Small Cell Forum on 2021: Diversification from network densification – three ways
The most important watchword in 2021 will be diversification. This will be key to growth for the mobile industry in the 5G era, on multiple levels. In the past, cellular networks and services have been supplied, deployed and monetized by a relatively small number of vendors and operators. That will change dramatically, this decade, often as a result of densification of networks, and there will be many new commercial opportunities across the ecosystem.
In that context, we have three important predictions for 2021, when there will be significant acceleration of 4G and 5G densification, and diversification of the business model enabled by this densification.
1 | Services diversification
5G was devised with a view to expanding the services and use cases a cellular network could support, looking beyond ever-faster mobile broadband to support massive device numbers, very low latency and critical availability. However, other enablers of new services are equally important and have begun with 4G networks, particularly the expansion of cellular coverage within buildings and industrial settings.
That expansion will gather pace in 2021, and hand-in-hand with 5G’s new enterprise-centric capabilities, it will support a very wide range of new applications and services. Those, in turn, will allow a rising number of enterprises to build their digital transformations around excellent cellular coverage and performance, and a growing variety of service providers to monetize the new use cases.
2 | Deployer diversification
To maximize the commercial impact of new services, and particularly of dense indoor networks, there will be a wider variety of organizations deploying and monetizing cellular networks. The conventional cellular business model, based around a public, nationwide and generic network, will not always deliver the specialized or localized performance that a particular enterprise or building requires.
New deployers, including private network operators and neutral hosts, will become increasingly important from 2021 onwards, complementing the services of the MNOs and their macro networks. Key enablers of this diversification will start to accelerate progress this year, including shared spectrum schemes such as the USA’s CBRS band, or multi-operator common platforms such as the UK’s Joint Operators’ Technical Specification (JOTS) for in-building neutral host networks.
3 | Supply chain diversification
It will not only be deployers that diversify to meet the proliferating demands for cellular connectivity in the 2020s. The increasing variety of networks and use cases will also be delivered by a more diverse supplier ecosystem. Several industry initiatives are working to define open multi-vendor platforms that allow operators to mix and match elements from different suppliers, and lower barriers to entry for new or smaller vendors.
Standards bodies like 3GPP and industry groups like O-RAN Alliance take a top-down approach to defining open interfaces between elements of the RAN. SCF is complementing that work by focusing on common specifications at component level, particularly chipsets for the radio unit (RU) and distributed unit (DU) within a disaggregated RAN.
Our surveys of traditional and new deployers strongly indicate that small cell and enterprise networks will drive adoption of new open architectures more broadly than macro networks, which are slower and more complex to roll out. However, common component specs that underpin an open supply chain will apply to all sizes of network and all vRAN disaggregation options in time. In 2021, interchangeable components will emerge as the ‘picks and shovels’ of the Open RAN gold rush.