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Eight Telco Storylines to Follow in 2021

We don’t pretend to know what the future holds. But we are keenly aware of the challenges and aspirations of both enterprises and service providers heading into 2021. Here’s what we think will happen.

January 12, 2021 8 minute read

Predictions are hard, especially when they’re about the future. Depending on your Google search, it was either Nils Bohr, a Nobel laureate in physics, or Yogi Berra, the quick-witted baseball great, who shared such wry wisdom. 

At WWT, we don’t pretend to know what the future holds. Given the year we just went through, who would take such a position? What we do know are the needs and aspirations of our customers — more than 70 of the Fortune 100 companies, including many of the world’s largest service providers.  

In collaborating with customers to solve some of their biggest technology challenges, we’ve gained unique understanding of what may play out over the course of the next 12 months. 

Call them predictions. Call them trends. Call them what you will. Based on our experiences with our some of the industry’s leading voices, here are eight storylines we anticipate will remain in focus for much, if not all, of 2021. 

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5G goes mainstream... sort of. 

Bids for C-band spectrum began in early December and have already shattered Federal Communications Commission (FCC) records — more than $80 billion over 74 completed rounds as of Jan. 11. That figure will continue to rise as telcos of all kinds look to gobble up the precious little additional midband spectrum in the FCC's pipeline

Some of that C-Band spectrum, which is ideally suited for 5G, may be available to operators for use in this calendar year, meaning 5G will start to become mainstream, and consumers/enterprises can expect noticeably higher speeds and accessibility (i.e. wide coverage). 

However, true 5G speeds and coverage will remain a work in progress.  

Unlike previous generations in which 2G was supplanted by 3G, only to be ripped and replaced by 4G, 5G is not replacing anything. In fact, 4G LTE and 5G will coexist and complement each other for some time as service providers continue to invest in both.  

  • 5G NSA architectures allow service providers to utilize LTE core networks and base stations, while adding new 5G base stations to provide enhanced mobile broadband services and give consumers better bandwidth. 5G NSA architectures can be deployed more quickly than 5G SA architectures and represent a way for service providers to continue squeezing value from their existing 4G technology portfolio while transitioning to 5G. Initial 5G rollouts will be based on NSA architectures as service providers in a race to be the first to offer 5G services will focus on delivering much faster data speeds and reliable connectivity to consumers with 5G-enabled devices. 
  • Fully independent 5G SA architectures will deliver the full potential of 5G — ultra-low latency, advanced network slicing and new uses cases to develop next-generation services around. Service providers would also need to build a new fully virtualized 5G network that includes the radio access, edge, transport and mobile core networks all separate from their current 4G infrastructure. However, viability depends on organizational readiness and equipment availability. 

5G NSA can roll out quickly but is limited when compared to SA 5G, which will take longer to deploy. It’s not an either-or proposition. Service providers must leverage existing 4G infrastructure to deliver 5G NSA, while at the same time investing in the technology needed to work toward adopting 5G SA. 

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As we wait for 5G SA, private networks will grow. 

Thanks to the 3.5GHz spectrum, which the FCC created in 2015, more enterprises are likely to deploy private mobile broadband solutions in 2021 — both in partnership with service providers and public cloud providers like AWS, Azure or Google Cloud. 

We expect to see an uptick in private LTE networks, which provide unique wireless connectivity capabilities for a specific place or business. But private LTE deployments will require the integration of various components to make it easy to manage on an ongoing basis, leading to the need for partnerships with telcos or hyperscalers. 

As powerful as private networking options may be, they’ll still need to seamlessly plug into public operator networks to make sure people and machines have access to the applications, resources and materials they need to perform their job. 

Service providers are well positioned to approach this opportunity from end to end in order to deliver a seamless mobility experience — moving from private to public networks and back again without disruption like the way consumers move from cell tower to cell tower without knowing the difference. 

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Edge apps are on the way. 

In 2021, mobile edge computing will be critical in creating new revenue streams for network operators, helping offset the costs of executing their 5G strategy. Increasingly, enterprises are looking towards edge computing as a solution to help fix business problems, decrease cost and increase efficiency. 

Edge computing is also enabling private mobile broadband to fill in the gaps of geographic coverage, reach latency targets and support industrial internet of things (IoT) and manufacturing use cases. We’ll also see traditional cloud applications get extended into on-prem or near-prem locations to take advantage of the new 5G infrastructure, real-time data processing and low latency use cases. 

Edge computing will continue to grow either organically or through partnerships with traditional cloud providers. We’re already seeing applications that are delivered at the edge, and we expect more to come this year as developers start to incorporate the edge application programming interfaces (APIs) in their apps.  

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Telcos will shed their legacy image. Or else.  

5G advances aren’t just about deployments, they are about perception change. The days of 5G simply being perceived as the next stage of mobile phone connectivity will end in 2021. 5G is a catalyst for brand new enterprise edge use cases and private connectivity which will set the stage for the fourth industrial revolution.  

Carriers will either meet the demand of these new use cases and support their enterprise customers’ digital transformation or will be commoditized and relegated to simply plumbing. 

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Operators will begin charting a course toward Open RAN.  

By the end of 2021, it will be mainstream for service providers to commit to deploying Open RAN. While network deployments won't begin until at least 2025, operators will seek to set out a timeline for delivery so they do not appear to be holding up progress. A roadmap will encourage friendly competition and lead to further innovation. 

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But how open telcos actually go remains to be seen.  

As the push toward disaggregated and open networks intensifies, we do not necessarily see telcos opening the door to new original equipment manufacturers . At least not immediately.  

Bringing new vendors into the fold will help operators boost innovation, reduce costs and increase competition. But it also introduces an enormous amount of complexity to the equation. 

The logistics and cost of testing, integration, operation, training and licensing will present barriers to bringing in new suppliers, according to an Omdia report

Therefore, Francis Haysom, a principal analyst for Appledore Research, told TelecomTV he believes service providers would benefit from developing “ecosystem clusters” that can prove interoperability and collaboration to help ease integration and procurement challenges while still providing the operational benefits of open, disaggregated systems. 

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Security takes center stage. 

Network security is likely to gain stronger interest as 5G deployments become more pervasive.  

The broad scope and reach of 5G comes with increased exposure to a wider spectrum of security threats as the number of access masts and end-points susceptible to attack will grow exponentially. 

Prior generations of network connectivity required operators to protect the data center and put a nice perimeter around it. With 5G, the perimeter has disappeared, and potential threats have access to more entry points than ever. 

Service providers need help accelerating digital transformation by more rapidly integrating and adopting innovative technology solutions that make up a software-defined mobile network to fully realize their benefits and maximize return on investment (ROI). 

Security transformation is no different. With a sea of never-ending threats, service providers need to take a different approach that instead manages risk based on business goals and objectives

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And, of course, there’s the monetization question. 

We can talk in circles about edge, Open RAN, private LTE, so on and so forth. But it always comes back to the business case:  how are operators going to monetize this network infrastructure investment? 

Service providers in 2021 will look to maximize ROI on 5G investment by delivering transformational enterprise applications and services at the edge of the network.  

With all the debt the telcos are piling up (spectrum auctions, network buildouts, acquisitions, etc.), we expect to see even more pressure to monetize network through wholesale and enterprise offerings. 

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