Marek’s Take—4 resolutions wireless carriers should make in 2019

New Year's Eve
As the New Year kicks off, it's a good time time to contemplate the biggest priorities for U.S. wireless carriers. (Pixabay)
Marek's take

Hello again Fierce readers, it has been awhile. After a two-and-a-half-year hiatus from Fierce to work for a startup, I’m currently taking some time off to travel the world and see some sights other than trade show convention halls. However, I’ll be checking in every now and then to provide you with my latest insights and observations on the telecom world. 

As we kick off 2019, which is anticipated to be a big year for 5G, I have compiled a list of four resolutions that I hope U.S. wireless carriers will consider as they embark on their 2019 network plans.

1. Don’t get caught in the 5G marketing wars. AT&T confirmed late last year that it plans to start changing the “LTE” indicator on its Android phones to “5G E” in certain markets where the company now offers 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM and other advanced LTE technologies. Where AT&T has launched actual mobile 5G service in the operator’s millimeter-wave spectrum, the carrier plans to have a 5G+ label. AT&T’s strategy is incredibly confusing (consumers aren’t going to know the difference between 5G E and 5G+) and I hope other operators don’t take the bait and start labeling their LTE offerings as 5G.

AT&T started this misinformation campaign last year when it called its deployment of certain technologies that make LTE networks faster “5G Evolution.” The carrier now seems to be carrying through with that confusing marketing messaging by replacing the LTE designation on smartphones with the “5G E” symbol.

This isn’t the first time U.S. wireless operators have blurred the lines because technical terminology and marketing lingo. Back in 2011 T-Mobile claimed its HSPA+ network was 4G long before it was designated a 4G standard by the ITU. The move sparked an outcry from competitors. However, not long after T-Mobile’s move, AT&T started marketing its HSPA+ network as 4G too. 

The problem with this type of marketing is that it distorts the value of 5G and will probably leave consumers confused about what 5G really is and why they should pay more for it.

2. Embrace open source. The traditional telecom model is no longer effective in a 5G world where networks are becoming increasingly complex and automated. Operators that want to stay ahead of the competition need to embrace open source. Some of the big operators are already doing so but many are still hesitant.

By joining open source communities, operators can become innovators. They no longer have to rely solely upon vendors to invent new technologies. And networks based upon open source technologies will allow operators to leverage new tools, automate network functions, and reduce their operating costs.

AT&T was an early advocate for open source, largely driven by John Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications. The company open sourced its ECOMP virtualization framework, which is now the foundation for the Linux Foundation’s Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP).

Wireless operators also need to take a long look at some of the advantages to virtualizing the radio access network (RAN) and become involved in the open source groups like the O-RAN Alliance. AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and many of the large global operators are members of the O-RAN Alliance, which is defining the next-generation of RAN architecture.

3. Don’t underestimate the competition. In 2019 competition will come in all shapes and sizes. No longer are wireless operators just battling their mobile peers. They are also fighting the cable companies. In the past I’ve written many times about cable’s failure to achieve any significant traction in the wireless industry. I’ve even been guilty of mocking the cable companies’ early efforts to get into wireless like Pivot, the joint venture between Sprint and Comcast, Cox, Time Warner and Advance/Newhouse that was formed to provide a quad-play cable TV, high-speed data, landline and wireless service to consumers.

This time I think the cable players may have finally figured out how to succeed in wireless. The difference is that they are devoting more resources to the wireless effort and using their MVNO deals with Verizon. Plus some, like Comcast, are making smart pricing decisions.

Last October, Comcast reported that it was steadily adding wireless customers and ended the third quarter with more than 1 million wireless customer lines. And Charter, which just last summer launched a wireless MVNO called Spectrum Mobile, reported it had 21,000 customer lines as of October. A third cable MVNO, from Altice, is expected to launch early this year.   

4. Be lean and light in the New Year. As networks become more automated and software driven, wireless operators need to change the way they operate their networks. That means doing more with the network and relying less on human intervention. In 2019 I hope wireless operators make more strides in virtualizing their networks and streamlining their network operations.

Just look at how an application like SD-WAN has transformed how some operators do business with enterprises. Instead of deploying an MPLS link, which can take weeks or months to provision, service providers that offer SD-WAN can get customers connected at a much quicker pace thanks to the virtualized systems that SD-WAN requires.

Of course, the downside of this efficiency and automation is that it can lead to layoffs. Verizon last fall said that it was offering voluntary separation packages to more than 44,000 employees. In the past week, I’ve seen many Verizon employees say goodbye to their employer, having accepted the company’s package. Verizon said that about 10,400 employees had accepted the offer, which will help the telco meet its goal of reducing its operational costs by $10 billion as it prepares for a widespread 5G deployment.

But Verizon isn’t the only operator revamping its workforce. AT&T has been very aggressive with its Workplace 2020 program. That program is an attempt by the operator to retrain existing employees so they have the skills necessary for the new software-driven world. The company said in 2018 that it would invest $1 billion in its Workforce 2020 program. AT&T’s goal is to re-educating 100,000 employees so they have new skills by 2020.

Experts say about 60% of people make New Year’s resolutions but only about 8% are successful at keeping them. I hope wireless operators take note of my list (particularly that first one!) and make 2019 a memorable year.—Sue

Sue Marek has been reporting on the telecom and tech industries for more than 25 years. Most recently, she was editor in chief at SDxCentral, where she oversaw all of that site’s editorial content. Prior to that she was editor in chief of FierceMarkets' Telecom Group, where she managed a team of editors and was responsible for the content for several of the company’s web sites, newsletters and live events. Sue is a frequent speaker at industry events and has moderated panels for the Consumer Electronics Show, the Competitive Carriers’ Show, The Wireless Infrastructure Show, 5G North America, DC 5G, Interop, and more. Follow @SueMarek on Twitter and find her on LinkedIn.