Seven Predictions for the Coming Year of 5G

Jan 12, 2022

If it seems like we’re still in early days of 5G, that’s because we are. I know this firsthand. As we help service providers test their networks and services, we tend to get a good sense of what’s real, what’s hypothetical, and what’s just around the corner. Based on what we’re seeing out there, the industry is about to make some major strides. Here are seven 5G predictions for 2022.

1. Dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) will continue to grow in the first half of 2022

Operators face stiff competition to deliver as much 5G coverage in their markets as possible, as quickly as possible. To that end, expect more carriers to use DSS—providing 5G connectivity over 4G spectrum—in the first half of 2022. However, while this model does ensure more subscribers see that “5G” logo on their handsets, DSS doesn’t deliver actual 5G performance.

By the latter half of 2022, more operators may ultimately decide that this strategy is not enough to compete with non-DSS 5G services from other providers. Ultimately, they will begin the more onerous and expensive process of reallocating/re-farming spectrum, and expanding their cell site footprint, to provide true 5G experiences.

2. More operators will deploy 5G standalone (SA) core networks—and turn to hyperscalers for help

A few operators began deploying 5G SA cores in 2021, and those numbers will grow in 2022. But now, many will be looking to partner with hyperscalers to host their cloud-native 5G core infrastructure. This process started last year, as operators began grappling with the challenges cloud-native networks present for traditional operations teams. By partnering with cloud leaders like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google, they can outsource some of the complexity while benefiting from economies of scale.

3. Major investment will flow to artificial intelligence (AI)-driven automation

Based on testing we’re seeing; we expect significant growth in AI and automation to enhance network performance and fault management. In particular, more operators will embrace active assurance - injecting synthetic traffic into their networks to simulate real users and services - instead of relying on passive probes. By pairing active assurance with AI, networks can make better decisions in real time for where, when, and what to test to improve services or isolate faults, without human intervention. We also expect to see early efforts in using AI to enhance security and in running AI testing workloads from public cloud.

4. Early edge and enterprise use cases will go live

2021 saw the first fledgling edge cloud partnerships between operators and hyperscalers. In 2022, those initial test runs will start getting serious attention and investment. Look for activity around:

  • Public cloud-hosted edge services: These will focus on consumer applications like gaming, augmented reality, and video content delivery.
  • Private cloud-hosted edge offerings: These will target enterprise and industrial use cases. In particular, expect to see commercial launches of private cloud edge services for security and video surveillance, as well as secure desktop-as-a-service offerings for home-based workers.

Also, by mid-2022, expect a big push for private 5G networks for stadiums and other high-density venues. Testing over the last 18 months has revealed that 5G radios within these environments provide much better coverage than anticipated, with a very small footprint.

Already, several US stadiums have deployed indoor mmWave using small cells. They’ve found they can provide excellent coverage and performance (at speeds well over 1 Gbps) for thousands of users with just a handful of small cells, versus hundreds of Wi-Fi access points. These cases were proven in 2021 and will start getting deployed at scale next year.

5. Latency will begin to replace data rates in the battle for the hearts and minds of telco customers

For decades, the race to win the mobile marketplace was all about delivering faster service than the competition. As operators begin expanding 5G offerings to enterprise and industrial sectors in 2022, the focus on data rates will give way to latency. Expect more operators to invest in demonstrating that their networks can not only deliver latencies as low as industrial use cases require, but can deliver them consistently and deterministically enough to support mission-critical industrial applications.

6. Open virtual RAN (vRAN) will move from pilot to production

Like with edge cloud, 2022 will see Open vRAN move from small-scale pilots to live deployments, albeit small- and medium-size ones. Expect early Open vRAN deployments in three areas: rural regions, indoor, and non-dense urban deployments. Operators perceive these as less risky than other types of deployments, either because they don’t support mission-critical services or because they can fall back on the traditional macro network if needed. Some challenger service providers (Rakutan, DISH Network) may start rolling out live Open vRAN deployments in denser urban areas, but the major incumbents will likely hold off another year or two.

7. Momentum will continue building to accelerate “Beyond 5G” services

The industry has already begun vision-setting for tomorrow’s wireless systems. As we do, operators are searching for opportunities to bring some of those future technologies back within the umbrella of 5G. Based on testing we’re seeing, we expect to see early efforts in two major areas:

  • Integrating Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellite technology into 5G systems: As satellite deployments advance, operators will seek to use them to enhance 5G coverage for certain use cases and hard-to-reach areas.
  • Reconfigurable intelligent surfaces and meta-materials: This can sound like science fiction, but we’re already seeing early testing of these materials, which aim to create intelligent reflective surfaces that can direct or even amplify radio signals. These technologies, which likely won’t be integrated into 5G systems for several years, will help operators cover hard-to-reach areas by enabling RF signals to travel longer distances and avoid interference. When deployed at scale, they will also reduce the required density of radio towers and, potentially, lead to major reductions in energy output and carbon emissions.

Get Ready for the Future

We may be near the start of our 5G journey, but we’re rapidly picking up speed. The milestones we’ll hit in 2022 are just the beginning. We can’t wait to see what happens next.

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