Crunch Time for 5G, IoT

A 'wait and see' attitude is no longer a viable option.

'Wait and see' has long been a strategy adopted by many mobile operators as they survey the networking and services landscape to see when, or if, they should adopt the latest bells and whistles.

And in past generations, when mobile network technology evolutions took many years, that approach was justifiable.

But those days are over. The rules, in a webscale world based increasingly on software cycles and DevOps-like practices, have changed. Mobile network operators that decide to 'wait and see' how 5G and IoT might play out are playing a risky game: 4G still has plenty to offer for many years to come, but addressing the inevitable, a migration to 5G, is something that needs to happen right now so that the appropriate building blocks can be put in place.

The time for decisive action is right now. The generally agreed deadline of 2020 for 5G's 'arrival' (like it's going to turn up at your door and introduce itself) has been a guideline for when mass market services based on 5G standards should hit some markets. But we're already on the cusp of the first 5G service launches and, in those markets that will lead the 5G charge, being left behind is not a viable option: Just look at the messages offered up in the T-Mobile US/Sprint announcement to see how important a factor 5G has been in that planned $26.5 billion merger.   

So given that it's already mid-2018, we're pretty much at the 'last call' for making the tough decisions that will define 5G and mobile operator IoT strategies and futures. A clearly defined plan of action needs to be activated RIGHT NOW – not in a year's time or in 2020.

Opting to wait and see - to hold back from defining a clear plan of action - will send the wrong signal to customers and the market.

Clear decisions should be communicated, even if that involves just laying the infrastructure and foundations so that 5G and mobile IoT services can be taken to market relatively quickly, would seem to be a minimum requirement right now. Sending signals that 5G and IoT are not on the roadmap would run counter to received wisdom: It would mean giving up the opportunity to play a key role in smart city, enhanced enterprise operations and mass market entertainment developments that require low latency and very high throughput.

Consider what it actually means to be a 4G player but not join the 5G and IoT revolution:

  • You could provide mobile broadband services to millions of customers and multiple devices, but you'd miss out on the immersive services revolution
  • You could provide connections to cars, but not offer autonomous vehicle control
  • You could help enterprises in their own digital transformations, up to a certain point, but miss out on the cloud-based industrial robotics revolution
  • You could connect and collect data from smart meters and other 'things', but miss out on enabling the machine learning-based real-time control capabilities that will open up new revenue-generating services opportunities
  • You could connect healthcare professionals and sites, but watch others enable life-saving services such as remote operations.

The good news is that opting in doesn't require a meltdown or fiscal waywardness. What it does require is a clear, step-by-step plan that ensures business and strategic continuity, so that existing and already available technologies such as LTE-Advanced, narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), Category M1 (Cat-M1), Massive Multiple Input, Multiple Output (Massive MIMO), network function virtualization (NFV), predictive analytics and network slicing can be enhanced with defined, smooth, non-disruptive upgrades at the appropriate time for the business and for customers.

The immediate opportunity is particularly compelling in the IoT world. Key standards are already in place and early adopters have set the pace with real world deployments, services and (growing) revenues so there's no need to sit on the fence. Verizon is already generating more than US$1 billion in IoT revenues annually, while Vodafone has reported annual IoT revenues of about 720 million euros ($870 million). Other major operators such as Telstra and Telefónica are also reporting IoT revenues. In terms of their overall sales, the number may be small, but the growth is double-digit and the IoT market is only in its infancy – there are so many opportunities to come.

But what is the best model? Is there even a 'best' model for mobile operators? That is arguable, but what's clear is that the likes of Vodafone and Verizon are already in the game, gaining experience and able to compete with the large webscale players and major enterprises also eying up the IoT market.

Now is the time for network operators to commit to a detailed telco IoT strategy that can evolve as 5G becomes a reality, to build a clear position in the IoT food chain and to start generating meaningful revenues. But despite the market clout, scale and existing infrastructure foundations, developing a successful IoT business for mobile operators is going to be tough. 

Which makes it even more important that these decisions are made right now, because if they're not, others will eat the telcos' IoT lunch and an incumbent opportunity will be lost. Again.

So what should mobile operators do? Play to their strengths and not only enable themselves, but also enable others – ecosystem partners and customers must play an important role in the strategy and in helping to make it a success. The world of 5G and telco IoT will be collaborative.

 For 5G, the first standard -- NSA (non standalone) 5G NR (New Radio) -- is already in place and driving new network and device products to market. There's also clear visibility into the 3GPP standards roadmap, so holding back any longer on making the critical decisions that comprise a clear, focused 5G migration strategy, makes little sense. For operators in Europe, in particular, the signs are that global leadership positions are being forged in the US and in the key Asian markets such as China, South Korea and Japan. The European market has much to offer the world and can lead by example, be a hotbed of 5G and IoT innovation, but it needs to start showing evidence of its regional capabilities right now.  

If you've read this and are still thinking that 'wait and see' is still the preferred option for 5G and IoT, then look around at your peers, your rivals. Are they opting out of the biggest business opportunity ever in the communications industry? 

2018 must be the year when telcos commit to a defined IoT strategy that ties in with their 5G plans: The industry is moving too fast to let 'wait and see' be a viable 5G option.