To make the business model work, operators need to move away from purpose-built infrastructure — which is not cost-effective — in favour of more general purpose and virtualised equipment.
It is no longer possible to manually engineer a network to cater for known traffic patterns, said 5G test equipment maker Viavi Systems vice-president of programs Amit Malhotra.
Instead, changes would be made on the fly, possibly by artificial intelligence. And that requires virtualised, software defined systems.
"Carriers have missed the boat on things like agility" thanks to single-function equipment, agreed VMware executive vice-president of strategy and corporate development and telco NFV group general manager, Shekar Ayyer. The idea of a telco cloud "will be fundamental to the efficient deployment of 5G".
Telcos traditionally work in four-year cycles, said Pivotal senior vice-president of strategy James Watters, but applying ideas such as continuous delivery and containerisation could move them to one-week cycles. This presents "a huge opportunity on the infrastructure side" and allows much quicker delivery of new services.
"It's got to be an hour cycle," said Dell Technologies senior vice-president and general manager of OEM and IoT solutions, Bryan Jones, who also pointed out that carriers have made massive investments in the equipment associated with each tower, and they want to keep using that alongside new applications and capabilities.
But even where carriers are looking at virtualisation, they don't always see the big picture, according to Ayyar. They may merely want to virtualise a particular network function, where a wider view would allow them to compete with over-the-top providers and also with cloud hyperscalers.
However, there will be some significant partnerships between hyperscalers and telcos, he predicted.
Chan suggested that part of the problem is the existence of two competing camps within a carrier. Those responsible for deploying and running the network are risk averse, while the business side of the company is eager to do new things. Consequently, the companies need blueprints that accommodate both.
There are tremendous opportunities to gain flexibility by virtualising functions, said Jones. It provides an opportunity to adopt 5G with much less single-use hardware, helping to bridge the gap between 4G and 5G without breaking the bank. "VMware's making a critical component for that," he said.
Chan added that 5G isn't just about faster downloads to phones or an opportunity to replace the ageing cables delivering broadband to homes and business premises. "We see a lot of potential" in areas such as industrial automation, retailing, and sports, she said.
Watters underscored the significance of retail. New uses would be found for the equipment racks located in megastores, and he also suggested that as increasing bandwidths cross "hidden thresholds," previously unimagined applications will become viable.
The property industry takes connectivity into account when evaluating commercial buildings, said Chan, so 5G would soon become part of that analysis.
Taking an even wider view, 5G presents "an opportunity for everything with a chip to be connected to the network," said Malhothra.
Fifty-five commercial 5G networks will be deployed around the world by the end of 2019, said Malhotra, even though the standards won't be complete until 2020. Pre-standardisation rollouts aren't unusual: the same thing happened with 4G, he noted.
Disclosure: The writer attended Dell Technologies World 2019 as a guest of the company.