Introducing the 5G innovation space – where real opportunity awaits

by Colin Campbell | May 15, 2023

Let me confide in you. I’m being a little provocative maybe, but here it goes. The way I look at it, 5G isn’t necessarily ready to live up to the hype. That’s because like all wireless networks, 5G is designed for utility since that’s where the market is. Think of it like a Jeep Cherokee – a great all-rounder that you wouldn’t enter into the Indianapolis 500. So, what I want to talk about here is the fine tuning, the customization that will deliver IndyCar performance and unlock the full potential of 5G for new industrial markets.

I’m going to take you to what I call the 5G innovation space – the 10% of the functionality where the real customization magic can happen, and which represents a transformational commercial opportunity for those bold enough to grasp it. Exploiting the innovation space demands deep understanding of how wireless systems work to deliver the promise of digital transformation. But more of that later.

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Let’s start with a quick overview of the current state of play. Like with most evolutions of cellular technology, there’s been an effort to include non-smartphone use cases in the 5G standard. This is the usual mobile wireless approach of providing additional features to create land grab for new uses cases.

However, vendors of chipsets and networking equipment naturally focus on features that will serve most of the market. In the smartphone era, that’s meant a focus on higher data rates for web-based services. It’s the same with 5G – so the features that support non-mainstream use cases, such as ultra-low latency, have not necessarily been baked into products. Despite their theoretical usefulness and marketing messaging, they are not generally available or proven for many specific narrow use-cases.

The 5G foundation

The real challenge is not so much that an industrial use case has difficult, but achievable, wireless network requirements that can be addressed with 5G. It’s that each case is unique because each situation has different operational requirements. For instance, industrial automation might call for high reliability and low latency.

The 5G triangle neatly captures this in a visualization that identifies the three key target areas for 5G: Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Massive Machine Type Communication (mMTC) and Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communication (uRLLC). Unfortunately, this is an oversimplification that fails to capture both the relative maturity of the technologies for each target area and just how unique each use case within those target areas could be. 5G is the utility Jeep that is primarily targeted at eMBB use cases. The further your use case strays from this, the more compromise you may need to accept in your wireless network. Unless you’re willing to customize.

Creating a custom wireless network from scratch has historically had a high barrier to entry. For example, building a wireless system for robotic control in the past would entail spectrum costs, wireless system design, alongside software, firmware and hardware development. While not all of this goes away, ninety per cent of the required wireless functionality (synchronization, access control, authentication, coding, incremental redundancy and so on) could be considered necessary building blocks. The real value is delivered by the remaining 10% of functionality. This barrier of having to build all this from the ground up has meant many custom wireless solutions haven’t delivered the ROI to justify them – so compromises in performance or ambition have been made through off-the-shelf technology.

Unlocking the business case for non-traditional players to develop custom network rests on the ready availability of the common building blocks. This will open the landscape so that true innovators can stop accepting compromises. Luckily, in the 5G ecosystem, there are several initiatives such as OpenRAN, O-RAN, vRAN and multi-access edge computing (MEC), that directly address the need for open access. This could be viewed as the common core within the 5G triangle – with the innovation opportunity existing in the areas outside.

The innovation space

The final puzzle piece is the availability of spectrum. It’s no coincidence that Wi-Fi has been the go-to for many digital transformation projects beyond the smartphone. It operates in an unlicensed spectrum so it can be utilized without needing to consider licensing costs. The downside is that it is not very good when stretched to support novel use cases, particularly if reliability, mobility and/or connection density are needed.

Although unlicensed spectrum is free, it comes at the cost of sharing with other users. When wireless performance matters, exclusive access to spectrum is a must. But typically, exclusive access to spectrum is hoarded by mobile operators. This has been noted and there is a worldwide trend for opening spectrum to non-traditional players.

The combination of open standards and open spectrum access means that tailoring a wireless network to optimize a digital transformation is no longer daunting. Ninety per cent of the work is done. Being able to focus on that high-value 10% is going to drive innovation beyond the mobile network operators. We’re going to see non-wireless verticals investing in wireless technology because they see the competitive advantage in a customized network – built on proven common core components.

The key lies in the multiple ecosystems where common functionality is shared – and the expertise leveraged by industries or businesses to bring high-level performance. At Cambridge Consultants we are active in most of these ecosystems. As pioneers in custom networks, we’re excited by the possibilities emerging from the trend to open systems. Onwards to the innovation space!

Expert authors

Senior Vice President, Technology | View profile
Colin is an experienced technology leader based in Boston, US, and has a track record of defining the art of the possible to enable our clients to create technical innovations that meet their business needs.

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