5G is all about consumers / 5G is all about enterprises – it’s all the same, says Vodafone
In the end, 5G is all about the consumer. Except it is not; most of the innovation will come in the enterprise space. That appeared to be the conclusion of a panel session at 5G World in London today, which represented a first foray back into a physical conference setting for many visitors. The event, established as a key date in the UK telecoms calendar in the years prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, seemed buzzy, but smaller perhaps, almost like an IoT shindig from 2018.
Nevertheless, in a wing of the cavernous Excel centre in London’s docklands, reconfigured as a field hospital as part the UK’s rearguard against the pandemic in early 2020, and as a vaccination centre in its fightback through early 2021, the industry went back to what it does best: networking. A rush of telecoms execs submitted their vaccination cards and gathered on site, glad to be out of their pyjamas and away from Zoom; while (some of) the rest of the world, plus the speakers on this panel, tuned in.
“We make too-big a deal of whether it is B2B or B2C,” said Vinod Kumar, chief executive at Vodafone Business, responding to a question about how operators are collaborating across their consumer and enterprise divisions to bring industrial-style 5G innovations to life for everyday punters. “In the end it all ends up being B2B2C.” For Enterprise IoT Insights, this seemed the most report-able angle, providing some strategic context to all the mobile broadband fluff about gaming and sports.
Smart factories and private networks might be considered differently, he implied; but most industry verticals crossover at some point into the consumer space. Kumar cited the automotive market, where the telecoms industry’s first objective is to sell low-latency mobile broadband (and, progressively, ultra-reliable low-latency comms / URLLC) connectivity to vehicle makers, city planners, and transport authorities in order to create the infrastructure for a new era of get-about mobility.
In other words, to build a consumer market. “When there is widespread deployment of 5G [in automotive], it will eventually be about B2B2C. In the end it is all with the consumer,” said Kumar. The point can be stretched for manufacturing, as well; manufacturing, however inward-focused its factory operations, is only the middle link in the supply chain, which is increasingly being pulled (yanked) in response to consumer demand. But it was an aside, really; “more of a philosophical point”, said Kumar.
At the same time, the discussion continued to put focus on these crossover industries, like education and healthcare, making new usage of enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) in the aftermath of lockdown – and homeschooling, home working, remote care, and so on. The pandemic has crystalised the business case for enterprise-grade connectivity, even if school districts and healthcare authorities are mostly getting a go-faster version of consumer LTE (eMBB-5G).
The difference for operators, and other providers, is the device purchases and airtime contracts are of a different order to straight consumer sales, and are increasingly incorporating private LTE and 5G installations to boot. The URLLC angle, arguably where 5G use cases get exciting and different, will come later, with newer 5G NR releases, and will be more factory-like in their operations – connecting operating theatres, we hear, and road intersections and vehicle controls.
Kumar referenced Vodafone’s work to install 5G in ambulances, to enable remote specialist care for patients even as they are in transit to hospitals; he noted a chunk of the European Union’s €750 billion Covid-19 recovery funds will go on re-engineering healthcare in Europe. This, he suggested, in response to a question about the challenge for operators to get past the red tape of public-sector contracts, will give 5G a clearer route into healthcare.
He commented: “In three to five years, there will be massive change in the healthcare landscape due to the pressure on the system and the weakness exposed by Covid-19. And we are seeing evidence of that through the tenders coming out now, and our discussions with hospitals. You can always be sceptical about public sector adoption of technology, but Covid-19 has helped to put a gun to the head….” Our notes from the session stop short, and the analogy is unfortunate, perhaps; but the message was clear that Covid-19 has focused public-sector minds.
Something and nothing; the point in the end is these various vertical-market innovations will drive the consumer experience. Kumar was flanked on the session at 5G World by Marc Allera, chief executive of BT’s consumer brands in the UK, including EE, and Ong Geok Chwee, chief executive at the Bridge Alliance, a collaborative working group for operators in Asia Pacific. There was some to-and-fro, mostly between BT and Vodafone, about their work to launch “immersive” 5G experiences.
Allera, as per his remit, talked about interactive fan experiences in stadiums, and the promise of augmented and “mixed” reality for consumers; he was keen to point out EE was first in the UK with 5G, as it was with 4G, and that consumers are increasingly discerning about reliability and performance. Kumar said Vodafone had connected a sports stadium in Dusseldorf. Geok Chwee said collaboration between operators, the raison d’etre of the Bridge Alliance, was working among its members.
But most of the talk was about gaming, and sports, and entertainment, and yadda-yadda, with little of consequence – or little to remark upon here. There is a private 5G session in an hour, which might say more of the transformative impact of 5G. (Ah, but maybe I am blinkered and bored – respectively, by the potential impact of telecoms on the outside world, and the impact of telecoms on telecoms, selling go-faster tech to zombies in commuter carriages.)