5G has begun. Following 13 limited commercial launches last year, the industry is expected to surpass 50 launches in 2019 globally based on currently announced plans. In talking about 5G networks, most discussions naturally focus on the radio network itself. But the transport network will also play a crucial role in 5G by providing the backhaul and new fronthaul and midhaul connectivity that will enable the high-bandwidth, ultra-reliable and ultra-low latency applications for 5G end devices. While the need for a 5G radio network to support 5G is self-evident, the need for the transport network is often overlooked.
To gain a realistic understanding of operators' views and plans for transport, Heavy Reading launched its first-ever 5G Transport Market Leadership Study with support from Ericsson, Fujitsu, Juniper and VIAVI Solutions. At the core of the project is Heavy Reading's global survey of 104 qualified network operator respondents, which was completed in April. The survey captured operators' views on a wide range of issues related to the future of 5G transport networks.
In the first of two blogs based on this new research, we focus on questions around market timing.
Get ready for the mass-market peak
Heavy Reading wanted to gain a more granular understanding of operators' 5G launch plans, including when they expect to make their initial 5G launches and then when they expect their mass-market launches to begin. Fairly consistent with previous Heavy Reading research as well as other industry research and announcements, initial launches are happening now. In our survey, 57% said they expect initial launches by 2020.
But mass-market commercial launches will come later. According to the survey, the 2021-2023 timeframe will be the mass-market peak; 53% of the group said they plan a mass-market launch during that timeframe. An additional 25% expect mass-market launches in 2024 or later, while just 9% expect an initial launch in that timeframe.
Heavy Reading also wanted to understand operator deployment timelines across the major 5G use case types, specifically, eMBB, URLLC and mMTC. Results indicate that early launches -- while largely being initial deployments -- will also focus primarily on eMBB use cases, meaning higher data rate versions of what users get with 4G. In our survey, 38% of respondents said they expect to launch eMBB services in the 2018-2020 timeframe. More advanced 5G applications in URLLC and mMTC are expected to pick up in the 2021-2023 timeframe. In fact, operators surveyed were in lock-step on these two use cases, with 43% of the group selecting 2021-2023 for each.
These expectations are consistent with the current planned timeline for full 5G NR standardization (3GPP Release 16), which is projected to be ratified in 1Q 2020 (if the current schedule holds). With full standardization, operators will launch the full set of use cases/applications.
When will the upgrades happen?
Of course, the big question for the transport industry is: When will operators upgrade their transport networks to support 5G? Heavy Reading separated responses for fronthaul and for midhaul/backhaul to understand whether there were differences in planning.
Results show that operators are thinking of their fronthaul networks and their midhaul/backhaul networks together, at least in terms of upgrade timelines. In other words, operators do not intend to build their fronthaul networks first and then upgrade midhaul/backhaul networks later or vice versa.
A surprisingly high number of respondents said they have already started their upgrades -- about 50% of the group. Heavy Reading does not believe this percentage equates to RFPs for network equipment, as anecdotal data from operators does not support the statistic. In addition to RFP activity, we think this also includes fiber plant extension, which is taking place across geographic regions (through builds and acquisitions).
Finally, we note that while the transport buildouts may not coincide with operators' initial 5G launch plans, the data does indicate that transport networks will largely be in place in advance of mass-market launches. From a transport network perspective, this mass-market timeframe -- not the initial launch -- is the critical one for planning.
In the next blog, we will dig into operators' technology and architecture preferences as they plan their fronthaul, midhaul and backhaul networks.
For additional information, please see the archived version of the recent webinar, Meeting the 5G Xhaul Challenge, in which Heavy Reading and study sponsors expand on the 5G transport topic.
— Sterling Perrin, Principal Analyst, Heavy Reading
This blog is sponsored by Ericsson, Fujitsu, Juniper and VIAVI Solutions.