At a time of year when predictions rain in from all corners of the industry, what can we reasonably expect from 2021?

As the year draws to a close, it is something of a tradition for the telecoms industry to speculate about what to expect from the coming year.

Looking back at 2020, none of the predictions for December 2019 could possibly have predicted the enormous upheaval that we have all experienced just a few months later in the form of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, with a vaccine finally becoming available, will 2021 see a return to normality? What are some safe bets for the telecoms industry after such an unruly year?

Here are three key areas in which we expect to see significant movement in 2021.


Infrastructure deployment remains the priority

It should come as no surprise that building out infrastructure is going to be at the top of the operators’ to-do-list for 2021. Outside of countries like South Korea and China, 5G deployments are very limited, meaning the exceptional speeds and services that this new technology can provide is currently off-limits for all but a few major cities in many countries around the world. To monetise 5G effectively, coverage will need to be improved fast and the race to hit coverage milestones quickly is a battle facing operators in almost every market. 

Fibre deployment is a similar story. Many governments have ambitious gigabit broadband targets for 2025, which will rely on fibre deployment rates that not only match those of 2020 but far exceed them. The pandemic has seen an enormous shift to remote working, making quality internet a vital part of modern life, akin to other utilities like electricity and water. 2021 is unlikely to see a rapid return to the office even if a vaccine is rolled out at scale – this new normal is here to stay.

The telecoms sector is being held up as a crucial industry for the economic recovery following the pandemic and accelerating the rollout of key infrastructure will be at the heart of this process.


Developing industrial 5G and private networks

A large part of this economic recovery will be through the communication sector’s coupling with various industries. Operators are rapidly coming to realise that the real value of 5G comes not from offering more data to consumers, but in the way in which it unlocks additional new technologies, such as AI, automation, the IoT, and edge computing. Combing these new technologies with industry players in fields like manufacturing and commercial goods transportation is going to be extremely profitable, the question is: how?

To truly deliver on the promise of Industry 4.0, operators are going to have to diversify into industry spaces they have never worked with directly before and for this they will need to rapidly develop new skills and new relationships. Private 5G networks offer a great opportunity to offer enterprise partners tailor-made connectivity to really revolutionise their productivity – and if the telcos can do this through also offering turnkey solutions as a result of their ecosystem partnerships, the more the better. 

We have already seen a significant number of private 5G network deployments around the world and can surely expect to see more of the same in the coming year.

Industry 4.0 itself will not be realised in 2021, but it will surely be a year of increasing collaboration and enterprise experimentation for telcos, as they battle to find new ways to monetise their connectivity.


Open RAN’s trial by fire

2020 has seen the concept of Open RAN turn from something of a novelty, dismissed by traditional RAN vendors, into a rapidly growing phenomenon, offering the potential for an entirely new ecosystem of network players seriously enter the conversation for operators. 

Perhaps in part spurred by the need to find viable alternatives for Huawei’s 5G technology, numerous operators and indeed the traditional RAN vendors themselves, like Nokia, are exploring Open RAN seriously this year. In the UK, for example, Vodafone recently announced a plan to expand its pilot programme for the new technology and deploy it at 2,600 around the country. Meanwhile, membership to organisations like the O-RAN Alliance continue to swell, with discussions around industry standards for the technology progressing rapidly.

2021 will be something of a trial by fire for the new technology. Excitement surrounding the technology has grown steadily throughout the year and rightly so. But, like so many emerging technologies, Open RAN runs the risk of over-promising and being overhyped, only to encounter new challenges as the technology matures and trial results become more widely available. The coming year will be an inflection point for Open RAN, potentially delivering on its promise and challenging the traditional RAN space, or failing to live up to its potential and watching the industry grow disillusioned. 


Do you have any predictions for 2021? Get in touch via social media to share your thoughts!

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