MWC 2019 was a great event even though anyone could be forgiven for thinking that it was “only” about 5G. (My bendy phone is on order). As the dust on it still settles, there seem to be 2 main perspectives on 5G taking hold. The first is more cautious and seeks to maximise 4G assets and evolve into 5G. The second is perhaps more focussed on 5G and wants to use existing 3G/4G assets to simply bolster 5G. Neither approach is mutually exclusive of course but in the absence of smooth interworking of 4G and 5G the risks to both are enormous.
“Breaking” the user experience can already have damaging long term effects. Users simply churn to whatever service provider seems better or cheaper in an increasingly on-demand economy. As service diversity increases with 5G, churn has potential to become even more intense. At the same time, operators are battling to prepare for a tsunami of new service opportunities that 5G is promising. Regardless of the precise value placed on it by a particular operator, 4G will also be around for quite some time for coverage and capacity reasons. Existing 4G users deserve protection and even re-empowerment. 5G should complement 4G by freeing up capacity, thereby giving it a new lease of life.
Broader 5G benefits have been well described at this stage in terms of latency, speed, coverage, capacity and density. It is a “different beast”; a new ecosystem. For operators, cloud-native 5G with continuous delivery and microservices will provide web-scale and total flexibility that could only have been imagined 3 or 4 years ago. But a critical question for any competitive service provider is how to secure existing services whilst ensuring enough smooth runway to launch 5G? How to make sure 4G is a non-siloed complement to this new and future-oriented 5G ecosystem instead of simply acting as a constraint?
Two elements are critical to successful continuity of 4G services in a 5G ecosystem: interface control and backward compatibility to reliable and pervasive 4G. “Openness” has been a guiding principle of 5G as proprietary interfaces are replaced with web-style REST interfaces. These interfaces will rapidly enable combinational services and facilitate partnerships on the fly. But this “openness” needs to be internal also and ensure that best in class BSS systems that previously existed in 4G can be gently absorbed into this richer 5G ecosystem. With 5G everything is open and flexibly accessed and that includes 4G assets. Silos are out. Anything less could be catastrophic, regardless of the justifiable level of optimism around 5G. It is also a key step on the path to a truly converged 4G/5G BSS.
3GPP has rightly set its sights on an evolved ecosystem and richer tapestry that 5G will provide. The transition won’t all be plane sailing but the destination will provide massive value. Like any amazing journey it just needs some smart navigation and the right tools.