The mobile industry – much like the tech industry as a whole – is always looking ahead to the next big thing, exploring different ways they can get ahead of the curve to attract customers and drive revenue. The next big thing in the mobile world is 5G and virtualized networks. But, for nearly 100 competitive wireless carriers in the U.S., there are several outstanding questions: How do we go from 3G to 4G? How do we transition from dedicated voice to voice over LTE (VoLTE)? And how do we prepare today for 5G deployments of tomorrow? During the transition, how do we provide scalable, virtualized services on legacy networks? How will we access millimeter wave spectrum, and how does it fit within our current spectrum portfolios including low- and medium-band spectrum? In the carrier world – and by extension, the networking industry – regulators have a huge influence on the ability to deliver innovative services to consumers.
Customers increasingly are looking to buy virtualized services, not simple network access, as a dynamic way to enhance the customer experience. As part of this strategic approach, competitive carriers are looking at technologies – like IP switches that have virtualized components, or other network equipment that is beginning to contemplate virtualization, as well as the spectrum to deliver a 5G experience. Importantly, 5G will not be a 4G network replacement, but will build on top of today’s networks to deliver innovative new services at screaming speeds over short distances.
High-band spectrum can carry a lot of data at fast speeds, but its reach is only a few hundred yards. With exponentially more small cells and densified networks, needs for dedicated backhaul will skyrocket as wireless carriers purchase business data services (BDS) from wireline providers. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) plays a significant role in how this market operates, and decisions on these issues could jumpstart deployment or act as a barrier. In fact, the FCC currently is looking to reform the BDS market to allow for competitive prices and reasonable terms. In addition to backhaul, these new small cells must be constructed, but first cleared for historical and environmental review. We are no longer talking about massive towers, just small deployments. And policies must reflect that the “towers” of today and tomorrow may fit in the palm of your hand in order to be relevant for years to come.
While high-band spectrum is getting a lot of attention these days, we cannot forget that access to low-band spectrum is critical for a base layer of coverage. The FCC is currently conducting an auction for 600 MHz spectrum, which is critical for competitive carriers 4G deployments. However, there is much work to be done to complete the auction, and post-auction to repack broadcasters to put this spectrum to use. Delays will limit expanding networks to rural areas and limit in building access to mobile networks where small cells have not yet been deployed. Technology delayed is technology denied and rural areas cannot no longer afford this fate.
For smaller carriers serving markets that the largest carriers do not, transitioning to 5G networks can provide new opportunities to work collaboratively with developers and their peers to bring the latest mobile services to the market. Hosted platforms, in whole or in part, may unlock new services and opportunities for carriers at lower costs and faster time to market than if they were to do it alone.
For carriers, real growth is going to come from the new connected services that are capturing our imagination. More questions: How can they integrate connected cars into their networks? In rural parts of the country, where mobile broadband might be the only on-ramp to the Internet, how can local carriers provide functionality that allows farmers to monitor crops or livestock via the 5G network? What remote health care services will be developed, and how can rural carriers deliver these services via telemedicine? These services and technologies will change all of our lives. Many of these services will need to be available through a quick roll out and scalable to meet consumers’ needs. Virtualization is one part of the strategy – but despite the talk of first to market, carriers need to be strategic. That’s why today’s regulatory policies must be forward-thinking. The policymakers and the carriers only have one chance to do it right.