Originally published on Digi.City on March 13, 2018
The race is on. At Mobile World Congress, Sprint, T Mobile, Verizon and AT&T all made announcements about their commitment and focus on rolling out 5G. This is going to be exciting. Over the coming years, we’re about to see an explosion in wireless bandwidth, and new capabilities atop it.
We’re talking about a quantum leap in wireless throughput and performance. Amid the Mobile World Congress frenzy, Qualcomm disclosed a simulation in San Francisco where median browsing speeds approached 1.4 Gbps, capable of 8K, 120 frame-per-second video streaming. That’s crazy fast, and it portends new fixed wireless and mobility applications.
5G CHANGES POSSIBILITIES
Wireless speeds at these levels unlock new possibilities. Sure, increased bandwidth will eventually enable evolution of the buzzwordy stuff like autonomous vehicles, drones and augmented reality (AR) interfaces. That’s coming, but much of it is predicated on development of things like edge computing and new wireless architectures.
More pragmatically, the new throughput levels will feed higher quality video consumption and new video applications. In fact, Ericsson estimates traffic levels will grow 8x by 2022, driven heavily by expansion of video.
New capacity levels will also expose other possibilities such as: New, dynamic energy applications and the balancing of modern grids. New services for traffic management, city operations, disabled-citizen support and safety from diverse real-time feeds and sensors. New enterprise and industrial productivity applications.
When instruments and sensors all become seamlessly connected at very high capacity, and with very low latency, we expose a new palette of colors for our developers, entrepreneurs and cities.
FEAR OF DATA DESERTS
Operational efficiency and innovation will be driven by the coming wireless networks. That understanding underscores the importance for property owners to deploy high-speed wireless to avoid living in data deserts. That’s true across both cities and enterprise. These entities’ prospects and competitiveness will ultimately be correlated to networking of their environs and working areas.
The balance is shifting in conversations between property owners and wireless network operators. Historically, cities, businesses and neutral hosts have extracted sizable rents from carriers to situate equipment on properties. In many cases, those rents are well over $1000 per month.
With the proliferation of small cells - which are highly distributed radios that enhance network capacity - and 5G, economics at those levels aren’t scalable. More importantly perhaps, the need and expectation of property owners (and their tenants) for connectivity is outpacing the value of the rents they can reasonably extract.
Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) systems will give way to cheaper, more performance-based small cell architectures. With costs declining, businesses and employees are starting to look at in-building wireless connectivity as a necessary amenity, spending to enable indoor small cell architectures for tenants.
The trend doesn’t stop at the front door of the office. The entire fabric of the city is in play. We’re seeing cities in aggressive conversations to significantly reduce the cost and complexity of deploying wireless infrastructure. These cities include Little Rock, Minneapolis and Indianapolis. Sure, the carriers have a dog in that fight, but so do the constituents. Those living in data deserts will endure economic strain, or at least forego many benefits of the modern world.
CHANGING NETWORK ARCHITECTURES
New norms, considerations and operating models will emerge. We’ll see greater pushes around virtualization, open architectures and resilience as trades for wireless ubiquity allowances.
The emerging buzz around edge computing is part of that. An entirely new industry will evolve around solution providers who expose edge compute architectures (and development platforms) in enterprise and municipal networks. Companies like Vapor.io and EdgeMicro are ahead of the game there. Amazon and Azure are on the path, but they have not yet architected highly-localized extensions to their platform that are broadly exposed to the development community.
At the same time, we’re witnessing a drive toward network virtualization, which will have large scale consequences and shift competitive maps. Marc Andreessen likes to say that software is eating the world, and VRAN (virtual radio access networking) is a great example of that. One can imagine highly localized servers (edge compute) running in street lights or traffic lights that provide prioritized network orchestration for carrier radios in the vicinity.
As things like Augmented Reality (AR) and autonomous vehicles drive the need for lower latency transactions that must operate across network providers, we may see architectures where that same described server, provides VRAN services across operators and exposes local compute for latency-sensitive applications.
That’s where things get really interesting. Entirely new, tiered architectures. The city becomes the data center.
SECURITY SOLUTIONS TAKE THE STAGE
There’s a lot there, and notably, I’ve ignored security as a topic up to this point. To continue the conversation without addressing security would be a mistake. It should be addressed from the earliest point in the conversation.
The network operators and their partners have massive opportunity on this front. They can offer a myriad of security services (such as secured virtual networks, data management services, traffic monitoring and intrusion detection) to cities and business that will be hungry for those services. Network security services will be an expansive market.
Indeed, software is eating the world, and the coming evolution of 5G wireless feeds that beast.
To the cities and businesses out there contemplating strategy: Engage in active conversation now about your wireless networking strategy. It’ll be a determinant of your future prospects. Choose wisely but don’t take too much time pondering the decision.