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Devices: The indisputable difference with 5G

December 11, 2019 - Frank Healy

Devices, combined with ever-greater user expectations will drive industry shakeout in 2020.

With all the industry talk of “virtualisation”, “public cloud” and “RESTful interfaces”, end-users could be forgiven for wondering whether 5G really means anything that is real or impactful for them. Various industry debates during 2019 have included whether 5G network “option 3” with migration to “option 2” is the preferred migration strategy. It’s all a bit distant for online gamers or enterprises looking for 5G promises of latency, speed, coverage, capacity and density. Meanwhile, many industry insiders are still in search of the “killer use case”. But for all the industry debates and partial consensus that occurred during 2019 there is one indisputable reality that at least some industry types are accepting in terms of actual implementation requirements: devices.

The Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) device tracker for November 2019 mentions 183 5G devices from 72 vendors with at least 42 already commercially available. Those numbers may not seem so remarkable until you consider:

- The contrast to 4G is really stark. 4G networks typically rolled out in early-adopting markets ahead of device availability, with device (smartphone) manufacturers catching up several months later.

- Not all of the 5G devices mentioned are smartphones. There are fifteen announced form factors (phones, head-mounted displays, hotspots, indoor CPE, outdoor CPE, laptops/notebooks, modules, snapon dongles/adapters, enterprise routers, IoT routers, drones, robots, TVs, a switch, a USB terminal and a vending machine). Again, this is a sharp contrast to 4G where the early focus was on smartphones, dongles and hotspots.

- Following a slow start to around May 2019, the rate of growth has become exponential. No wonder, with over 70 vendors competing to create the next big thing.

- Devices by definition will be much more powerful – with an ability to handle up to 8 slices and dual radio (not just 5G) at the same time.

This all has profound impacts for the network and IT boffins. The proliferation of new devices in 2020 is set to increase expectations further. It’s good news for service providers that have been planning for the required flexibility to catch the next big trend. Management of wholesale relationships with device manufacturers as well as roaming agreements with other carriers also come into sharper focus. But in this much more diverse landscape, massive demands on the network are coming from the outside-in.

Meantime end-user expectations have continued to increase and are ever more global and unforgiving thanks to the likes of Instagram. Services need to work immediately and out of the box. E-sims and soft-sim capabilities have not gone away and will further drive expectations of immediacy. When you consider how companies like Peloton (the connected exercise bicycle company) can make seemingly easy mistakes and lose 15% of their share value in one day, it seems likely that in 2020 there will be ever more potential for dramatic fluctuations in share values. Risks can be managed by service providers placing more bets and having the right amount of competitive flexibility combined with seamless ability to monetise whatever devices and services bubble up. Expect a device-driven tsunami and shakeout in 2020.

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