Schoolar: Trends I will be watching when it comes to the radio access network and its vendors in 2017

End of the year always brings certain things. A mad rush to finish up all the research projects I previously agreed to produce when I thought the year contained 13 months and not 12. A slew of generic holiday-wishes e-mails. The futile attempt to get my dog to participate in a home office gift exchange. And, of course the obligatory look forward to the next year and comment on what I expect to see. This column fulfills that final thing, what do I think the big RAN and RAN vendor trends will be in 2017.

  • Never ending thirst for more spectrum makes unlicensed and shared spectrum more attractive. Just five years ago it would be a hard sell telling people that mobile operators using spectrum they don’t completely control through regulatory license would be a hot topic. Well that was 2011 and I am now talking about 2017. Things change. This past June the FCC identified future spectrum bands for 5G and those bands included unlicensed spectrum. The Citizen Broadband Radio Service (3.5GHz) will be shared with three tiers of spectrum access. Management of the spectrum tiers to avoid interference will require spectrum access systems (SAS). Not to be forgotten if they ever get here, LTE-LAA and LTE-U both aggregate LTE over licensed and unlicensed spectrum.
  • RAN vendors look to new markets outside their traditional mobile operator customer base. RAN vendors have a problem. Their mobile operator customer base isn’t increasing its spending. Base station revenues are on the decline. 5G as a major revenue contributor is still 4 or more years away. Because of this RAN vendors are looking for new revenue opportunities with new classes of customers. The marketing push around fixed wireless access in 2016 with both LTE and 5G is one way to achieve this. It allows vendors to sell gear to wireless ISPs, a market they generally don’t engage, and sell their gear into areas of large operators they don’t normally find receptive to base stations. RAN vendors also want to move their wears beyond just CSPs and engage large enterprises, public safety, transportation, and utilities.
  • Vendors and operators may not know exactly what they want to do with 5G, but they do know they can’t wait for it to get here.  5G discussion in 2017 are going to follow two paths. The first is around how exactly operators can make money with it. There is a good understanding that 5G must be about more than just faster smartphone communications, but beyond generic IoT and critical communications discussions nobody knows what that is.  At the same time, everybody will be climbing all over each other to claim 5G “first,” “fastest,” and “commercial ready.” Even 3GPP has gotten into the act with a promise to standardized standalone 5G new radio by end of 2017. This is a year ahead of the original plan.
  • New network architectures. Going hand-in-hand with 5G and even LTE network enhancements will be work on new network architectures. At the foundation of this will be progress on network virtualization and having network functions that are both distributed and centralized at the same time. RAN virtualization and mobile edge computing (now known as multi-access edge computing) will also play a prominent role in new architectures.  All of these things people hope will eventually lead to network slicing needed to support those yet unidentified 5G business models.

So is this list fully inclusive of all the big 2017 RAN trends – no. I am sure others will quickly point out other trends. Small cells always make a good RAN trend, but I am pretty sure I listed it somewhere in the last couple of years as a trend to watch. IoT of course will still be well discussed in 2017, but I know I listed that one as a hot 2016 trend. If you can think of some I missed please let me know. Until then, I am going to be occupied trying to teach my dog that exchanging and begging aren’t the same thing.

Daryl Schoolar is Principal Analyst of Wireless Infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas, but how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him at @DHSchoolar.