The COVID-19 pandemic shows us that there’s a huge need for fast, dependable networks and connections. While the rollout of 5G continues, limitations due to supply chain issues and downstream effects of lockdowns and uncertainty have impacted infrastructure buildout and user adoption.
Still, the global situation has actually pushed the industry to focus on use cases where 5G enables critical business services and may lead to an even more transformative path forward.
The question remains: in a COVID-19-driven environment (which will be with us for the foreseeable future), can 5G thrive and, if so, where are the opportunities?
Demand vs. Disruption
Pre-COVID-19, 5G rollouts were happening on schedule, although business cases were (and are) still being developed. The drive for nationwide 5G coverage continues across North America and China, while in Asia and Europe, the focus has been more on specific business sectors, including healthcare, automotive, and gaming.
Early on, most carriers saw the possibility of supply chain interruptions and invested in bulk materials, allowing them to continue rollouts in a number of markets. While Release 16 of the 3GPP standards had been delayed until early July, this proved to be beneficial by giving network equipment manufacturers (NEMs) more time to ensure that their systems are ready for release in 2021.
The opportunity to test, refine, and potentially improve on, new or updated technologies is one that vendors should certainly use to their advantage. With automated Lab-as-a-Service and Test-as-a-Service solutions, this intensive work can be done quickly and cost effectively; in many cases, testing can also be done remotely, which supports social distancing protocols.
Much of the media visibility surrounding 5G is focused on consumers and commercial uses, including Industrial IoT (IIoT) applications. Yet, government interest is vibrant and growing. The supply chain disruptions that affected manufacturers globally also led governments to realize that vendor diversity was a necessity. Of course, some Western markets were already concerned about a national dominant supplier of equipment, but COVID-19 demonstrated that this issue isn’t just about one high-risk vendor; instead, the supply chain dependence on just a handful of key players could cause massive disruptions for network providers.
Opening Standards Mitigate Risks
At the same time, nations realized the pivotal role 5G would play as the dominant communications technology for utilities, the oil, gas, and nuclear power industries, seaports, airports, and more. Again, supply chains could be the weak links in establishing, maintaining, and growing much needed networks to support critical infrastructure. Open standards, supported by many governments and standard bearers in the industry, are essential to supplier diversity, competition, and pushing technology to evolve.
Opening up these standards, however, could introduce new security risks. Historically, only a few major suppliers have had long-standing relationships with the carriers. While many believe that supplier diversity can reduce risks, newer, smaller vendors without a track record (or deep enough pockets) could introduce weaknesses to the supply chain; startups and smaller players would need to be extremely diligent. This means that another potential outcome of COVID-19 could be greater oversight on the entire supply chain.
Security will be essential to government adoption of commercial 5G, as departments of defense worldwide are looking at capitalizing on the technology for bases, logistics, battlefield communications, and more. While the military has traditionally developed their own secure communications technology, the cost savings and access to new technologies offered by commercial off the shelf (COTS) products offer a compelling opportunity, provided they can be made secure enough for tactical use. The move to open technologies, therefore, may in fact lead to a new market for security vendors who can meet this need.
Is COVID-19 Driving New (or Evolved) Use Cases?
For many industries, work from home (WFH) is not a new phenomenon, but the global lockdown of offices and industrial facilities means hundreds of millions of people are now connecting remotely at the same time — in the US alone, 42% of the workforce works remotely, according to studies conducted by researchers at Stanford University. Not only do these homebound workers expect to be able to access and upload remote files, but the new demands for video conferencing, cloud services, and collaboration tools — along with competition for bandwidth with others in the household — strained the home Internet infrastructure.
A remote workforce also highlights the geographical issues related to 5G coverage. Normally, when rolling out new technology, carriers start with central business districts. In the current situation, suburbs, exurbs, and rural connectivity, became equally important, because so many workers are dispersed far beyond cities.
Laying fiber lines to remote areas is expensive and time-consuming, but Low Earth Orbit satellite networks may address some of these issues for the future, and it’s likely that carriers may partner with, invest in, or acquire, providers to complete the delivery chain. Additionally, small cell, fixed 5G implementations could bring high-speed bandwidth to users far from city centers.
Tied to the growth of WFH is automation, which can help limit the number of people needed on-site to operate and manage systems. Ultimately, 5G could replace the wired Ethernet connections that link and control systems — in particular, IIoT solutions — within smart factories and facilities.
According to Capgemini Research Institute, smart factories, which can operate autonomously for many functions, could increase the global economy by $1.5 to $2.2 trillion every year. China, Germany, Japan, and South Korea, are currently in the lead with smart factory implementations, but adoption is growing worldwide, with the US and France expanding investments rapidly.
Needless to say, healthcare has been heavily impacted by the pandemic. Telehealth is the most visible application, with the potential to reshape healthcare long term, as it can deliver needed resources to remote areas that lack access to healthcare professionals (HCPs). COVID-19 also opened up new areas for delivering care even in hospitals, using private networks to support robotic solutions that insulate HCPs from exposure to the virus while providing basic monitoring and communication.
5G’s low latency and high throughput can also open another avenue of healthcare: social care for aging populations. 5G can be the enabler for remote care using assistive, autonomous robots, wireless telemetry, AI-based smart apps and wearables, and smart homes/facilities, among other solutions.
Education has been much discussed, as well, especially as the return of students to both primary/secondary schools and universities highlights the competing interests of parents, educators, and government. Along with the political and societal issues, current technologies simply cannot keep up with the demand for interactive teaching. With 5G supporting immersive multimedia presentations and high-def video, interactions become more seamless and natural.
5G can also enable augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) applications that can advance education in other areas, too, such as skills advancement that can improve employee engagement and retention, as well as military training that can reduce costs — and risk — to people and equipment.
One of the earliest questions asked when the pandemic began its spread was How can we understand the spread? Carriers are in a unique position to leverage mobility data to help view the movement of both people and the virus. Beyond real-time visibility into outbreaks, AI-driven analytics could use this data to support predictions about health emergencies. In fact, beyond COVID-19, the telecom industry and its data sets could enable a better understanding of — and responses to — other types of emergencies, where understanding how cohorts of peoples move and interact can make all the difference.
For 5G to truly deliver on its promise, though, parallel technologies need to mature at the same pace. Most transformative of these is edge cloud. Decentralizing processing power in a cloud environment closer to the point of need reduces latency to the point where emerging technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, become much more viable.
Right now, we are dealing with the impact of shutdowns, slowdowns, and uncertainty. But we’ve also seen that 5G’s inevitable rollout is continuing, and while delays to Release 17 could have an effect on rollout plans, momentum is unlikely to slow down.
The world will move past this, and we may find that by adapting and evolving, the industry is actually better positioned to meet the market’s demands and be prepared for future disruptions.
For more information, and to find Spirent Blog posts, visit https://www.spirent.com/blogs.
References and Notes