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2024 5G Outlook: Standalone Deployments and Private Networks Dominate

April 2, 2024
Spirent’s Steve Douglas shares an overview of the company’s 5th annual 5G Outlook Report, chock-full of trends such as non-terrestrial networks, open RANs, and the move to standalone 5G infrastructure.

This article is part of the 2024 Microwaves & RF Technology Forecast and TechXchange: 5G Infrastructure.

What you’ll learn:

  • 5G megatrends portend shifts to standalone and private 5G networks.
  • Augmented and virtual reality poised to enter 5G network test arena.
  • Open RAN implementations moving beyond pilots into large deployments.

Vendors of test equipment and services are well-positioned to spot trends and areas of growth potential in the industries they serve. To that end, Spirent Communications has released its 5th annual 5G Outlook Report. In the companion video below, Spirent’s Head of Market Strategy Steve Douglas discusses what the company sees for 5G in 2024.

5G Megatrends: Standalone and Private Networks

In the report, Spirent identifies two 5G megatrends, the first being a move to standalone 5G networks. This builds on some commercial deployment momentum that began last year, which was ultimately slowed by both complexity and the need for native cloud environments. In addition, macroeconomic uncertainty caused many to hold back on spending. Yet, Spirent was engaged with more than 30 service providers around the world when testing its new 5G core networks.

That 2023 precursor (Fig. 1), according to the report, provides a strong indication for a breakout in commercial deployments of standalone networks in 2024. Douglas said 2023 test activity went farther than testing the core network. However, it encompassed some of the enhanced services, such as Voice over New Radio and immersive video with network slicing, to ensure those services would be commercially available this year.

A second megatrend Spirent calls out in its report is around the private-network ecosystem. Again, 2023 saw positive momentum for private networks, in terms of an upswing in investment and some validation of how a small-scale automated 5G environment with a few selected use cases could quickly bring value to enterprises. This belies the notion that private 5G networks need to be large, complex, and bespoke.

Emerging 5G Trends: Non-Terrestrial Networks

Spirent’s 2024 outlook also identifies some areas in the 5G world with potential for high growth. One that will take off in the latter half of the decade is non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) comprising low-Earth-orbit satellites (LEOs). Douglas cites evidence of the early stages of testing direct-to-device 5G communications. He explained, “At this stage, it’s trying to understand the art of the possible in terms of what performance and types of services could be confidently provided.”

This is a process that will take several years from the perspectives of both testing and regulatory concerns, the latter meaning sorting out spectrum usage and managing interference. Spirent believes that initial NTN services like IoT and SMS direct to handsets from satellites could commence in 2025. From 2026 and beyond, higher-value services such as voice, data, and mobile broadband are likely.

Also Emerging in 5G: Augmented and Virtual Reality

A second trend area to watch is augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR). Enterprises are showing interest in how one might use augmented reality within a private-network environment to implement functions like monitoring of assets and remote tech support. Much of the testing in this area focuses on ensuring that users of AR/VR headsets were enjoying sufficient imaging quality.

Open and Virtual RAN

While 2023 was, in Douglas’s terms, “an interesting year” for open and virtual radio-access networks (RANs), the market is still in its infancy in terms of commercial deployment. There is, however, a great deal of test activity behind the scenes as network operators plan future implementations.

On the positive side, more than 30 service providers globally are targeting meaningful deployments of open RAN in the second half of this decade. There have been recent major announcements on this subject from the likes of AT&T and Vodafone, and the ecosystem is growing rapidly. There are now over 50 suppliers of radio heads, the new central or distributed units that make up disaggregated open-RAN environments.

In 2024, we’ll see evolution of the test activity toward pilots and trials of open RAN. Network operators will be checking performance, high-level interoperability, resilience testing, and security testing. These aspects are critical in moving from pilots and trials into large-scale commercial deployments in 2025 and beyond.

T&M Opportunities Afforded by Open RAN

The burgeoning adoption of open RAN, with its inherent disaggregation and mixing/matching of hardware and software, presents opportunities for test and measurement houses such as Spirent. Open-RAN implementations represent the industry’s first efforts at separation of the radio hardware and the associated software stack. This can present challenges in terms of latency performance, especially if elements of the radio stack are geographically dispersed.

It manifests in issues such as standards compliance, proper levels of scaling, and provisions for disaster recovery. There will undoubtedly be more test iterations and more concerns regarding automation of the lifecycle-management end of testing.

Some of these issues arise from the cadence of software updates and releases from suppliers, which happen faster than ever these days. As a result, more effort is expended in revalidating these frequent software drops, which can happen in as fine-grained a span as weekly releases.

Read more articles in the TechXchange: 5G Infrastructure.

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