At a glance:
- When will 5G be put into practice?
- How is 5G different to 4G?
- Will Huawei's controversy seriously affect 5G adoption?
5G has been called the revolution with the potential to transform the internet.
It will handle 1,000 times more traffic than 4G can, with speeds 10 times faster.
More importantly, from a business perspective 5G will be the foundation for VR, autonomous driving, IoT, and smart cities.
Spending on 5G network infrastructure is forecast to jump from $528m last year to a whopping $26bn in 2022, according to IDC.
Indeed, in IDC's inaugural 5G network infrastructure forecast, the analyst said that the advantages of the technology "will enable a wide range of innovative and transformative applications across nearly every industry eventually".
The global rollout
On the consumer side, EE has just announced that it will switch on its 5G service in six UK cities on 30 May, the first mobile network in the UK to do so.
But what about the channel?
What's not in doubt is that for tech suppliers, there will soon be an explosion of data that their enterprise customers are going to have to deal with.
But how can they monetise that? And where is 5G being rolled out first?
Last month, South Korea and the US claimed world firsts for a rollout of a 5G network; SK Telekom in Seoul, and Verizon in Chicago and Minneapolis.
Verizon has pledged to introduce the new service in over 30 more locations across the US by the end of this year.
Most firms agree there will be a limited rollout of some 5G solutions in the UK by the end of this year, with much of Europe following suit at the start of 2020.
Bids in Germany's ongoing 5G spectrum auction have already surpassed $6bn, as of this week; exceeding government estimates by more than $1bn.
Meanwhile, Europe's third-largest economy, France, won't have its 5G telecoms frequencies auction until this autumn, with licences expected to be given at the start of 2020.
CPI spoke to vendors and partners about their reaction to the telco operators' attempts to drive the message that 5G is ready - now.
The overwhelming response was that mobile operators need to do a better job of defining compelling B2B use cases for 5G beyond faster speeds.
The next evolution of infrastructure
Nonetheless, the market is already filled with early adopters. Earlier this year, Fortinet announced more support for 5G. For the network security vendor's head of the UK and Ireland, Paul Anderson, Fortinet's strategy is all about not falling behind.
"On one level, 5G is effectively that next evolution of existing infrastructure," he said.
"In a general sense, clearly we want to be part of any incremental evolution of any infrastructure.
"We're working with the telecom suppliers to be the first to market… We're 5G ready today and our go-to-market teams are already investing in MSSPs. The fact is, the software-defined world and 5G world marry well."
However, despite a "marketing rush" to talk about 5G, many partners are still waiting for providers to have commercially ready solutions available.
‘It's far from being a turnkey solution'
Ian Goetz is chief architect at Juniper Networks. He's working with Chris Gilmour, CTO of service provider Axians UK, to help develop and trial such solutions.
I asked both what opportunities they see for partners to monetise 5G.
"This is an enabler to IoT," Goetz said. "There's no doubt that 5G will be able to drive real and rapid changes in the market in this respect.
"Ultimately, 5G will fit into this ‘cloudification' or software-defined world. In other words, with companies looking to enable their digital transformation, there is a promise that 5G will be part of this."
Gilmour added that adoption will be primarily driven by enterprise end users rather than the channel, at least in the beginning.
"So channel firms need to talk about the use cases of IoT to avoid a tokenistic interaction with 5G," he said.
Pick your spot
Indeed, the primary advice is for service providers to have a tight focus on where they can provide value in 5G, whether that's in IoT solutions, or bespoke corner cases.
"Develop use cases first!" Gilmour said. "It's easy to get blinded by the technology but you need ROI."
BearingPoint's digital platform solutions CEO, Angus Ward, agrees.
His advice for the channel is to understand its strengths, plan ahead in terms of what unique or niche angle they can bring, and "pick their spot".
Ward says that the Dutch consulting giant is "very bullish on the opportunities that 5G brings".
"It's going to be revolutionary," he said.
Change your business model
"Primarily, it's a change in business models. Very few are 5G ready when it comes to their actual business model. There are a few reasons for this but the main one is the huge cost.
"So I see that the demand for 5G will primarily come from the enterprise space, so, currently some smaller companies are adopting more of a wait-and-see approach."
BearingPoint itself is investing in 5G services as it aims for €1bn in sales by 2020.
Its MD Kiumars Hamidian recently told CPI that the interest in IoT in particular is growing among BearingPoint customers.
Despite Ward's view that few channel firms are ready to monetise 5G, his advice is that it is "crucial" not to wait too long to become ready.
"Again, my advice is to update your business model now. Save yourself the pain later on," he said.
‘5G is fundamentally different from 4G'
"5G is going to be a huge change…This wait-and-see approach will not be tenable for long.
"We've seen Asia moving first - they're the most entrepreneurial in this. We can expect to see early use cases by the end of this year. And in the US Verizon also has an opportunity to overhaul an ageing infrastructure; it's a big opportunity for this year," added Ward.
"It may be that the trend in the UK and the rest of Europe is more cautious, with people wanting to look at economic use cases. But it is important that companies don't just wear a 5G badge - 5G is fundamentally different from 4G."
The Huawei dilemma
Across the globe, some of the top 5G vendors are Ericsson, HPE, Intel, Nokia, and Qualcomm.
And then the increasingly controversial Huawei.
At the end of last year, BT's chief architect Neil McRae proclaimed that "Huawei is 'the only true 5G supplier right now."
However, Huawei as a viable proposition has become more complicated to say the least since then.
Barely a week goes by without one world government censuring the vendor.
Last week, it was the turn of UK-based chip maker ARM to give Huawei the axe. Falling in line with US sanctions against the Chinese vendor, it accused the firm of engaging in state-sponsored espionage.
As far as distributors are concerned, many are still waiting to see if Huawei is able to convince European governments that it can be trusted to be involved in state infrastructure.
UK-based Westcoast was announced as a Huawei distributor in September. However, at the time, it stressed that it was focusing on Huawei devices, rather than its network solutions.
MD Alex Tatham was circumspect about the impact the Chinese vendor's ongoing conflict with western governments will have on the rollout of 5G across the UK.
"Huawei is the market leader, if anyone is allowed to use it!" Tatham said.
"We will have to wait and see what the UK's relationship with Huawei is going to be. Overall, the impact on the wireless networking industry will be very interesting.
"I think some people won't bother logging onto wireless networks if 5G is up and running and, considering the cost of 5G, why would you pay for both?"
However, as Tatham highlighted, for many in the channel questions still remain as to which operators will be able to roll out the technology and where.
Don't miss the boat
Yet, when journalists ask senior execs which major trends will be the most influential to the channel in 2019, 5G continues to be a recurring mention.
Building the infrastructure for the delivery and processing of data will enable world-changing innovations, from self-driving cars to smart city sensors, and will clearly dominate our sector in the near future.
However, it's clear that companies need to invest significantly more than they are currently doing to create commercially viable use cases.
A key suggestion is to consider 5G not as a neat turnkey solution, but as a technology that needs a rethink of business models.
As BearingPoint's Angus Ward said: "There is money to be made, but real organisational changes of a complexity not comparable to previous changes in the telco sector are needed."
IDC has called 2019 "a seminal year in the mobile industry" as "5G handsets will begin to hit the market and end users will be able to experience 5G first-hand".
Decision makers from both vendors and partners foresee a spike in interest in the channel after consumers begin to reap the advantages of 5G themselves.
Indeed, Fortinet's Anderson warns those who wait too long to adapt to 5G that the bandwagon may be moving far too fast for them to catch up.
"Clearly whoever can come to market first with working solutions will have an advantage," he said. "With more and more computing happening at the edge instead of in the datacentre or the cloud, this is a development none of us can ignore."
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