5G for Consumers: Behind the Scenes of Bringing 5G to You and Me

It’s an interesting time in tech history. As 5G trickles into more cities around the world, we are excited to finally get a taste of what this new technology is all about, and experience the possibilities. When it comes to 5G for consumers, few of us understand the immense work and investment that goes into making 5G available.

In this article, I’d like to give you a behind the scenes look at what’s involved. You may be surprised to learn that it’s not just about the network.

We often relate 5G for consumers to exciting new smartphone technology. But as the new 5G use cases become demonstrated to us over the next year, I think we’ll find that our smartphones are a bit boring. Will smartphones themselves become obsolete with 5G? What about wifi?

One thing is for sure, the word “mobile” will lose its luster. When the whole world is mobile, it will no longer be relevant.

Ready to learn how the 5G magic happens behind the scenes? You are going to love this! 💙

I’ve Organized the Info into 7 Categories:

[Ericsson supports the largest number of 5G devices (40+), and Ericsson works with a large and mature ecosystem of partners. I will be using their most recent Mobility Report and ConsumerLab Report stats to support each of these points.]

1. 5G for Consumers: We Want What We Want, When We Want It

It makes sense that a birds-eye view of this conversation would begin with a discussion about what we want as consumers. As with all technology evolution, people come before technology. For all Star Trek fans, think of it as the Prime Directive. Consumer and business expectations will drive the success of 5G.

As a consumer, I definitely know what I want. These are my expectations…

I want to download full-length movies in a flash. I want to take ultra hi-res pictures with my drone. I want remote surgeries to be enabled around the world, especially in places with poor health care. I want to fill my home with IoT devices and smart home tech that all talks to each other seamlessly. I want my car to drive and park itself around my smarter and safer city. (individual car ownership will likely become obsolete, but I’ll save that for another article)

I also invite 5G VR and AR capabilities to reshape my world. Most of all, I want people everywhere to have mobile connectivity, which will bring a new level of education to everyone on our planet, which will trigger global economic growth.

That’s what I want as a consumer. I also want high speed and reliability with low latency. Is that too much to ask for? I’m willing to pay for it. Let’s move out of my fantasy world and into the world of actual data…

In Ericsson’s most recent Mobility Report (which was updated in February 2020) and their ConsumerLab Report, they uncovered some interesting information regarding what consumers want. Here are a few highlights:

  • There’s a high interest for 5G among consumers.
  • Consumers are willing to pay for new 5G capabilities.
  • Based on a global population, Ericsson found that half of all consumers moving from a 4G to a 5G subscription are willing to pay a price premium of around 20% if more value is provided in the subscription. This represents one billion smartphone users.
  • 5G for consumers represents a lucrative potential for operators to create and capture new value in the consumer business.

I’d like to point out that most 5G capabilities haven’t even been demonstrated yet. As consumers become more aware of what’s possible with 5G, this information is likely to change.

For now, enhanced mobile broadband and fixed wireless access continue to prevail for consumers. We are seeing the first innovative 5G services in Korea (and a few other markets), but there’s still a lot to explore in terms of service innovation. In general, 5G trials will continue while deployments in 4G are currently still happening.

5G-for-Consumers-Service-Bundling

2. Growth of Mobile Subscribers and Device Availability

Referring back to Ericsson’s most recent Mobility Report, we see that they estimate there will be close to 100 million 5G subscribers by the end of 2020.

In the graph below, the row in grey refers to 2019, and the row in orange refers to 2020. Notice the 13 million 5G subscriptions in 2019. 2020 is the year 5G takes off and scales up. It’s also the year that the second phase of 5G begins, which is the era of standalone 5G core networks (I explain more about this in number 6 below).

5G-for-consumers-2020-scale
(THE ROW IN GREY REFERS TO 2019, THE ROW IN ORANGE REFERS TO 2020)

At the time I’m writing this article, there are only a handful of 5G-enabled devices on the market. However, that is going to change dramatically in the months to come. Soon there will be wide availability of 5G devices.

The first 5G use case is of course smartphones. Ericsson is verifying that these devices work and perform well on their 5G networks. Of course, 5G coverage will grow over time. The full potential of standalone 5G will also come over time (which will enable low latency).

Ericsson’s broad device support comes from their extensive testing with all chipset vendors on low, mid and high bands. You can learn more about interoperability testing in the section below.

The team at Ericsson continues to test devices for industries, including gateways and sensors. This is necessary to secure 5G in all locations globally, and to achieve the full potential of this new technology.

The blue graph in the section below shows the exponential growth in the availability of 5G consumer devices by the end of 2020.

3. Interoperability Testing

I’d like to suggest 2 definitions:

Interoperability — This is just a fancy word for the process that takes place when entities within a computer system exchange information.

Chipset — Every smartphone has a chipset, which is the processor. The chipset ensures that everything functions properly. It is like your phone’s brain. 🧠

Building seamless 5G for consumers wouldn’t be so complicated if everyone had the same phone. Obviously, that’s not the case. According to Ericsson’s Mobility Report:

5G device volumes in 2020 are projected to reach 160 million units. In addition, all major vendors will have released a 5G-capable device. Unlike previous cellular radio access technologies, it appears 5G will not be constrained by a lack of user equipment.

Of course, not all 160 million devices will be tested, but all chipsets models and device models need to be tested. It’s in the scale of hundreds. Some phone manufacturers don’t provide their own chipset, so in those devices, the chipsets need to be integrated.

Ericsson works closely with an ecosystem of partners (service providers and manufacturers of chipsets and devices) to perform interoperability testing, especially on the new functionalities. Interoperability testing is completed on a lab network.

In the graph below, you can see the first generation (2019) and second generation (2020) of 5G-enabled devices. This graph illustrates the explosion of 5G device availability in 2020.

5G-for-consumers-device-availability

4. Spectrum Allocations

I’d like to suggest a definition:

Spectrum — In the context of mobile broadband, the spectrum is a designated range of radio frequencies. The radio frequencies in the 5G spectrum refer to the path that carries the data from the user equipment to the cell base station.

Spectrum management and regulation is a complex and long term endeavor. Regulators on a national and international scale need to allocate spectrum for 5G, which is a global, longstanding project.

Operators need to acquire new spectrum for 5G, and in order to do that, they typically need to commit to coverage requirements over time (i.e. 90% 5G coverage by 2025).

According to Ericsson:

Spectrum regulation should aim for attaining harmonized and unrestrictive regulatory conditions for 5G and 6G systems.

Who would have thought there were so many regulatory policies that had to be worked out on the backend in order for us to enjoy the perks of 5G? Now you know!

Did you see the reference to 6G in the Ericsson quote above? The 5G era has just started, and they’re already planning for 6G. Yes, that is how long the planning cycles are when it comes to spectrum allocations.

Another aspect that falls into this spectrum category is spectrum sharing. It’s one of my favorite Ericsson offerings.

A significant proportion of 4G networks are already prepared for 5G and can be upgraded to support 5G services in existing LTE bands by utilizing spectrum sharing. Given this option, an estimated additional 10 percentage points of population coverage is achievable, creating a potential of up to 65 percent 5G population coverage in 2025.

Spectrum sharing means the frequencies used today for 4G can also be used for 5G services. Isn’t that clever?! That means there’s no waste of the scarce spectrum resources.

5. Rollout of the Radio Network

I’d like to suggest a definition:

Radio Network — The radio network, in the context of 5G, is… 5G!! When the people who are building the network refer to it, they often times use its full name (just like my mother does when she calls me)… its full name is “the 5G radio network.” Most people just call it “5G.”

The rollout of the radio network is where things get fun! We all know that it will take several years for 5G to be rolled out on a massive scale, so this part of the process is also a long term project.

It’s here that operators decide where to deploy 5G first, what is sufficient coverage, and what the backup options are when they are out of 5G coverage. There are all kinds of aspects that affect these decisions including customer experience, expectations, etc.

And again…… there’s more testing. The network functionality must be thoroughly tested before going live!

Last year I interviewed Dr. Magnus Frodigh, the head of research at Ericsson, about 5G evolution. The evolution of it all is fascinating. He and his team started working on the 5G radio network back in 2012.

Ericsson’s snazzy standalone 5G solution is tailored to traffic demands:

Our standalone 5G solutions ensure super-fast response times as well as the future-readiness of your network architecture, opening up new service-creation opportunities. NR Carrier Aggregation extends the capacity and coverage of mid and high bands when combined with NR on low bands.

With us, you can switch on 5G on low bands using your existing Ericsson Radio System radio and baseband, and share spectrum between 4G and 5G carriers based on traffic demand. And with our two new 16-transceiver Massive MIMO radios, you can build your 5G network with precision.

I can’t overstate the thoroughness of this testing (which is done through drive testing, friendly users, etc.). Before launching 5G for consumers, every kink and wrinkle must be sorted.

When thinking about 5G for consumers, imagine this scenario for a moment… You invest in a pricy 5G-enabled smartphone (or IoT device), connect it to the network, and it doesn’t perform correctly. Tragedy, right? To avoid these types of problems, the network is tested, tested and re-tested!

If you’d like to learn more about the actual sites where the radios are located, I recommend this podcast below.

6. 5G Support in the Core Network

At the beginning of this article, I set out on a journey to explain what happens behind the scenes to make 5G for consumers a reality. If you’ve made it this far in this article, you probably have a new appreciation for all the details that have to be created, configured, tested and deployed to make your new 5G-enabled devices perform properly. Let’s continue!

For this section, I’d like suggest a definition:

Core Network — In the context of our discussion, the core network refers to the high capacity, central part of a network. The core network manages and provides the services to the customers. There are sub-networks, but the core network is the brain of the network.

It’s time to take a deeper dive into the mechanics of this 5G endeavor. Imagine you are an Operator (i.e. Verizon, AT&T, Vodafone, SK Telecom, Telefónica, etc.). You want to upgrade your 4G core network to 5G, but you don’t have an unlimited budget to work with. What would you do?

You’d look for ways to lower your TCO (total cost of ownership) while still upgrading your core network to support 5G. I wrote about this recently at How Can CSPs Get the Best TCO During 5G Migration?

3GPP Standards Have Defined Two Phases to Evolve Core Networks Towards 5G:

First phase of 5G for consumers — This phase is called “5G Non-Standalone” (NSA). In this phase, the 5G network is built on top of the 4G network (on Ericsson 4G core this is achieved with a simple software upgrade), using the same core functionality. It’s all about leveraging existing 4G core networks. In this first step, you can reach 5G’s high capacity, but not the low latency.

Second phase of 5G for consumers — This phase is called “5G Standalone” (SA). In this phase, the operator needs to deploy a new 5G core network based on a new type of architecture. It is designed using IT principles and adopting cloud native technology to offer high levels of agility and efficiency, allowing them to reach the full potential of 5G.

According to Ericsson:

We have evolved our Cloud Core portfolio with new products that deliver a dual-mode 5G Core solution… but what does dual-mode core mean? It’s simple. Eventually operators will need to launch new services based on 5G NR standalone (SA) technology, but they’ll still need to care for their existing 4G customer base.

The Ericsson’s dual-mode 5G Core solution allows them to combine the 4G core and the new 5G core network elements in the very same software platform for efficiency.

CX

Imagine remote robotic surgery over a 5G network — no one wants that network to have issues, so to ensure network reliability, Ericsson has developed new software probes which are integrated into the 5G Core network. When turned on — this can reveal smart data insights via AI and automation. Read more at Securing the 5G Experience with Software Probes.

Edge Computing

To make this possible, Ericsson provides an edge computing portfolio to support CSPs who are deploying efficient solutions and flexibly across the network for many new services (both for consumers and enterprise users).

7. The Overall Market Plan

Now that we’ve made our way through the jungle of technology, let’s put our marketing hats on. Whether it’s 5G for consumers, or any other service, operators have to carefully consider how they want to position their new offering.

Maybe there’s a specific market niche they’d like to address? Maybe there’s a specific service they want to offer? The network capabilities should be built to match the overall market plan. In other words, these are two sides of the same coin.

There are many things to consider during this conversation. To name a few:

  • Pricing (No matter how cool a service might be, if consumers won’t pay for it, it’s worth reconsidering.)
  • What add-on services would be good to bundle? (immersive media, live event experiences, cloud gaming, etc.)
  • What are the guarantees? 5G offers increased reliability — does that have a monetary value to consumers?

In order to answer these questions and more, operators need to collaborate with their ecosystem partners. Can you guess what comes after they decide on new business models and pricing structures? You guessed it! More testing (and evaluation)!!! It’s time to answer questions like, how did the marketing campaign perform? It’s time to evaluate the data and make adjustments where needed. 📊

As I said at the beginning of this article, ultimately 5G success lies in how operators manage and meet the expectations from consumers and business.

According to Ericsson:

The promise of 5G has the potential to completely change the way we interact with wireless devices, from smartphones to cars. It is imperative to understand whether the vision set out by current wireless technologies and telecom operators’ offerings — specifically mobile broadband plans — meets consumer expectations today.

Around the globe, telecom operators, industry representatives and government stakeholders are actively discussing the 5G opportunity. In a recent report, Ericsson aims to bust the myths and reveal its potential with consumer realities. You can read more about that at 5G Consumer Potential.

5G-for-consumers-services

Final Thoughts: 5G for Consumers

Although that’s not the case, Ericsson does try to simplify it as much as possible for their customers. Like we discussed, Ericsson has been working on these processes for a long time. They are fully capable of supporting operators with insight and tech that will help them get to market faster with devices and services that perform.

From a consumer perspective, I like knowing what happens in the background. It answers many questions I had. For example, “Why will global mobile connectivity take so long?” and “How is 5G different than what we’ve experienced in the past?

Knowledge leads to greater understanding, and greater understanding leads to growth (and in my case, patience). After reading this article, I hope you feel as though you have a deeper understanding of this process also.

I’d like to leave you with six takeaways I’ve learned along the way. These have little to do with tech, and more to do with people. Because in the end, it’s all about people. 😘

5G for Consumers: Six Takeaways

  1. 5G adds value to consumers. That value is captured in exclusive offerings.
  2. 5G is not just bigger and better. It’s a platform with a potential for something entirely new.
  3. Early operators are starting to explore new offerings and business models, co-created with their ecosystem of partners.
  4. 5G monetization requires new pricing models (i.e. service-based pricing and device-based pricing).
  5. Cloud gaming, immersive media and live event experiences are examples of service bundles. (Imagine having a front row seat at the next Olympics or World Cup, without leaving your home.)

As always, thank you for reading my article. If you’d like to continue the conversation, please leave a comment below or tweet me at @adamsconsulting.

[Full Disclosure: This article was sponsored by Ericsson. I was paid to write about what happens behind the scenes to make 5G for consumers a reality.]

Tech journalist, Apple ACN, Digital Transformation, IoT, 5G, AI and the future of tech.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store