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Summary

Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN)’s new white paper on 5G builds on its influential paper from 2015, providing new, industry-specific use cases and identifying important technology enablers. The paper is very topical in highlighting the important of global standardization for telcos to truly leverage the benefits of virtualization, cloud, and edge computing. NGMN proposes a common edge development platform as an alternative to the hyper-scaler options, potentially giving telcos a larger share of the edge computing pie. NGMN is also pushing for the convergence of satellite technology (today largely proprietary) with 5G standards. New Low Earth Orbit constellations could potentially provide an additional access path for mobile devices, provided they avoid the same fate as the LEO constellations of the 1990s. The final highlight, for us, is the paper’s emphasis on sustainability. NGMN argues that operators need to look beyond energy consumption to the environmental impact of infrastructure and consumer devices over their lifecycles. We wholly support this proposal and look forward to more concrete initiatives from NGMN that can deliver substantive change.

Introduction and background

Standards are a lot like laws (of government, not physics). There is a long period of consensus building and horse-trading in order to get a new bill through the senate or a standard through 3GPP committees. A bit like politics, you have two parties with differing agendas. In telecom standards you have the operators and the vendors. It is a bit like Game of Thrones but with more acronyms and slightly less acrimony.

Due to relentless pressure on cost cutting, over the years the operators have been sending fewer and fewer representatives to standards meetings. Vendors have a strong incentive to show up and push for standards that favor their own product roadmaps. Entities like the NGMN Alliance exist to boost the operator influence in standards bodies like 3GPP. They try to agree among themselves what direction they would like the standards to take and publish whitepapers as guidance for the standards committees. NGMN can also form a bridge between academia and the standards work, enhancing the academic approach by providing a practitioner perspective.

The first NGMN 5G white paper published in 2015 developed the consolidated operator requirements intended to support the standardization and subsequent availability of 5G for 2020 and beyond. A large part of its focus was on the end-to-end requirements for Enhanced Mobile Broadband but is also covered Ultra-Low Latency and Massive Machine-Type Communications. White paper one ran to 125 pages that went into great detail about requirements (user experience, system performance, operations, etc.), architecture (radio, core, etc.), spectrum, intellectual property rights, etc.

The second white paper runs to just 33 pages and doesn’t go into as much detail. However, NGMN plans to publish further position papers going into more detail on the issues it addresses. Building on the first white paper, this edition extends the vision, use cases and enablers, and has an increased focus on the vertical industries that 5G will serve. The new white paper covers a lot of ground and provides a good summary of many of the key technology issues facing the mobile communication industry. We have cherry picked four topics that particularly struck us as interesting.

The telecom industry must avoid standards fragmentation

The NGMN 5G white paper two argues that to realize the full benefits of virtualization, cloud, and edge computing, the telecom industry must avoid fragmentation by adopting global standards. The report is authored by representatives of Orange, Bell Canada, and China Mobile with contributions from AT&T, BT, Deutsche Telekom, Hong Kong Telecom, KT, NTT DoCoMo, Rogers, TIM, T-Mobile US, TELUS, Turkcell, US Cellular, and Vodafone. This list represents Tier 1 operators from a large part of the developed world including China’s largest operator.

As the US trade war against China intensifies, with negative repercussions for many international telecom operators reliant on Chinese suppliers, the inclusion of China Mobile (and other Chinese operators) in NGMN, 3GPP, and other telecom industry bodies is, in Omdia’s view, paramount to maintaining a mutually beneficial harmonization of telecom technology around the world.

Telcos must agree a standard platform for edge applications

The paper argues that Mobile Network Operators must define a common platform architecture to allow edge computing to be used on a global scale, thereby inspiring a global community of developers. A common platform guarantees uniformity in the deployment of applications and uniformity of APIs. NGMN sees such a platform as complementary to the current Hyper-scale Cloud Provider offerings such as AWS Wavelength and Azure Edge Zone. The GSMA and NGMN have already announced initiatives to deliver such platform frameworks.

The alternative, in Omdia’s view, is that the hyper-scalers will be the dominant developer platform providers for edge applications, relegating telecom operators to connectivity providers.

Convergence of satellite and cellular could be next big thing

NGMN expects a complete convergence of terrestrial (cellular, fixed broadband, etc.) and non-terrestrial (satellites, high altitude platform systems, drones, etc.) access within the 5G standards suite. NGMN believes this will enable MNOs to provide “experientially attractive” services with high availability, reliability, and resiliency. NGMN has already signed a cooperation agreement with the EMEA Satellite Operators Associations, seeking to integrate satellite solutions in the 5G ecosystem.

The convergence with satellite comes at an interesting time for the low-earth-orbit industry with two new constellations (Starlink and Kuiper) backed by billionaire businesspeople start to grow. Currently Starlink has launched over 650 of its planned 12,000 satellites (with a possible later extension to 42,000) while Kuiper has not yet launched any of its planned 3,236 satellites though it must launch at least half of them by July 2026 to meets its spectrum license requirements. Once complete these constellations will offer global coverage to devices with the necessary transceiver technology. Propagation delays for low-earth orbits (LEO) are between 20 and 80 milliseconds which is perfectly acceptable for most communication needs. Both Starlink and Kuiper are in the low end of LEO (c. 550 km and 590-630km altitude respectively versus LEO range of 500-2000km).

Increasing importance of energy efficiency and sustainability

GSMA operators recently adopted a target of carbon-neutrality by 2050. While energy efficiency was a fundamental requirement for 5G, as stated in the first NGMN 5G white paper, the new paper presents more ideas to make future networks more sustainable.

Virtualization, disaggregation and cloudification help to reduce energy consumption, as does more efficient coding, better spectrum management, and sleep modes. But NGMN argues that operators need to look beyond just the energy consumed. They also need to minimize the environmental impact of building infrastructure and manufacturing user equipment. This includes the materials chosen (e.g., rare earth metals), how they are sourced and how equipment is designed to ensure an efficient material use and ease of recycling.

In Omdia’s view, one of the greatest environmental impacts of the telecom industry is the production of mobile phones which typically have a life span of under three years. Batteries lose their ability to hold charge and are not always easy to replace. New operating systems and applications are developed that are ever hungrier for processing power making older devices unusable. If smartphones relied a little more on cloud-based processing and intelligence this would reduce the need for ever increasing CPU power on the device, albeit with increased need for networking and cloud processing. Easily swappable batteries would also considerably extend the lifespan of smartphones. Operators should encourage their smartphone suppliers to make their devices more sustainable giving preferential treatment to those that are most compliant. An example is the range of smartphones developed by Dutch designer Fairphone. The latest Fairphone model has over 40 percent post-consumer recycled plastics and comes with a screwdriver for repairs and upgrades.

Appendix

Further reading

NGMN 5G White Paper, https://www.ngmn.org/work-programme/5g-white-paper.html (March 2015)

NGMN 5G White Paper 2, https://www.ngmn.org/work-programme/5g-white-paper-2.html (August 2020)

Developments in the Wholesale Satellite Communications Market, GLB006-000042 (May 2020)

The Edge: In the Eye of the Beholder, ENS004-000082 (January 2020)

“Telecom Operators Collaborate to Build the Telco Edge Cloud Platform with GSMA Support”, https://www.gsma.com/newsroom/press-release/telecom-operators-collaborate-to-build-the-telco-edge-cloud-platform-with-gsma-support (February 2020)

5G Needs Edge Computing, but Operators Won't Have the Field to Themselves, SPT002-000226 (June 2019)

“Changing Lives through Mobile Technology”, https://www.gsma.com/betterfuture/mobile-creating-a-better-future-climate-action

Author

James Crawshaw, Principal Analyst, Service Provider Operations & IT

[email protected]

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