Ask any mobile network operator to share its motivating factors for 5G and dozens of reasons will follow. But one angle that crops up early and often is the ascension of enterprise in a wireless context.
5G heralds a new framework for mobile connectivity. While consumers will certainly benefit from greater speeds and capacity that 5G will delivers, enterprises are poised to gain entirely new models for operating their business — and for many of them this represents their first entry into a pure mobile environment.
Some operators like AT&T and Verizon are forcefully pushing this narrative, particularly as consumer interest and uptake remains relatively light, but Sprint and T-Mobile US are trying to achieve a balance wherein their respective networks are marketed equally to businesses and consumers. Network equipment vendors are also contributing heavily to this effort.
Consumers still comprise the bulk of wireless revenue and that won’t change in a 5G world, but enterprises are being targeted in ways that didn’t exist in previous leaps in network technology. That dynamic is both encouraging and challenging for operators that are striving to strengthen their business while pursuing growth opportunities in new realms.
AT&T Taps Into Edge Computing, Network Slicing
“The networks are getting built, [and with enterprises] you can target your network build to them either outdoor and indoor, and the end points can be different than a smartphone,” said Robert Boyanovsky, vice president of enterprise mobility at AT&T Business
“It’s got a lot to do with some of the edge compute technologies that are coming fore through the wireless network,” he explained. “It starts in the LTE space, and it evolves to 5G, and it gives enterprises something that they haven’t had before, which is the ability to track and manage their own wireless endpoints, similar to what they would do in a WiFi/LAN environment.”
That design provides enterprises with greater control, privacy, and security because it essentially keeps their operations separate from the traditional wireless network while allowing them to take advantage of low latencies in their existing environment, Boyanovsky said.
“We’re seeing the enterprise customers really inquire about low-latency performance and using cellular in lieu of WiFi or other technologies, whatever their use case is,” he said, adding that enterprises are also much more educated about forthcoming wireless technologies today.
“When we go talk to customers, there are CIOs across the table that are articulating some of the specs back to us as if they’re on staff here,” Boyanovsky said.
CIOs and IT leaders are talking about mobile edge computing, network slicing, and low latency much more than they were five years ago, he said. “The business customers acumen is far ahead of where the consumers are. I think consumers will kind of get it, that 5G is the next G, it should be better and maybe faster.”
Moreover, business customers are approaching 5G with clear intentions and view it as viable alternative for mission-critical applications, according to Boyanovsky. Some enterprises simply want to be the first “5G enabled fill in the blank” but others are acutely aware of their problems and are searching for ways to solve those problems through new technology and capabilities in 5G, he explained.
Verizon Envisions ‘Distinct 5G Experiences’
Verizon, AT&T’s nearest competitor battling for 5G bragging rights amid an ongoing push to deploy nationwide service, is also envisioning a new foundation upon which it can sell new services to enterprises. The operator will begin delivering “distinct 5G experiences” during the next 18 to 24 months, and it will customize plans and pricing to accommodate that goal, said Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and group CEO at Verizon’s consumer business, during an interview at Oppenheimer’s Technology, Internet & Communications conference last month.
“I can envisage, for example, a gamer’s plan. I can envisage actually a day trader’s plan — somebody who wants to leverage ultra-low latency, certainty of access,” he said. “In the B2B space, with mobile edge computing, you will start to see some of the industrial use cases, campus use cases, coming a little sooner than the mass market consumer ones. And the area that I’m particularly excited about is live entertainment. I think you will see significant benefits, both B2B and [business-to-business-to-consumer] in that space.”
Dunne thinks live entertainment will be a showcase for 5G, particularly in stadiums where fans can gain “extra aural stimulation” and “all of the benefits of 20 different camera angles and the beauty of being in the scene.” The uplink capability in 5G will also be significant, he added, because that “has just never been exploited in any of the Gs before now. Imagine the ability to do 4K uplink streaming and the opportunity then to evolve some of the social media uses on platforms.”
Dunne is also “absolutely” confident that Verizon can provide lower latencies on 5G compared to wireline networks, especially around two critical components of latency. The over-the-air link is lower in 5G than it is in 4G LTE environments, but the link back to a data center or wherever data is processed is also crucial, he explained.
“The use of mobile edge compute and, therefore, a distributed data center architecture, allows you to significantly reduce that path. So you get two benefits: reduction in the over-the-air and then a further reduction because the return path for the compute is lower,” Dunne said. “The combination of the two means that you can, with standalone core and all the full features of 5G with Release 16 and 17, get two environments where you can actually have below 10 milliseconds of latency return path. But generally, below 20.”
Once latency performs below 35 milliseconds, wireless networks can also deliver new use cases in mixed reality, he explained. These capabilities are foundational aspects of the 5G standards, and Verizon is releasing software on a weekly basis to reach those goals, according to Dunne. That cadence of development is “exactly what you do at the start of a generation, and we’re seeing progress and uplifts all the time,” he said. “The curve and acceleration is probably faster in 5G than it was in 4G.”
Sprint and T-Mobile US Aim for Middle Ground
Sprint and T-Mobile US are outliers when it comes to shifting gears for a heightened emphasis on 5G for enterprise use. Both operators, which are mired in a long and still unfulfilled quest to merge operations, talk often about the myriad advancements 5G will enable for businesses, but are far more hesitant to highlight 5G as a business-first proposition.
Indeed, some of that reluctance could be due to the fact Sprint and T-Mobile aren’t as far along on their journey to a fully virtualized network with mobile edge computing, network slicing, and SDN.
“I don’t believe we’re pushing it towards businesses first,” said Eamon O’ Leary, Sprint’s vice president of network operations for the Western region of the country, during an interview at its 5G launch in Los Angeles last month. Pointing to a device portfolio of 5G smartphones and a hotspot, O’Leary described Sprint’s 5G strategy as equal parts consumer and business. Similar to previous network upgrades, Sprint is providing a platform that will evolve and eventually open new opportunities to customers of all types, he added.
“From a business perspective or even from a phone user, you have the hub available to you,” O’Leary said. “I think from an enterprise perspective there may be more interest later on as you do massive IoT and those kind of things.”
Chris Melus, director of device and service network integration at Sprint, agrees with that assessment. “The IoT world’s still a little nascent until we get to the lower latencies. Today you won’t see the low-latency applications,” he said, adding that a bridge into enterprise will be more clear when those capabilities are up and running.
“As we move out more to the edge, you will start to really see some network slicing going on,” Melus said. “When you’re in the mostly low latency standalone system, then can you slice off a part of a network and go behind a facility or somebody else and say ‘you have a private network now that we can kind of keep off to you.’ That’s when you’ll see the big push on the enterprise side.”
T-Mobile US declined SDxCentral’s requests to make an executive available for interview on this topic but a spokesperson says the operator is focused on businesses and consumers alike, and that’s unchanged in the 5G era.
“T-Mobile’s focus is on delivering broad, nationwide 5G for all, and we’ll be able to add crucial depth to that coverage if regulators approve our merger with Sprint,” the spokesperson told SDxCentral.
“For T-Mobile for Business specifically 5G marks an incredible opportunity and role reversal with AT&T and Verizon,” the spokesperson added. “While those companies had the spectrum assets needed to attract large enterprises and government entities in previous wireless generations, we hold that advantage in the 5G era.”
5G will enable new and established businesses to transform their industries, including applications like broadband in rural areas, virtual and augmented reality experiences that provide critical data in real-time, remote viewing of live concerts, instantaneous language translation, and real-time monitoring of previously of operations that are currently operated manually in a largely analog context.
“Though the near-term 5G smartphone experience will be an increase in speeds,” the T-Mobile US spokesperson said, “5G will be a seismic shift for smartphones and beyond for both consumers and businesses alike.”