5G rollouts continue at pace around the world. The headlines tend to focus on the shiny consumer handset that are being launched and the different countries where 5G is being switched on by operators. 

Sifting through the headlines, it’s easy to think there is pent up demand for 5G. Yet, the reality is a bit different. That’s largely because there is no killer app yet. There are plenty of interesting examples from Asia where VR applications are being used to give people more immersive experiences, but ideas like this have yet to catch on over here.  

That doesn’t mean 5G won’t become popular here. Far from it. There is a lot of potential. 

But while many will look to operators to deliver amazing 5G experiences, it’s actually the virtual network operators, which ‘piggy back’ the operator networks, who will really make the difference to 5G take-up rates. 

What are the options virtual operators are exploring? 

Let’s start with walking into a mobile phone store. In the next 12-18 months consumers can expect to see an abundance of applications being showcased. To start with they will be geared to doing more of what you love to do now only faster. In the immediate future, 5G will be all about how fast we can get content. We’ll do less streaming and more ‘super-fast’ downloading of content. That means content will be instant.

That’s nice but not life changing. We need to look further afield for a glimpse as to what will change the world. In advanced markets like South Korea, there has been a huge take-up of 5G. 

That’s because South Korean operators ensured there was also an ecosystem of applications for consumers to use from day one. They worked with MVNOs and app developers to create apps people would use. It meant buying a 5G handset was worthwhile. You would get very different out of the box experience and value for money.

There was particular emphasis on launching VR and AR applications for sport and media. SKT developed a baseball application for example. Fans get real-time stats when they point a smartphone camera at a player, can stream a game from a variety of different camera angles and get immersive experiences like seeing fire breathing dragons during match warm-ups when wearing a VR headset at the stadium.

Dragons add drama and entertainment, but VR and AR can also be used in very practical ways such as helping you compare more complex pieces of home tech from the comfort of your home.

Talking of the home, we’ll see the advent of fixed wireless replacement. With a 5G router, consumers can truly cut the cord and have a fast, low latency high bandwidth wireless internet connection. This is particularly interesting to service providers and MVNOs offering multi-play propositions – that’s phone, broadband, subscription TV – to younger demographics who are highly mobile and may not stay at one address for more than six months.

But probably the real payback on 5G comes in the enterprise area, and that’s where we are likely to see the virtual network operators do some very interesting things. There are four main use cases:

Massive Machine to Machine or IoT. The scale of 5G networks and the bandwidth they can support unlocks huge machine to machine opportunities with devices or ‘things’ talking to other things globally. This concept of creating an internet of things (IoT) is becoming more widely talked about at home – a fridge that will order milk for you, a doorbell that can tell you there’s a package on the doorstep. 

But it’s businesses that will back IoT first. That’s because there is so much operational efficiency to be gained. From sensors in gas pipes detecting the precise location of leaks, connected cars feeding back engine data to car manufacturers, or wearable cameras for emergency services, the scope is only limited by battery life, the size of the things involved, the needs of customers and our imaginations.

Better business communications: The pandemic has taught us that connectivity is vital for business. 5G expands the scope for rich communications between businesses whether it is holographic video conferencing, spinning up an office, shop or exhibition anywhere or giving better VR/AR product demos. 

This may seem sci-fi, but actually, with the events industry trying to find ways to reinvent itself and still making tough decisions to cancel live events, there is real scope to offer immersive interactions that help people make connections and do business from anywhere in the world.

Low latency applications: 5G enables extremely low latency meaning that there is a very short delay in accessing the internet, a business network or data. This makes gaming an incredible experience in consumer land but for businesses, it’s a chance to take advantage of edge computing and use artificial intelligence (AI) to make decisions quickly. 

This could take the form of semi-autonomous robots in a warehouse moving objects, or machines performing real-time quality control checks on a production line. Being able to root out defective products or a problem with the hopper ingredients go into before it becomes a big problem are just two of the ways manufacturers can save money and time.

Private networks: 5G allows organisations to ‘slice’ up their networks. This means they can allocate a slice to different applications and ensure that security, priority and quality can all be managed on that network slice. It’s ideal for large campus-based organisations like universities and hospitals and transportation hubs. 

It’s worth noting that research by Cap Gemini shows that 75% of companies believe that 5G is a key enabler for their digital transformation, and 47% of large organisations would consider getting their own 5G licence so they can control who and what is on the network. 

5G might not be all around us yet, but it’s certainly coming. The key now will be for operators and MVNOs and application providers to take advantage of the lessons more advanced markets have learnt. Only then will the UK makes its 5G mark on the global stage.

Operators can’t make it all happen so working with MVNOs makes sense. Operators can provide the infrastructure, MVNOs can provide the innovation and the speed to react to the market demand. That’s why, over the coming year, we should expect to see some big deal announcements between MVNOs and operators as they work on making the potential described above a reality. 

By James Gray

James Gray is an expert in mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), subscription services and customer segmentation. He advises MVNOs, start-ups, operators and application providers on their wholesale strategy and subscription models. His expertise spans launching new operators to market such as iD Ireland, developing new business models for operators such as Telkom Kenya, and go to market blueprints for ‘multi-play’ subscription services for European broadband providers.

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