The telecommunications industry has been talking about 5G for so long, it can be easy to forget that we’re still in early days of the technology. After the COVID disruptions that began in 2020, rollouts proceeded at a brisk pace in 2022, and millions of subscribers gained access to 5G services. This year, communication service providers (CSPs) in every market will take the next step. Based on our work helping mobile operators test new technologies and validate their networks, here are the biggest 5G trends we’re anticipating for 2023.
Operators Look to Densification, Core Evolution
5G has already brought more change to telecom networks than any previous cellular generation, and CSPs are still undergoing transformation. In 2023, most mobile operators will continue focusing on expanding 5G mid-band macro coverage. Some, however, will embark on the next big step in 5G rollouts: densification. We should see early production deployments using small cells and massive MIMO arrays this year.
2023 will also see CSPs push ahead with 5G Standalone (SA) core migration—albeit slowly. The biggest challenge remains the complexity of operating and securing multi-vendor, cloud-native 5G SA environments. Operators will also need to weigh migration trade-offs as they work to guarantee performance and optimally align early deployments with their spectrum portfolios.
Open RAN Moves (Gradually) Forward
Many CSPs conducted testing and trials of Open Radio Access Network (RAN) architectures last year, and these efforts will continue in 2023. However, while CSPs are eager for the benefits of multi-vendor, plug-and-play RAN environments, actual solutions are still not mature enough for large-scale adoption.
CSPs and their partners continue to demonstrate the technical feasibility of multi-vendor RAN interoperability in test beds. The operational models needed to support Open RAN in large-scale networks, however, remain well behind those used for traditional vendors. Instead of jumping into fully open networks, many CSPs will take an intermediate step this year, adopting virtualized RAN solutions from traditional vendors while continuing to test Open RAN in small trial deployments.
More Operations Get Automated
Open RAN isn’t the only operational challenge affecting CSPs. They also continue to struggle with the complexity that comes with new architectures and technologies in 5G, cloud, edge, and other areas. Facing pressure to lower costs and become more agile, more CSPs will focus on automating across the network lifecycle in 2023.
This push will affect everything from implementing DevOps processes, to building multi-vendor collaboration environments, to more closely integrating labs and test beds to streamline product development and speed time to market. Many operators also will push to transform service assurance and move more of the network to zero-touch, “self-driving” operations.
Testing and requests for proposals (RFPs) in all of these areas grew throughout 2022, and that trend continues in the coming year, especially around assurance and Operational Support System (OSS) functions. As CSPs face pressure to match hyperscalers that have already automated much of their operations, we also anticipate more industry-wide discussions around removing the structural barriers—chiefly, lack of consistency and standardization—slowing service provider automation.
Operators Turn to Monetization
By end of 2022, CSPs had built out 5G networks enough to provide decent coverage for most users. However, new 5G subscriptions have typically just displaced 4G/LTE, leaving Average Revenue Per User (ARPU) largely flat for most operators. This year, especially in more mature markets, CSPs will shift their focus towards aggressively pursuing new revenues.
Look for major pushes in areas like gaming, Voice over New Radio (VoNR) and Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) as a broadband alternative, especially for connecting rural and remote communities. Some CSPs will launch early enterprise edge offerings like advanced video analytics using Ultra High Definition (UHD) video monitoring and artificial intelligence (AI). We should also see initial forays into metaverse-related offerings combining virtual reality (VR), gaming, VoNR, and collaboration services.
Private Networks Scale Up
2023 will also see a big monetization push around private cellular networks—though not necessarily on 5G. This follows many trials and early deployments throughout 2022, and CSPs expect to see significant enterprise adoption this year.
Many initial deployments, however, will continue using primarily 4G/LTE technology, with 5G non-standalone (NSA) networks employed only for select use cases that require additional radio capabilities, such as faster 5G speeds. Private 5G SA implementations will begin to slowly appear as market availability and operating confidence with delivery partners grows.
For early private 5G SA implementations, look to the industrial sector, where lower latencies, enhanced power efficiency, and enhanced radio features can enable new innovations in robotic automation and the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). We expect the first production use cases for industrial 5G to begin appearing towards the end of 2023, as the first wave of 3GPP Release 16-enabled network equipment and devices hit the market.
Asia Maintains the Lead in 5G Deployments
Last year, China drove the global 5G market as CSPs rushed to expand 5G coverage everywhere across the vast Chinese nation. This year, India takes over as the world’s 5G accelerator. With spectrum auctions concluded, two major Indian carriers are now racing to achieve nationwide coverage in 2023. Of particular interest to the global telecom community, leading Indian CSPs are focusing not just on consumer connectivity but making a strong push for enterprise private networks as well.
Meanwhile in China, with the push for nationwide coverage largely achieved in 2022, 5G radio investments should slow in the coming year. Instead, China’s large operators will turn their focus to enterprise use cases. Look for Chinese CSPs to begin placing more emphasis on private networks using public 5G spectrum for targeted enterprise use cases, especially in logistics and the energy and mining sectors.
5G brings enormous change to telecom networks, introducing new technologies and operating models across transport, radio networks, edge, cloud, IoT, and much more. As an industry, we’re still closer to the beginning of this transformation than the end. Surveying the projects slated for 2023, however, CSPs will continue to make amazing progress bringing new capabilities and experiences to their customers.