The COVID-19 pandemic slowed down the progress of 5G in 2020, mainly due to restrictions imposed on the physical human activity on which 5G infrastructure rollout is still dependent. However, this crisis has proven the importance of the digitization of the economy and our lives. If 5G infrastructure had already been in place, the impact of the pandemic could have been much less painful than it was.
5G network infrastructure and the pandemic – what happened?
Although we observed a slowdown compared to plans, 2020 was by no means a lost year from the perspective of 5G investment. On the contrary, the competition between communication servcie providers to have 5G intensified. Whether end--customers perceive a network that can offer 5G as better is another story, as speed enhancements are quite often inconsistent across a network and some users don’t actually enjoy much better connections than those offered by LTE.
The future of 5G network infrastructure investments
In 2021 we may expect a speed up in 5G investments, and not only because the pandemic proved the desperate need for much greater digitization of the economy. One way or the other, governments face recession. And one of the proven solutions to recessions is to invest public funds in infrastructure.
In the 1930s, infrastructure was mainly physical (roads, motorways, railways, and so on). In the 21st century, the role of infrastructure is played by telecommunication and 5G in particular. The European Union COVID-19 recovery plan assumes that investment in digitization and 5G infrastructure is one of the main components of rebooting the economy. The same approach seems to be taken in non-EU countries. Governments may not only spend a great deal, but also help to create regulations that speed up the frequency auctions.
We - as tax payers - can only hope that 5G network infrastructure investments, although initially may increase public debt, in the end will translate into digitization of the economy. But that may take more than just the installation of new radio sites and hardware upgrades.
What does 5G network infrastructure investment mean?
It must be understood that infrastructure alone does not automatically translate into digitization of the economy, which also requires innovative ways of applying 5G technology in Industry 4.0, virtual reality, immersive technology, and so on. Faster and more ubiquitous Internet connections may not be enough for many industrial verticals.
The key lies in low latency networks. However, success will rely not only on enhanced technical parameters, but also on how easy it is for different industry verticals to adopt new technology. To address this, operators need to combine network slicing with the ability to expose slices, tuned for the needs of any given vertical, making it easy to use the network as a service (NaaS) model. The whole concept must guarantee that verticals can have the network driven by intents rather than directly managing the network with all its complexity. AI/ML will help automate the translation of vertical intents into network control, which must assure required quality of service.
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