to implementation and optimization, and will continue to do so.
“Make no mistake. These markets have yet to reveal the killer, revenue-generating 5G app. Faith abounds that it will come,” the report said. “And with so many billions spent so far, finding what works fast and being willing to fail even faster demands operators move at a pace that has not previously been required of them.”