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In its recently concluded virtual panel titled “The 5G trail: What is next?”, Telecom Review, the Middle East’s leading ICT media platform, gathered top industry experts to explore where we stand today from a 5G perspective, and what is next for this evolving technology.

The speakers lineup included: Brahim Ghribi, head of government relations MEA, Nokia; Femi Oshiga, VP sales, service providers, MEA and APAC, CommScope; Jasim Al Awadi, head of government & key accounts segments, du; Dr Bilel Jamoussi, chief of the study groups department, ITU; Jan Holzberg, commercial director, Vodafone Oman; Eng. Mohammed Abdulaziz AlNujaidi, technology operations executive general manager, Zain KSA; Mohamed Al Marzooqi, vice president/synergy and operation support, e&.

Kickstarting the virtual event, Ghazi Atallah, founder and CEO, Picacity, moderator of the session, welcomed the speakers and participants, gave an overview of the topic at hand and the panelists shared their initial viewpoints.


For Brahim Ghribi, “when it comes to 5G, the technology is at the starting point of a long journey. We are just scratching the surface of what 5G can do and can bring to society." He said that the 5G momentum is picking up with more than 200 operators deploying 5G, at least 100 operators investing in standalone architectures, and roughly around 1000 types of devices with different form factors.

He also felt that pioneering markets such as Korea, Japan, and China are witnessing great success in 5G. In comparison, he said GCC was taking the lead in the region when it came to rollouts, the performance of networks, and even benchmarks of speed in terms of performance and coverage. He said that this was the result of great efforts from the operators, the industry, and the government in setting the environment for investment and spectrum releases.”

Jasim Al Awadi said that the UAE is at the forefront of investing in new technology making it possible for almost 97.5% outdoor 5G coverage and said that by the end of the year, it would touch 98.2%. He felt that the next step would be 5G monetization as use cases. Apart from individuals using 5G, the bigger 5G use cases would be for the full digitalization of industrial operations. "Without the limitations of latency issues, now the connectivity space is open for us to innovate and move forward."

For Femi Oshiga, 5G offers opportunities in “very different ways.” He felt that 5G opens opportunities for industry specialists and participants to deliver new products and create stimulus in the market.

Dr. Bilel Jamoussi started by picking up on the discussion on 5G during ITU-CXO meeting in Dubai hosted by Telecom Review and du in December 2021, where over 50 executives from around the globe discussed the future of 5G. He said that on top of issues discussed there, including the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning in 5G, the ITU study group has found significant improvement in the fiber optic infrastructure supporting 5G and new protocols and use standards using PON and going to 400 gigabits per second speed on national network traffic. He also said that another area of great interest is the use of machine learning in 5G for optimizing autonomous networks. And thirdly, he mentioned the growing interest in test-bed federation launched by ITU to provide an environment to identify new use cases and business opportunities to monetize 5G.

Jan Holzberg said that as a new entrant in the Oman telecom space, Vodafone operation has had the opportunity to be 5G native. “Being essentially legacy-free, both from a network perspective as well as from an IT perspective gives us some unique opportunities to maximize the opportunity of 5G now,” he said.

Eng. Mohammed Abdulaziz Alnujadi mentioned that Zain launched commercial 5G in 2019 and today Zain KSA has 63% of 5G coverage across 70 cities in Saudi Arabia and 40% of traffic comes from 5G. “We are launching the LAN for IoT for B2B customers for use cases and applications which will be cost-effective and time-saving,” he added.

Mohamed Al Marzooqi, shared the company’s philosophy on 5G as well as the meaning behind its rebranding. Previously Etisalat Group, e& operates in sixteen different countries, with 5G currently implemented in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The operator’s coverage is affirmed by Marzooqi to exceed 90% and by the end of 2022, they are targeting to reach 98%. He opined that the 5G journey for e& was a marathon rather than a race. “We introduced 4G and since that time we were discussing what is coming next. Subsequently, we were the first ones to introduce 5G in the region.” He also said that 5G was not just an evolution but an end-to-end revolution when it comes to technology for the customers as well as enterprises.

In line with the operator’s rebranding, the webinar’s moderator asked, “What will be the role of telecom operators to expedite the introduction of services based on 5G into different economic sectors?” “Actually, we’ve been through complete transformation programs for the last two years,” the e& executive said. “The rebranding was the last thing to be done. First, we changed everything inside e&, then later changed the name to reflect the transformation done internally.” e&’s philosophy is founded on the belief that 5G should not be linked only to provide connectivity to end-users. “This is only the tip of the iceberg for what 5G can really deliver.”

The Middle East vs international peers

The speakers debated first on the position of Middle Eastern countries and players in comparison to their international peers in terms of 5G deployment.

Eng. AlNujaidi stated that 5G network rollout started in 2019, and Asia Pacific countries led the way. Compared to 2020, the number of 5G smartphone subscriptions worldwide doubled in 2021. In 2022, 5G subscriptions are expected to pass 1 billion, reaching that milestone in two years. Not to forget, Saudi Arabia puts 5G adoption as a priority to transition from oil dependency, to a knowledge-based service economy. “If we are looking at benchmarks like Ookla, Saudi Arabia and three to four countries from the GCC are in the top 10 in terms of availability deployment, connection times, and speed. This shows the region’s leading position.”

As for Holzberg, he tackled this question from a service standpoint. “Reflecting specifically on the region and the GCC, and in comparison to other regions, we have a high propensity from consumers to try new services. The UAE is a perfect example for the spirit of innovation they have and genuine drive from consumers to take the latest and the greatest. In Oman, it is no different,” he said. Talking about services, Jan considered the ecosystem to be a challenge to create consumer relevance. “Monetizing 5G for consumers beyond connectivity and the speed advantage, there are certainly much more things to do and partnerships are required to create that relevance so that the consumer truly sees the value of this technology.

5G use cases and its adoption in the next years

5G use cases was one of the topics highlighted by the panelists. Dr Jamoussi spoke about how 5G can be tapped in industries like manufacturing, healthcare, logistics, and transportations, among others, and how 5G can be truly leveraged.

He said, “Seizing the 5G opportunities will require a dialogue of ICT industry with the verticals to leverage 5G networks. The initial deployments have focused on ultra-broadband but low latency and massive connectivity are what will enable digital transformation and bring new monetization opportunities.”

du’s Al Awadi gave some examples of the 5G use cases that the operator is tapping in the UAE. “We will soon productize smart grid use cases, in addition to driverless cars, smart services and fully automated mining sites. We have reshaped ourselves to cater to this demand and we’re ready now to monetize 5G.”

Each panelist had a different vision of how 5G adoption will be in the next few years and what needs to be done for a successful deployment.

Ghribi confirmed that now is the time to move to the next phase: “We’re moving into the second wave of 5G whereby front runners are looking at the next step that goes beyond enhanced broadband. Now the next phase will be about collaboration and partnerships.”

Holzberg echoed Ghribi’s statement and emphasized that new partnerships and the right ecosystem are required to reach the tipping point of 5G and for consumers to actually feel the true 5G capabilities. He also highlighted that this year will be all about migration to 5G.

For Dr. Jamoussi, “The next phase should be about making 4G and 5G as accessible as possible to connect the rest of the world and stopping 2G networks on the other hand to have a more equitable digital transformation and achieve the SDGs.”

Jasim Al Awadi agreed that operators should have a clear strategy on how to seamlessly phase out technologies, notably 2G that is sunsetting in the UAE. 

According to Femi Oshiga, the next phase of 5G should see lower latency and higher percentages of massive IoT adoption, mobile broadband and fixed wireless access.

“Those three elements will make 5G a success and I hope that we, as an industry, will get it right this time, unlike 4G that we gave away too cheaply to the market.”

Mohammed AlMarzooqi concluded that telecom operators will need support from everyone to successfully offer 5G, especially that obstacles have delayed deployments worldwide, including the trade war between China and the US which will cast its shadow on the GCC region as well.

The role of governments and regulators

Asking about the role for governments and regulators to make 5G rollout a success, Ghribi commented that “most countries have invested heavily in 5G and they reaped the benefits during the pandemic. There were no major disruptions and everyone was able to get more connectivity for online education and remote working, so the government definitely played a key role.”

Moreover, the other important point is to create some type of rules to incentivize 5G deployment; For example, one should pay attention to different sites of configurations: if it’s indoor or outdoor, how to acquire sites, how to facilitate the implementation of the site.

Migration to 5G standalone expected in 2022

One of the topics mentioned was the ongoing evolution of standalone (SA) and non-standalone (NSA) 5G architectures. As a matter of fact, when the audience was asked in a poll launched at the end of the panel “which architecture is better suited for 5G?,” the majority leaned towards SA. 

Being the youngest operator in the panel — others include Zain KSA, e&, du — Vodafone Oman’s Holzberg emphasized that they are 5G-native and legacy-free. This gives the telco a unique edge in making a difference in people’s lives and providing a better experience with service differentiation.

“5G is 10x more efficient than 4G so obviously the investment makes sense from that perspective,” remarked Holzberg. Hence, a milestone that can be seen in the immediate future this year will be the migration to the 5G standalone.

“A lot of the operators, particularly in the region are still on NSA. Within Vodafone Group, we have Germany as one of the pioneers that is now operating fully in 5G SA at an advantage,” explained Holzberg.

In the same context, Mohammed Abdulaziz AlNujaidi, technology operations executive general manager, Zain KSA stated their 5G SA deployment in February 2022. This embodies the success of 5G linked to its capability of transforming vertical industries.

“This gave us the growth for digital services for enterprise and individual customers,” AlNujaidi said. The telco’s 5G network would work in both SA and NSA to utilize 5G use cases and applications (cloud, drones, etc.) in the most effective and time-efficient way.

AI, ML and IoT and 5G

Dr. Jamoussi highlighted the need for International numbering resources database, which is managed by the ITU. He pointed out that recently ITU is receiving significant requests for non-geographic codes of numbering resources for the machine to machine and IoT applications, where the devices are identified, not under a given country code, but under a country code that is managed by the ITU whereby that device can operate in any geography around the world. “Identification of IoT devices is the first step towards secure communication because the network operators want to be able to identify those end-to end-IoT devices uniquely and to establish the cybersecurity perimeter using them,” he said.  He also stated that another area of great interest is the use of machine learning in 5G for optimizing autonomous networks.

Holzberg also hinted at the use of AI and ML in 5G when it comes to saving energy consumption in mobile networks. Data provided by IoT sensors coupled with AI and ML automation has the potential to drastically cut carbon emissions emanating from the ICT sector.

Al Awadi opined that 5G capabilities were more suited for industrial use cases. As such the combination of AI/ML and IoT over 5G networks promises a lot of benefits for various industrial operations across sectors.

Finally, Oshiga discussed this from another angle: the antenna which he considers being forgotten amid the focus on emerging technologies but is very valuable. A good infrastructure costs a lot of money he says, and industry experts need to balance quality vs cost.

At the end of the session, the moderator shared the results of the poll launched during the virtual panel to the audience. For the first question, “Do you think it is fair to charge a fee for 5G licenses?”, the majority answered “yes”. Second, “Governments and regulators are failing to make enough spectrum available for 5G,” the audience leaned more towards agreeing, but Atallah considers our region to be doing a good job. Third, answering the question on whether 5G is risky for aviation and interferes with aircrafts, it seems that this is a problem that everyone seems to understand better and only 19% said that it does interfere while and 81% voted “no”, knowing the issues behind those interference. For the fourth question, voting for which architecture is better suited for 5G, the majority said “standalone”. And last but not least, without surprise, the majority agreed on the statement “Without 5G, AI and IoT cannot be leveraged.” Atallah commented that we need 5G to be able to take full advantage of AI and the proliferation of IoT devices.

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