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5G opportunities for channel partners yet to take shape

At the beginning of 2020, many aspects of 5G technology remain abstract, but channel partners can benefit by preparing their customers for future deployments.

5G technology promises wireless networks that provide faster transmission speeds, lower latency, real-time collaboration, and support for IoT and other emerging use cases. Although the 5G rollout is underway, channel partners are in a holding pattern, waiting for widespread 5G opportunities to emerge.

There were four million 5G connections globally as of the third quarter of 2019 -- an increase of 166% over the second quarter, according to data from research firm Ovum. While 5G adoption should only accelerate in the coming quarters, it will most likely take time before the technology becomes prevalent.

"My prediction is that it will probably be about five years before 5G is fully rolled out and established in key sectors," said Shash Anand, vice president of product strategy at mobile software provider SOTI. "Once 5G networks are in place and organizations see that there is robustness and security and that it will be cost-effective to switch over, industries like retail will follow suit and evolve to 5G."

Carriers trying to use 5G for high bandwidth have run into obstacles, said Steve Roos, vice president of technology and security at telecom master agent and tech distributor Telecom Brokerage Inc. (TBI), based in Chicago.

Right now, multiple carriers are "branding 5G off the 4G LTE network" by binding together at least two 4G LTE connections to enable 5G, he said. "The higher the frequency, the faster speeds you can attain," but as the frequency increases, the distance becomes shorter, he explained. This requires deploying way more 5G microcells as compared to 4G/LTE to attain the higher speeds while maintaining similar coverage.

My prediction is that it will probably be about five years before 5G is fully rolled out and established in key sectors.
Shash AnandVice president of product strategy, SOTI

"My unbiased opinion is 5G is out there in very small testbeds and [carriers are] really learning what it will take to push it out for it to be ubiquitous," Roos added. "They'll find it won't be everywhere because the carriers can't afford the density of the towers."

Another issue is that the more devices use 5G, the lower the throughput will be. Roos said the biggest 5G hindrance will be metered usage. The carriers are "looking at how they can come out with flat-rate plans that can compete with fiber plans today," he noted.

5G opportunities: Pertinent use cases

There is no question many industries could benefit from 5G.

In healthcare, 5G would improve how healthcare practitioners make medical decisions and perform life-saving procedures. For example, 5G could enable a surgeon to perform an operation without having to be in the same room, or even country, as the patient. "Before 5G, this was not possible, because if the network connection went down or there was a delay in response time, it would be a huge liability," Anand said.

The emergency services, transport and mining sectors all have largely dispersed, remote workforces that require mobile technologies to display maps, directions and stream critical information in real time, Anand said. "The launch of 5G with its faster download and upload capabilities will therefore produce real operational benefits, delivering a more seamless work experience and communication with relevant stakeholders at headquarters or the office,'' he explained.

In IoT settings, 5G will support greater collaboration between both people and devices, according to Anand.

Chart comparing 4G and 5G
How 4G and 5G compare

The channel partners' role in 5G development

In 2020, there will be "pockets of cities being lit [with 5G] and more testing and knowledge learned on what it will take to make it ubiquitous across cities," Roos said. "I don't think it will ever reach suburban and rural communities."

Roos noted that when cell towers are placed in densely populated businesses within high-rise buildings, they may need two or three microcells inside a single high-rise. He pointed out that TBI's offices are located next to O'Hare Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world. "We don't have 5G here. Even if [a carrier] stood up a 5G tower at O'Hare, it wouldn't reach us."

TBI has been speaking with AT&T about 5G, but "at this point, [5G] is still theoretical in nature," added Corey Cohen, vice president of marketing at TBI. "From a commercial standpoint, there's nothing to sell and no payment plan" in most cities around the country, she said.

Roos remains "apprehensive" about 5G opportunities because extensive testing done on 4G LTE "hasn't lived up to the speeds it's supposed to provide, so I don't have high expectations that 5G will [either], quite honestly."

From a channel perspective, there are no flat-rate pricing plans yet or service-level agreements, which partners' clients are going to expect. "There's not a 5G bandwagon to jump on," Roos said. "Everyone's monitoring the pulse on 5G to see what it turns out to be."

In the meantime, carriers have had to adjust and rebrand with some type of offering. AT&T, for example, introduced 5G Evolution, which it calls the first step on the road to 5G. Verizon launched 5G Ultra Wideband.

"We have to be careful when talking about 5G," he  cautioned. "What is the technology behind it, and what frequency spectrum is it operating in? It's not easy saying '5G' today." In today's 5G world, you must know frequency, modulation scheme and bonding to have an idea of how far and how fast the 5G solution will extend and be, according to Roos.

True 5G in the higher 30-gigabit range is very rare, he said. It is more often in the 6-gigahertz range and below today. "There is no way I can go out to partners and explain that to them so they can regurgitate it to their customers," Roos said. "It really takes an engineer to understand this, as the marketing spins on this technology have led to a lot of confusion."

Partners are asking a lot of questions about 5G opportunities, Roos said, "but in terms of true sales, there's not much to sell unless it's the stopgap 4G/LTE strategies that have been adopted by multiple providers."

In terms of what companies most want from 5G, SOTI's report, "Racing Towards the Future of Enterprise Mobility," found 83% of companies citing faster network speeds, followed by 60% that are interested in lower latency; real-time collaboration anywhere, 56%; and support for IoT devices, 43%. Yet, at the same time, more than half of surveyed organizations said they are not prepared for 5G.

Partners can benefit by assisting customers with the steps SOTI advises enterprises should take to fully prepare for 5G, including the following:

  • Planning with mobile partners and device manufacturers.
  • Implementing infrastructure upgrades, including enhanced mobile security.
  • Implementing mobile edge computing.
  • Adding real-time visibility into mobile devices.

"Showing customers that you are preparing them for a whole new world will [help partners] stand out from the crowd of those that are simply trying to catch up," Anand said.

CompTIA has ranked 5G as the third most important emerging technology for channel partners -- followed by IoT and AI in the No. 1 and No. 2 slots, respectively.

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