Scoping the Future of 5G

By Steve Douglas

Head of Market Strategy


February 14, 2022


Scoping the Future of 5G

Media and marketers paint a glowing picture of the amazing innovations tomorrow’s 5G networks will unleash: Industry 4.0, an augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) “Metaverse,” ultra-low-latency edge applications, and more.

Meanwhile, service providers push ahead with the less glamorous task of building out those infrastructures today. Yet, even in these still-early days of 5G rollouts, the gap between science-fiction vision and what real-world networks can deliver continues to close.

As we help service providers test their 5G deployments, we often get a firsthand look at their go-to-market strategies: what’s coming soon, where they’re placing long-term bets, and which innovations remain purely hypothetical. Based on the testing we’re seeing, here are the three big trends you can expect to play out in 2022.

Last Year’s 5G Pilots Will Move Into Production

The Metaverse may be a few years away, but service providers have been piloting many other groundbreaking 5G innovations. 2022 is the year where several become production deployments. Look for service providers to start scaling up:

  • 5G standalone (SA) core networks: Before service providers can offer more lucrative 5G services (like custom network slices for different enterprise verticals), they need to evolve non-standalone 5G networks with fully cloud-native 5G SA cores. This year, many operators will take that step—often, with help from hyperscale cloud providers, who can offload some of the operational complexity by hosting cloud-native 5G software.

  • Artificial intelligence (AI)-driven automation: Many service providers have been piloting AI-driven active assurance. These systems continually test the network with synthetic traffic and use AI to make real-time optimization decisions. Operators view this kind of automation as essential to manage highly dynamic cloud-native 5G environments, and many plan to put it into production this year.
  • Open Virtual Radio Access Networks (Open vRAN): The push to open up radio networks to new vendors and innovations is already making waves. In practice, however, most Open vRAN deployments have been proof-of-concept demonstrations. Based on testing we’re seeing; however, many will become live deployments in 2022. Service providers building greenfield networks may use Open vRAN in denser urban areas, but most incumbents will start with rural regions, indoor venues, and non-dense urban deployments.    

Service Providers Will Start Staking Out Space at the Edge

Keeping with the theme, the industry has been buzzing about the next-generation edge solutions poised to shake up the market. 2022 is the year those solutions become real. Like with 5G SA core deployments, closer partnerships between service providers and hyperscalers will play a big role in making them happen. In the coming months, we’ll see:

  • Private 5G networks: Private 5G brings the benefits of public cellular service in a dedicated network that enterprises control. It’s a great solution for large venues like stadiums, which operators expect to be early customers. Testing has shown that relatively small mmWave small cell deployments can provide Gigabit speeds and faster to thousands of users.

  • Enterprise private cloud edge services: Operators and hyperscalers are collaborating on new enterprise solutions that draw on advanced edge compute and networking capabilities. Look for an early push for video surveillance and security solutions this year, as well as desktop-as-a-service offerings for home workers. 
  • Consumer-focused public cloud services: As operators expand cloud capabilities, they’ll look to monetize the edge with consumer-facing services in video streaming, gaming, and AR.

The Future of 5G Starts Now

We may be near the start of our 5G journey, but service providers, vendors, and industry groups already have their sights set on what comes next. The vision-setting effort for tomorrow’s “Beyond 5G” solutions has already begun and will pick up steam this year. Look for advances in:

  1. Latency as the key competitive battleground: Until now, service providers have competed primarily on coverage and capacity. As 5G evolves to focus on enterprise services, especially “Industry 4.0” solutions like smart factories and robotic automation, latency will become the key differentiator. That shift starts this year, as operators look to demonstrate that their networks can support mission-critical low-latency applications.

  2. Satellite-supported connectivity: A number of innovators new and old (from SpaceX to Boeing) are investing in Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite constellations to provide Internet connectivity. Service providers are already testing solutions that would use LEO connectivity to enhance 5G coverage for certain use cases and hard-to-reach locations.

  3. Meta-materials: As the industry prepares for 6G (yes, that work has already started), they’re looking for opportunities to pull some promising future innovations back within 5G architectures. One of the most exciting candidates: reconfigurable intelligent surfaces that can redirect or amplify cellular signals. Deployed at scale, these meta-materials could have a huge impact, extending 5G coverage and reducing the required density of cell towers—which, in turn, will reduce power consumption and carbon footprint in 5G networks. It sounds like science fiction, but operators are testing these materials now.

Check out Embedded Computing Design's Embedded Insiders Podcast featuring Steve Douglas, where he talks about the 5G trends we can expect to impact the embedded edge in 2022 and the tech from 3GPP Release 17, Release 18, and beyond. Tune in here.