The world will enter a new era of connectivity with 5G and leading the race for its adoption is the Asia-Pacific. The region is set to take the lion’s share of 5G revenue and we already witnessed early launches in South Korea, Japan, China and Australia. As more countries in the region are expected to roll out 5G, it is estimated that there will be over a billion 5G subscribers by 2024.
5G promises many things for our future, but what guides us is exploring how improved connectivity can create smarter and more efficient societies. This goes beyond the needs of Industry 4.0; recent months showed us the necessity of having unfettered technological connectivity to keep our enterprises and communities going.
For enterprises, 5G’s speed, reliability and flexibility will transform every sector, especially their value chains and processes as well as IT and personnel. It will allow the collection, analysis and interpretation of data that, if handled correctly, can make every corner of a business more efficient. 5G provides widespread untethered connectivity that can unlock all other ingredients necessary for digital transformation – such as the internet of things (IoT), big data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and digital twins.
However, for 5G to be a success, there needs to be an evolution in the core network, which will allow for more efficient, automated management of increasingly complex networks.
Defining a new 5G core
5G transformation is much more than just a new form of radio access technology. It provides new opportunities (and new challenges) for communication service providers (CSPs) – and by extension, businesses and consumers that engage their services – when embarking on their digital transformation process.
However, 5G has demanding service and network requirements that require a fundamental change to the core architecture. This is because the 5G core will be the heart of the network and will act as an anchor point for multi-access technologies; it needs to deliver a seamless service experience across both fixed and wireless access technologies.
To make this happen, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) – which develops technical specifications and protocols for mobile telecommunications – defined a new 5G core architecture that can support service delivery over wireless, fixed or converged networks. What is transformative about this new core is its use of a cloud-aligned Service-Based Architecture (SBA) that supports control plane function interaction, reusability, flexible connections and service discovery that spans all functions.
It is through migration to the SBA that cloud-native products and solutions can be developed, which in turn will facilitate the rapid, cost-effective deployment of diverse services across a range of access technologies.
CSPs will focus on 5G enterprise applications
In a few years, 24 countries in the Asia-Pacific are expected to launch 5G services. This comes as little surprise, especially when we consider the region’s rapid growth in mobile technology penetration. Although more technologically mature countries in Northeast Asia and Oceania will be at the forefront of 5G adoption, emerging markets such as South Asia and Southeast Asia hold massive potential, due to their largely young populations who are becoming more digitally literate.
For many, 5G’s attractiveness is that its ultra-fast and low latency connectivity can generate immersion levels that would not have been thought possible a decade ago. This includes 360-degree experiences of live events taking place thousands of miles away or VR/AR reality experiences that transform the way we interact with the media.
These are enticing prospects but mass commercial rollouts will remain limited as CSPs will be more pragmatic in their 5G plans. This is as the work needed to transform static networks into dynamic ones (as required for 5G) is extremely complex and expensive. A survey gauging the priorities of CSPs for 5G showed that operators will first target their main sources of revenue – large corporates and small and medium sized businesses.
Essentially, having 5G smartphones will take time but we are closer to delivering next-generation connectivity to enterprises. Our research showed that 5G aspects that businesses are looking forward to most include high quality, uninterrupted video streams; remote-controlled machinery and cloud robotics; and connected vehicles. All these applications can only happen through a cloud-native 5G core network that delivers heightened flexibility and performance, which is also scalable to meet enterprise needs.
Regional 5G roll-out plans remain unfazed
For now, wider commercial roll-out in the Asia-Pacific will be limited as legacy core networks are currently configured and maintained by traditional approaches developed for proprietary hardware and software – which means their operations require a variety of manual control methods. They cannot support the business and complexity of a 5G network, nor the performance and capacity required to digitally transform more of the region’s key business sectors.
We also need to address the elephant in the room: the COVID-19 pandemic. Understandably, CSPs are more concerned about their current business operations than 5G deployment. Nevertheless, deployments are not completely off the table; the plans are merely put on hold. Instead, we are seeing 5G applications amid the pandemic; not for businesses, but for services designed to help the public. This was the case for Thailand, where a CSP and a local university mobilized robots at hospitals and – when the government eased Thailand’s lockdown – robots were used to screen shoppers for their temperature.
This shows that the drive for 5G deployments is unperturbed. When the situation improves, CSPs in the Asia-Pacific expect to expedite their 5G plans, even if they are initially targeted for business use cases. To do so, they need a cloud-native 5G core network that offers greater flexibility, responsiveness and adaptability – as it can deliver the high performance, ultra-reliability and low latency demanded by the 5G programmable world and in turn, reinforce the region’s leadership status in the global 5G race.
In conclusion, B2B2x focus has to become a critical lever for CSPs in their 5G business case. The need for this is even more in the COVID world – as Enterprises are accelerating their digital transformation needs. 5G will change the way we do business for a long time to come – and a ‘Digital Core’ is in the core and centre of it.
Written by Vishal Singh, Senior Vice President of Nokia Software, an established thought leader. In recent times, he has spearheaded developments behind Nokia’s Self-Organizing Network software and helped forge positive partnership opportunities.