Potential and timing

5G is being rolled out rapidly across the UK, with work continuing throughout the pandemic. Comms Business examines what this means for channel companies.

The promise of 5G is gaining momentum and many believe this new generation of mobile broadband will be a game changer for the Channel. Yet its full force won’t be felt just yet. For Martin Saunders, product director at Highlight, 5G promises high speed, reliable low latency network connectivity. In time, it could be considered a viable alternative to fixed line connectivity when delivered well by a network operator.

He said, “The attributes of 5G make it interesting for customers that need quick-to-install connectivity. It can be installed in hours potentially to get a site online, and when the fixed line connectivity is installed, can then be used as a secondary back up service. This is appealing because it uses a separate network and doesn’t share any of the fixed line network assets.

“It is also useful for getting connectivity to where a fixed line isn’t possible such as temporary locations for construction sites, IoT for sensors where it may be difficult to install a copper or fixed line, or simply as a replacement fixed line. Although 5G is better than 4G, it still suffers from various signal strength issues. This isn’t just about the distance from the cell mast, other elements can cause interference and make the connection unreliable.”

Building knowledge

One thing the Channel must prioritise is the education of partners and businesses about the possibilities of 5G. Gregg Knowles, IT director, plan.com, explained, “Tailoring the use case to create a sensible 5G adoption vs the hyperbole use cases such as self-driving cars or remote surgery which are not real-world sensible.”

Jason Walkley, UK sales director at Wireless Logic, agreed that partners should be building knowledge about capabilities. He added, “Many customers will have questions about the latest generation of cellular connectivity, and it will be up to partners to help them focus on identifying and quickly realising commercial and strategic benefits. Businesses need to stay updated and consider the implications on future developments to ensure their company, customers and employees aren’t left behind.

“End customers ultimately want a seamless service and it’s the role of the channel to take away complexity and deliver an integrated service and intuitive customer experience. Ultimately, partners need to help customers understand the multitude of new opportunities that are created by 5G connectivity and work together to stake a claim in the market.”

Dr Arslan Usman, system architect, Pangea said when it comes to 5G adoption, the channel might just play the most important role of all. He said, “5G’s biggest strength is in the use cases it’ll enable in vertical industries, and Channel partners are perfectly positioned to guide UK businesses to these opportunities. It’s up to the channel to help customers understand 5G’s capabilities—which in turn will open up revenue opportunities for channel partners.

He pointed to 5G-enabled mobile health platforms as one example. These, he said, have entered the spotlight during the pandemic, with the UK government ring-fencing funding for further development. He added, “Channel partners should take the opportunity to bring solutions like this to their customers, providing the knowledge and technology to help them access the rewards.”

Scott Harrison, channel sales director for Vertiv in the UK and Ireland thinks the rollout of 5G is just beginning – but the earlier channel partners realise the opportunities on offer, the more they can capitalise. He said, “As businesses decentralise and move towards smaller, more local data centre facilities, they will be looking to use 5G to increase the speed of data processing and decrease latency. This is already opening up a huge opportunity for channel partners in selling the critical infrastructure to support data processing on a local scale, and offer simplified, modular and self-managed solutions to accommodate 5G networks. End customers are increasingly deciding what products they want to purchase based on capability and availability, not just marketing spending.”

Opening up

MNOs need to open up diversified offerings such as Vodafone’s speed limited packages, but also specific packages to take advantage of ultra-low latency connections when they become more ubiquitous. That’s the view of Knowles at plan.com. He said, “The current offering where 5G is just a faster version of 3G or 4G will go away and the channel will pioneer low latency, high priority connections… or indeed cheaper higher-but-still-acceptable latency and lower priority sims!”

Walkley at Wireless Logic said 5G is set to transform economies and societies across the world. He said, “With mobile network operators initially focusing on their 5G consumer offerings, it is only recently that the industry has seen significant developments in the IoT and M2M space. However, this commitment to innovation from governments and MNOs will go a huge way towards improving the performance, security and scalability of cellular connected devices and networks in the long term.

“With global standards only recently agreed for full 5G network cores, operators across the world have been upgrading masts for 5G radio – enabling a ‘lite’ version of 5G, otherwise known as NSA version 3. To really achieve the full benefits of 5G, the network core needs to support all the features, functions and benefits available. Think of it as having a 5G Ferrari that you’re only able to drive on country roads, when you want to be able to take it for a spin around the race track!”

Usman at Pangea believes with its high speeds, solid reliability, and ultra-low latency, 5G will challenge fixed-line connectivity. He added that 5G and fixed-line are also a powerful combination, and that MNOs and the channel can work together to identify places where fixed-line struggles with speed and stability, or even where it can’t be deployed. In those locations, 5G base stations can provide high quality mobile connectivity to users.

The right timing

Saunders at Highlight said one of the main challenges to adoption at the moment is the reality that there are few devices on the market that support 5G. “It is becoming more common for mobile phones, but scarce on the router side that use cellular connections for fixed location connectivity. Companies are working on 5G routers, but the costs are currently high.

“It’s worth providers dipping a toe in water now and gaining experience, since many issues with 5G are the same as those associated with 4G. The channel can prove their 4G expertise and then move to 5G when more products are on the market and the costs are competitive. With 4G and 5G in their portfolios now, they may find the option is too expensive for many customers, but they won’t be at a standing start when the market takes off.”

Knowles, from plan.com, feels the best adoption time for 5G will be when it is more ubiquitous in coverage. He said, “Most reports point to this being in the 2023 to 2025 time space, right now a 5G sale would be mostly hit by the complaints that it is not available in enough areas!”

However Wireless Logic’s Walkley thinks adoption is changing the connectivity game for partners and now is the time to build offerings to make use of this evolving technology. He said, “With emerging opportunities to leverage 5G networks to replace or augment fixed lines, we can expect to see many organisations upgrade their infrastructure or pursue new opportunities. New capabilities, improved performance and enhanced resilience of these networks will make this a compelling proposition for end-customers.

“Whilst we don’t know for sure all of the opportunities that 5G will bring, we can safely say 5G will enable partners to enhance cellular offerings for solutions such as SD-WAN, where a fast and reliable fixed line failover (or even primary connectivity) meets a real market need. This is one opportunity of many for 5G, meaning channel partners should certainly want to be involved in this first wave in order to realise early opportunities and build a strong understanding of its potential.

“Even though partners may come up against early adopter challenges related to network coverage and 5G capabilities, we can expect that these barriers will diminish over the next 12-18 months. We predict the Covid-19 pandemic to further accelerate demand and innovation as it has done across many areas of the technology sector over the last year. Channel players should aim to be at the forefront of this wave, so that they are well positioned for when the growth curve turns rapidly upwards.”

Usman at Pangea said now is the perfect time to get involved. “If you want to secure a spot ahead of your competition with 5G devices, knowledge, and industry recognition, now is the perfect time. 5G hasn’t quite reached its full potential yet; some of its features like network slicing and Multi-Access Edge Computing are still being developed. But the current 5G networks have already opened up plenty of opportunities for businesses: from solutions like mobile healthcare platforms and Nottinghamshire’s 5G forest, to business connectivity for construction sites, retail outlets, and remote offices.”

Vertiv’s Harrison agreed. He said, “Whilst many customers are still in the early stages of adopting 5G, now is the time to start to showcase how 5G can benefit key industries. In fact, our 5G energy management report with STL Partners identified three industries with the potential for significant improvement through the use of 5G services.

“One such industry is healthcare, where 5G could improve access to healthcare services for up to 1 billion patients by 2030 while simultaneously reducing emissions through higher asset utilisation, reduced patient and clinician travel, and higher clinician productivity.”

A wireless world

The rollout is set to have a big impact on the conferencing sector as a wireless world gets ever closer. Jeff May, UK sales director at Konftel said the potential is huge but he stresses there’s a long way to go before the full impact is felt on a wide scale. He said, “5G is a slow burner with many people still getting to grips with 4G but there’s no doubt the practical benefits it will bring will be immense. Speed, accessibility and availability will be the big factors.

“There’s potential for conferencing. We already have a 5G audio conference phone but where the biggest benefits of 5G will be is video. This is a great thing for us all to look forward to because it will mean less cabling and an even more streamlined service. Exciting times are ahead with more wireless freedom but we need consistent nationwide network coverage to be able to take full advantage.”
Knowles is also wary about current traction. “For the basic handset market, as 4Gcan do everything a user wants to do there is no real ‘driver’ for a 5G handset. The iPhone 12 being 5G has not been a driver to 5G so much as a natural attrition of people wanting to upgrade their iPhone.”

Walkley agreed, “Whilst demand for IoT devices is growing in the UK, the use of 5G is still nascent. There are some obvious use cases that will drive early adoption, but this will not happen at a mass scale until 5G coverage is more widespread, and a greater wider understanding of the potential exists.”

For Usman momentum is building. “With EE leading the way, all four UK MNOs are rolling out their 5G networks as quickly as possible. And in the wake of Ofcom’s recent spectrum auctions, it’s likely that the MNOs will use their newly acquired spectrum to fuel their 5G rollouts. With more national coverage comes a greater need for 5G-ready devices, so the appetite for them is growing as more and more businesses are able to access 5G connectivity.”

Harrison at Vertiv believes businesses are on the cusp of major 5G adoption. “5G has a critical role in the rollout of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and Machine Learning and even virtual reality, as businesses look to boost innovation and competitive differentiation. For businesses to realise the full benefits of these technologies they will need to invest in edge infrastructure. Edge enables data to be processed closer to the user, which is critical for powering a new generation of data-intensive applications. The channel’s stock holding capabilities in standard and modular product sets present an opportunity to maximize this increased spending at the edge.”

Restrictions and innovation

When asked if restrictions over the use of 5G equipment by vendors including Huawei will impact the Channel, Highlight’s Saunders said there may be an initial slowdown but not every network is completely dependent on Huawei. “Broadly speaking, it doesn’t really matter. Also, the channel is still able to use Huawei on the edge of the network.”

That chimed with the view of Pangea’s Usman. He said, “While it’s true MNOs have faced losses for the Huawei equipment they had in place, this won’t really impact Channel partners. Following the Huawei restrictions, tech giants Ericsson and Nokia were so quick to provide their support that the UK’s 5G coverage rollouts haven’t really slowed down at all. So fortunately, Channel partners don’t need to worry about any barriers to developing their 5G offerings – full steam ahead!”

According to Mark Balfour, head of mobile and wireless sales, CityFibre, 5G is the greatest technological shift since the introduction of mobile internet. He pointed to a 2019 Barclays study that found 5G will add £15.7 billion in revenue per year to the UK economy by 2025. He added, “While the tangible long-term benefits and capabilities of 5G are yet to play out, this new technology – that relies heavily on a robust full fibre network to reach its full potential – is already signposting a new era of digital promise, innovation and opportunity across all sectors.”

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