The deployment of LTE otherwise known as 4G is in full swing. Operators in US, Japan, Korea, Finland, Australia, and others started deploying the new technology some years ago and are nearing completion of their network build out. Others in Europe and Asia are on an aggressive schedule to catch-up. We can expect that a majority of the operators will have LTE up and running in the next couple of years. Operators have sunsetted 2G. In some instances they even stopped investing in 3G and are putting all of their investments in the 4G bucket. As mobile networks transition to all IP, operators will be able to re-farm their spectrum assets for 4G deployments. Beyond LTE, operators are looking at LTE-A to provide more efficiency and network bandwidth to consumers.
In mature LTE markets like the US, Korea, and Japan, the talk has shifted to the next generation technology evolution – 5G. Even Europe, which still has a long way to go before their 4G is built out have set their sights on 5G to recapture the mantle and the pride of the GSM days. Korea and Japan led the world in 3G but lost the lead of 4G to the US. They both are eager to be considered leaders in 5G. Japanese government has set the ambitious goal of having 5G by the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. US regulators have started to talk about 5G and the future spectrum needs as well.
Since the launch of 1G networks in late seventies and the eighties, we are now onto the 5th iteration of the network technology evolution. We have gone through a lot of technology skirmishes but with 4G and likely with 5G, we are narrowing the differences between technology options giving significant technology scale advantages to the ecosystem.
As network technologies have evolved, the application landscape has changed as well. 1G or AMPS was all about basic voice services. GSM and CDMA (2G) digitized mobile and we saw basic messaging and data services introduced into the market. 3G (WCDMA, EVDO) introduced the potential of data services to the ecosystem and the consumers. The launch of iMode in Japan became the poster child of data services for much of the 3G evolution around the globe. Midway in the 3G growth, new players like Apple and Google entered the ecosystem and laid the foundation of unprecedented data and application growth. Business models and control points in the ecosystem changed overnight. The insatiable data demand led to the acceleration of the 4G services in many leading markets. For the first time, the network technology was data-led. We are clearly moving towards an IP infrastructure where voice is just another app running on the data network.
In fact, data is the primary revenue engine for the services providers and rest of the ecosystem. In Japan, almost 80% of the revenue now comes from data services. In the US, we are approaching 60%. Other nations are not far behind. Even the emerging markets have caught up very fast and in some instances leap-frogging their western counterparts in certain application and services segments.
All through last four generations, the fundamental business model of “metering” remained the same. Barring some exceptions, there has been a direct correlation of usage and revenues. Will 5G be any different?
Another significant standard that has evolved is Wi-Fi. The impact of Wi-Fi on the mobile ecosystem can’t be overstated. It has become so pervasive that we have ask the question how long before nationwide Wi-Fi first networks start to make a run for the wallet share in major markets. How will Wi-Fi fit in with 5G, will the two standards merge?
Will 5G offer new business models or explore a different relationship between usage and cost? Will consumers warm up to the idea of value-based pricing? Or Will access just become a commodity layer like water and electricity and most of the value will reside in the platform and application layers? Though we have started to see the shifts (as discussed in detail in our 4th wave series of papers), how fast will future accelerate? Will the ecosystem landscape be markedly different than what we have in place today?
We won’t know the answer to some of these questions for a while but it is worth exploring the lessons from the past and potential disruptions that 5G could bring to the ecosystem that benefits the end customers. In the end, it might not be about the technology at all but about the business models that shape the technology landscape. This paper explores 5G through the lens of the past and explores the wireless world beyond 2020.
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