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By Maria Macra, director of government projects, Sofrecom

For the past three years, the national plans drawn up by most developed countries have included 5G. In the emerging countries too, the deployment of 5G is starting to be integrated as the ultimate facilitator of their connectivity.

It would appear that the promise of giga wireless connectivity is seen as a miracle solution for countries where the costs and risks of building networks are very high. Whatever the case, the regulatory framework remains essential for a coherent development of 5G.

Giga connectivity: The new frontier

Demand for capacity on fixed networks has far outstripped the forecasts made 10 years ago, largely due to OTT's multi-screen uses.

Similarly, capacity demand has exploded on mobile networks, with an average increase in traffic of 100% in emerging countries and 50% in developed countries. The cause is the advent of applications and the terminals able to support them.

Concurrently, in developed countries, the density of connected objects is expected to increase from 1,000 to 100,000 per km2 over the next 10 years.

Against this background, the deployment of 5G satisfies two demands: that of the general public, wishing to extend its fixed uses over the mobile network; and that of industry, which wants to ensure that the new network is able to leverage all the IoT potential.

Operators need to ensure its profitability

All the advances stemming from 5G and new applications carry significant direct and indirect costs for operators.

Already, ITU and the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) have warned about the potential effects of 5G launches on the digital divide on the residential market. In order to achieve reasonable returns on investment, most operators are considering initial deployments either in high density areas (cities) or in highly demarcated industrial areas to serve businesses. The risk of an increase in the digital divide is thus significant both within a single country and between emerging and developed countries.

How should 5G fit into a national superfast broadband plan?

With 5G launches under way, the role of public policy is structuring to organize the market, facilitate investment and create the conditions for growth.

5G’s integration into the roadmap of national plans will have to take into account four important and non-exclusive elements.

  1. Identifying the demand

A successful 5G launch must build on existing or latent and potentially significant demand. 5G addresses the demand for capacity, but also for symmetry in applications and very low latency. If a country’s industry is not prepared to make massive use of connected objects or to kick off services based on the said technology, or if the residential market cannot afford the applications that might be addressed to it, it is more appropriate at this stage to focus on creating the conditions for growth and uses under 4G networks.

The considerable difference between countries with high fixed penetration and countries focused on mobile will also need to be taken into account. In the former, fixed/mobile continuity will be the foundation for the massive development of applications, while in the latter, the aim will be to increment “wireless-centric” and OTT-type application uses.

From an industrial point of view, public players will need to find the right timing. It is important that time requirements not be set too early, before the launch of applications and devices, as this would generate frustration. However, they should not be set too late either, as this would slow down development. No one wants to end up in a situation where customers with next generation connected cars, the capabilities of which were probably a decisive factor in their decision to purchase, would not be able to use them.

  1. Assess the maturity of the networks

The promise of very high speed wireless connectivity must be backed up by a coherent end-to-end network and in particular by backhauls and backbone networks of sufficient capacity. Otherwise, the services will not be functional.

Consequently, it would be premature and probably counterproductive to imagine the launch of 5G licenses in an ecosystem unable to support applications stemming from this technology.

Depending on the country and the related situation, the public authorities’ requirements of the telecoms ecosystem may come in different areas:

  • bringing lower-quality sections of the network “up to standard”,
  • guaranteeing the security of the networks,
  • extending network coverage,
  • establishing new rules for the wholesale market to regulate relations between application and network providers.
  1. Consider migration

The tunnel effect experienced with the complete replacement of fixed networks made obsolete by digital networks in Latin America, or the implementation of 4G in countries that were behind on mobile 3G (South-East Asia), will not be possible, at least not in the same proportions, with 5G solutions. This is because the need for a general upgrade of the backbone and backhaul cannot be omitted. Thus, it would be unrealistic, apart from certain specific cases (very large cities in China or Latin America), to assume that countries lagging behind in 4G deployments will be able to integrate 5G seamlessly.

  1. Avoid an increase in the digital divide

Lastly, it is important not to lose sight of the importance of public regulatory frameworks in reducing the digital divide. Thus, although less profitable in the short term, 5G would enable very high capacity coverage of areas currently poorly covered by high quality broadband networks.

The implementation of specific plans, allowing, for example, exclusive usage time for the operators having made the investments, would be one possible avenue to promote both technological deployment and the growth of the associated services.

Although the integration of 5G into the five-year plans of developed countries is not contentious, emerging countries have to consider the path necessary to successfully implement this new technological environment by aiming first and foremost to harmonize their broadband network, and to establish public-private partnerships consistent with industrial objectives in the broad sense of the term.

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