DSP Leaders talk 5G, network slicing and enabling technology

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The DSP Leaders World Forum is ‘on’ this week, with a focus on 5G and related topics. Not in the leafy environment it was in 2019, this year it is online, on Telecom TV’s video platform.

Amongst the quite technical sessions on cloud-native this and network slicing that, there is the constant throbbing vein of 5G. One session that we attended was ‘5G as a driver for new business services’.

If you were expecting insights into what these services would look like you would have been disappointed but, as always, Neil McRae, Managing Director Architecture & Technology Strategy and BT Chief Architect, BT did not.

McRae, in an honest appraisal of the technology that will – he hopes – drive the marketing people to come up with the cool new services, said that 5G has many of the things they wanted to do with 4G, but ran out of time.

He thinks that looking at the 5G opportunity in a vertical way is not useful because it is “too early to tell what the right model will look like”.

McRae is also refreshingly cynical about network slicing. Not because he thinks it is a bad thing (he doesn’t), but because slicing networks into too many slices for too many applications and customers does not make a lot of sense. Providing a portfolio of different functionalities and applications for the emergency services is one thing, providing similar services to the local bakery, not so much.

His dream is for telcos to be seen as technology companies. After all, they are very good at technology. He is also very keen to keep 5G as simple as possible. “Complexity,” says McRae, “is the telcos’ Kryptonite.”

That said, he is excited about a 5G core which is essentially built for automation. The more telemetry you can get back from the network, the easier it is to switch an environment that demands different things. Imagine, he says, being able to switch on a 3D capability with a click and not with huge, long and expensive development cycles.

The conclusion that many are coming to is that building an effective 5G platform is not something you can do by yourself. Indeed, as McRae says, there is “not a single company in the world that can do this alone.” BT does not understand their customers’ supply chains and their customers do not understand theirs.

We know from other interviews that telcos seem to be missing out on the 5G opportunity in the enterprise world. Some telcos are not even in the mix of 5G solutions.

Yet McRae is not worried. If they can do it, then that is fine. If they find they cannot, then they tend to come back to a telco and ask for help.

He wishes, however, that his customers would see BT as an enterprise and therefore a partner, and quite an innovative one at that. Right now, customers (as Angus Ward of BearingPoint//Beyond would testify) look at telco and ‘see’ connectivity – and connectivity is not that interesting. McRae would like to be seen as providing an enabling platform.

What that platform, or others like it, will enable is still not clear. A recent survey in the US, for example, found that while 85% of Americans have heard of 5G, only Millennials would pay extra for it, and only to ensure robust and fast connectivity, mainly in the home.

75% of Americans believe that 5G will have a positive impact on their daily lives but only point to the extra speed to support that.

There is, of course, an emerging but cloudy concept of the fantastic things that 5G will enable. We hear of a new age of games, virtual reality advances and even some vague ideas around telemedicine.

Only time will tell what sets consumers on fire about 5G enabled services. And in the enterprise world, we will see success and failure on the part of telcos – and this is already happening.

Perhaps more interesting to watch will be the partnerships that will emerge. StarHub buying a security company, for example, is impressive. Will they pitch themselves as the protector of their customers, online? Will they leverage trust as a differentiator?

One thing is certain, the potential of 5G is now unquestioned and about to be unleashed. The big question is ‘by whom’, and ‘exactly what’?

As McRae says, “there is no technology barrier anymore, only a human one.”

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