PARTNER FEATURE: At this year’s Mobile World Congress there was much reflection on the progress of 5G in the five years since its first deployments.

For operators, spectral efficiency is key to their efforts to satisfy the seemingly insatiable growth in data traffic. The release of new spectrum – typically in the “mid-band” around 3.5 GHz – has provided headroom for the initial deployment of 5G new radio but the propagation characteristics of these higher frequencies compared with the core 2G, 3G and 4G bands between 800-2100 MHz require additional sites to achieve contiguous and ubiquitous coverage, adding to the roll-out challenge and cost. As with every previous new technology transition, rolling out new networks involves hard work and heavy investment in upgrading or adding new network equipment.

Operators are also keen to simplify their network operations by sunsetting 2G and/or 3G and re-farming spectrum to the more efficient 4G and 5G technologies. However, shutting down 2G or 3G risks disruption to some much-valued fundamental services by creating interworking issues for both inbound roamers and outbound travellers.

Global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis prompted by the war in Ukraine have exacerbated the challenges. The end of the era of low interest rates has also negatively impacted ROI.

For many, 5G’s consumer value proposition remains unclear. Even for the most avid of video streaming smartphone user, 4G remains perfectly adequate: compelling consumer 5G use cases which demand an upgrade to a 5G device have yet to emerge. While gaming and extended reality (XR) have been proposed as “killer apps” for 5G, the necessary hardware, content and software are not yet available at prices that could create a mass-market.

Step-change with Standalone
5G is the biggest overhaul of mobile technology in decades and offers a range of tangible benefits, especially to enterprises. Whether it’s enhanced mobile broadband with its faster data speeds and increased capacity, or improved security through network authentication and encryption, 5G has attributes that are of interest and value to enterprises. But the real potential of 5G will only be realized through the global adoption of 5G Standalone.

5G Standalone opens-up even more monetizable opportunities. Network slicing can offer operators the ability to allocate resources tailored to meet the specific needs of different customers and use cases. Ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC) can support mission-critical applications that require near-instantaneous response times or combine with edge computing to enable lightning-fast processing and analysis of data closer to its source. URLLC will also be critical to realising the road safety, congestion reduction and sustainability benefits that can accrue when connected vehicles can interact with each other and smart street furniture.

Based on a cloud-native core network, 5G Standalone is also tightly aligned with the global movement towards “softwarisation”, digital transformation and the adoption of cloud services and continuous integration/continuous delivery (CI/CD) software development practices. Boundaries between digital and reality will fade away driving new value.

Partnerships that bring together different skills and insights will be key to fully monetising the benefits of 5G in verticals such as healthcare, automotive, manufacturing, and smart cities.

One new market has already emerged: Standalone private networks deployed to serve large industrial sites such as campuses, ports, airports, factories, quarries, and mines. The business case for such deployments is improved when authorised users can roam seamlessly in and out of the private network.

Towards an application-driven network
The combination of the GSMA’s Open Gateway and Linux Foundation’s CAMERA initiatives is empowering application developers to create new services by providing them with access to 5G network APIs. Offering robust authentication, APIs also support anti-fraud, connectivity, payments and more to bring new value to many enterprises and their customers. 5G Advanced – for which the 3GPP Rel18 standards are expected to be approved this year – will accelerate this digital transformation as more APIs becoming available. APIs will unlock the provision of on-demand network slicing and diverse URLLC use-cases.

Tens of operators are already exposing their network APIs to seize these opportunities. A McKinsey forecast published just before Mobile World Congress predicted the network API market could reach US$10-$30 billion by 2030 and could contribute an additional $100-$300 billion in connectivity and edge computing revenues over the same timeframe.

Satellite roaming
Recent standards adaptations from 3GPP will enable satellite “Non-Terrestrial Networks” (NTN) to leverage 5G to offer IoT and emergency calling services in remote rural or maritime locations which were technically impossible to serve economically with traditional networks. Enabling devices to roam onto and interwork with NTNs will be key to realising the enormous potential benefits to the worldwide industry.

Seamless roaming between traditional and new networks, terrestrial and non-terrestrial, domestic and international, is critical in today’s hyperconnected world where frictionless and borderless connectivity is mandatory. 

At BICS we are convinced that sustaining comprehensive interworking between all operators and networks and accelerating the rollout of 5G SA roaming around the world can play an important role in unlocking the full potential of 5G.

5G roaming is growing
There are clear signs of progress. As the carrier of 50% of the world’s data roaming traffic, BICS noted a 156% year-on-year increase in 5G Non-Standalone roaming traffic for consumer and IoT devices in 2023. The number of 5G roamers increased from 68 million in 2022 to 176 million in 2023. An increase of 277% in IoT device roaming suggests renewed interest among enterprises in the potential of IoT while a 37% increase in roaming traffic for consumer devices across all mobile technologies indicates a rebound in tourism traffic post-pandemic.

Working with operators and other partners, BICS is committed to ensuring roaming continues to create business opportunities for the industry. Global cloud technology has been exploited to enhance the quality of low-latency 5G roaming between Asia and Europe with the elimination of inter-continental data transport by diverting visiting user traffic to a local breakout point.

5G Standalone roaming has also been successfully demonstrated between Asia and the Gulf through the BICS Service Hub in a way which will empower operators to offer 5G roamers network slicing or real-time-critical communication and opens the door to innovation and expanded scope for their roaming agreements.  

Multiple solutions to facilitate seamless roaming and interconnectivity for different types of private networks have also been developed.

For 5G to work for businesses and consumers, it needs to be scalable, and it needs to be secure. Successful 5G roaming connections will usher in the next generation of universal communications for customers and the wider industry.   

Kenneth Hardat, Telco Strategy lead, BICS