5G

MWC Barcelona Eyes 5G Revenue Potential but Roadmaps Still Fuzzy

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The latest trends spotted at Mobile World Congress Barcelona 2023 note a closer integration between the network and the new mobile experiences. Insights on Open API initiatives, new consumer monetization use cases, intensifying sustainability priorities, developments in O-RAN, and a special spotlight on private networks are included.

MWC Barcelona has grown, transformed, and evolved over the years. 2023 was no exception.

In what felt like the first proper year back following Covid-driven cancellations and changes, I believe we saw the beginnings of yet another new direction. Not just for the show but the industry at large.

For starters, it seems that MWC is becoming a consumer electronics show again, but with an important distinction—tighter integration between the network and the new mobile experiences being spotlighted.

This was also the first year of the 5G era that I can recall the networks taking a bit of a backseat. It’s almost as if the buzz is behind us and everyone understands the need to hunker down and focus on delivering realistic 5G use cases and operational efficiencies.

Above all, 2023 felt like the year that mobile finally got a clear picture of the opportunities before it. That doesn’t mean the roadmaps to success are always clear.

With this in mind, this is what stood out most for us at the show this year.

Private networks are front and center

An MWC session boldly asked whether private networks are overhyped. The answer from the panelists? No.

Private networks were everywhere but it was more than just buzz. Stakeholders have a better handle on the market opportunity, recognize this is not a one-size-fits-all game, and are honing biz and tech approaches.

Large service providers made announcements highlighting commitments to this burgeoning market. We saw an Integrated Private Wireless program on AWS that combines AWS services and telco wireless technologies, and HPE’s acquisition of Athonet core networks to bolster its private network portfolio.

The consensus is that SMEs, not just large enterprises, are a viable market and that low cost, low-touch solutions will be required to serve them. In other words, operators are seeing that getting out of the way, and letting the 5G automated network in a box (NIB) do its thing, can be a winning strategy.

There were plenty of use case demos, from commercially realistic video monitoring and control to (continuously overhyped) remote surgery. Of course, commercial delivery of devices and networks to support those use cases require conformance to 3GPP releases 16 and beyond (see our 5G report to find out more).

5G Standalone and 5G Core were lost in the crowd

Considering that most of the 5G use cases and innovations on display at MWC depend on a true 5G Standalone (SA) network, there wasn’t much visible hype and marketing to be found.

As I mentioned above, maybe that’s a good thing. The work is underway and now it’s time to prove what’s possible. The value of 5G SA and the new core is about much more than unlocking new revenues with cool use cases. 5G SA also offers OpEx reductions through automation, energy and spectral efficiency, and a pathway to spectrum refarming.

Current deployments have been sluggish due to new operational overheads and lack of cloud and automation skillsets. Yet, it was clear across the MWC floor that the cloud hyperscalers realize 5G core's potential as more than a platform; it’s a monetization enabler with a life cycle that needs to be automated. (Announcements: AWS Telco Network Builder, Google Telecom Network Automation, and Microsoft Azure Operator Nexus)

For our part, Spirent has been focusing on helping accelerate the move to 5G SA via our 5G Core Automation Platform and Test as a Service.

Will open network APIs find willing partners?

With a continued lack of revenue from the consumer markets, save for some early fixed wireless access (FWA) success, mobile is exploring developer ecosystems through new Open API initiatives, like Open Gateway. Service providers want to put network capabilities in the hands of third-party developers, hoping to monetize the network faster and more creatively than a typically resource-constrained telco organization can.

The bottom line is ecosystem development is hard and mobile has yet to prove it can attract, excite, incent, and foster a modern ecosystem. Depending on an “open it and they will come” business plan is not a guaranteed model for success. The challenge will be “what exciting things can be developed and who will create them?”

On the engineering front, network digital twins powered by network emulation, combined with cloud-hosted collaboration labs, could be a low-touch way to give global developers easy access.

Meaningful consumer monetization a continued pursuit

Some service providers shared real examples of consumer monetization use cases. These included multi-view at home or in-venue experiences, home security surveillance solutions, augmented reality (AR) for retail, combo packages for the digital nomad, and 5G “green” handsets for Gen-Z and the eco-conscious.

Individually, these use cases may not move the revenue needle by much, but cumulatively they call out the tangible delivery of real value.

Voice over New Radio continues to get our attention. VoNR won’t generate much direct revenue, but combining it with other services, like home plans, has potential. VoNR is actually a big commercial opportunity for spectrum. Putting voice, video, and data on the same 5G system enables service providers to refarm old voice spectrum, which would save lots of money.

Energy costs intensify sustainability priorities

It’s probably unfair to say the telco industry is not doing its fair share regarding sustainability, but there’s nothing like an energy cost crisis to accelerate action and drive consensus.

Network equipment vendors are certainly playing a role in sustainability with numerous product releases highlighted at MWC promising to deliver better energy efficiency and lower carbon footprints.

The challenge is that much of this technology, especially in the RAN, will take years to implement. This means costs will keep growing and environmental targets remain at risk of slipping. Leading service providers like Orange are looking beyond the network to influence customer behaviors and help reduce energy consumption in a win-win model.

Automation is seen as a key enabler of energy efficiency. It’s just a case of where, how to start, and choosing the right solution.

See how Spirent’s managed solutions reduce lab power consumption and costs at Spirent’s 40% energy savings.

Automate everything

Automation and AI made MWC appearances under a range of guises.

It’s clear the management of networks demands automation. Service provider operating costs require it. Proactively preserving customer experiences depends on it, as does cost effectively unlocking enterprise revenues and delivering on sustainability targets.

It's been a long time coming. At MWC there were clear signs of how important automation is becoming a fundamental part of digital transformation programs, especially around the network lifecycle and AIOps.

Playing the Open RAN long game

Throughout the show, service provider commitment to Open RAN remained solid. There was a notable increase in new vendors, especially for the radio unit (RU). Putting a timeline on large-scale commercial deployments will be difficult, as to translate commitment to commercial viability is still a work in progress.

Interoperability is no longer the primary challenge to overcome. Now, performance, robustness, energy efficiency, and life-cycle processes are top of mind.

The RAN intelligent controller (RIC) could unlock the gold rush to Open RAN. Numerous demos highlighted the RIC’s potential to fully orchestrate and automate the radio for all kinds of environments and performance requirements while providing energy savings. The RIC could turn Open RAN from being a future 5G densification option to a 5G and beyond macro coverage opportunity and private networks mainstay.

Anritsu’s demo of their O-RAN partnership with Spirent at MWC Barcelona.

Learn about our new automated Open RAN E2E test solutions.

5G Wi-Fi convergence momentum grows through private networks

Convergence of 5G and Wi-Fi is becoming real and is being pushed by enterprises. Highlights at MWC included:

  • MediaTek showcasing its access traffic steering, switching, and splitting (ATSSS) 3GPP release 16 solution, which they recently demoed with Deutsche Telekom

  • HPE acquiring Athonet for a complete 5G and Wi-Fi portfolio for enterprise private networks

  • Cisco and NTT collaborating to bring private 5G to enterprise customers to accelerate digital transformation, with seamless 5G and Wi-Fi across IT and OT operations

Spirent supports 3GPP R16 ATSSS 5G Core network test and emulation through our flagship Landslide Core network test solution.

The bottom line and a look ahead

Mobile is still on a journey toward new revenue generation. In the meantime, costs must be kept in check while an ecosystem grows and the chasm to new revenues is crossed.

There are lots of positive trends occurring across:

  • Business maturity

  • Taking challenges seriously

  • Creating collaborative ecosystems; not trying to do everything alone

  • Making networks easier to consume and more sustainable

  • Incorporating automation

In some cases, though, the roadmaps don’t align with the hype. Many of the capabilities that are needed to unlock 5G revenues won’t be available until future 3GPP releases are implemented. Getting to new revenues is a journey that requires good navigation and most of all a faster move to true Standalone 5G.

We’ll continue to track developments throughout the year. In the meantime, don’t forget to check out our 2023 5G report for real world insights based on our work across more than 2,600 5G deals.

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Stephen Douglas
Stephen Douglas

思博伦5G战略总监

Spirent is a global leader in automated test and assurance for the ICT industry and Stephen heads Spirents market strategy organization developing Spirents strategy, helping to define market positioning, future growth opportunities, and new innovative solutions. Stephen also leads Spirent’s strategic initiatives for 5G and future networks and represents Spirent on a number of Industry and Government advisory boards. With over 25 years’ experience in telecommunications Stephen has been at the cutting edge of next generation technologies and has worked across the industry with service providers, network equipment manufacturers and start-ups, helping them drive innovation and transformation.