Harnessing the enormous potential of 5G could be a saving grace for national economies around the world, but government policy must be careful not to stifle growth

For many years now, the telecoms industry has quietly played a pivotal role in providing connectivity throughout our daily lives. For most people, it was all too easy to take that connectivity for granted, rarely considering the vast, complex operations that were required behind the scenes to keep them connected to friends, family, and colleagues.
But the onset of the coronavirus pandemic hurled the telecoms sector into the limelight, with networks under pressure like never before. With work from home rapidly becoming the new norm, increases in mobile data traffic of up to 40% and fixed line traffic of up to 70% put operators’ networks under strain.
Thankfully, the operators quickly demonstrated their agility, as well as their networks’ resilience, showing the telecoms sector to be robust in the face of a crisis. Now, the next pandemic challenge is the reignition of global economies and governments may be turning to the telecoms sector once again, particularly given the economic promise of 5G. A newfound appreciation of the value of connectivity has put telcos at the heart of the world’s financial recovery. 
“Now that we’ve been on the centre stage, the telecoms sector has really shown that they should be a part of the economic backbone of Europe, with policies needed to reflect that,” argued Maarit Palovirta, Director of Regulatory Affairs at ETNO, speaking on Total Telecom’s latest webinar on 5G’s economic potential.
Far beyond just a faster mobile connection, 5G can deliver value through a whole host of new verticals. Most notable of these is its vast applications for major industry, utilising emerging technologies like the IoT, AI, and machine learning to generate efficiency – this will ultimately be part of delivering the next industrial revolution, sometimes called Industry 4.0.
But, as with any new technology trying to drastically change industries of this scale, adoption will be slow unless operators can quickly demonstrate the technology’s value.
“The operators have to figure out new ways to monetise their 5G investments. They can’t simply rely on access any more. So, we’re going to see a whole host of new services and use cases for both enterprises and consumers,” said Will Townsend, Senior Analyst – Networking Practice at Moor Insights & Strategy.
Scaling up 5G deployment and adoption within industry will be crucial for maximising its economic boost, but this is not without its own challenges, one of which is the development and maintenance of global standards. 
“It is very important that we have united, global standards to support the emerging 5G ecosystem,” explained Palovirta. “These standards are crucial to many aspects of a thriving industry: interoperability, leveraging economies of scale, and of course, creating a level playing field for innovation. Taken together, these standards will also ultimately increase regional competitiveness.” 
Political factors must be considered here too, with the concept of digital sovereignty and the global tech race dominating 5G discussion in recent months. But it should be remembered that the telecoms industry itself is part of a global market economy. To be rapidly deployed, 5G requires a huge investment from operators, making a competitive global vendor market paramount to drive down prices and help operators reach their goals.
“We need to really see beyond the politics of the situation to help deliver on the potential for customers,” said Palovirta.
“At the end of the day, its about transparency and collaboration. We really need to encourage all of these companies to be directly competitive,” said Townsend, adding that recent disruption to the global semiconductor supply chain by the US government was a  “a slippery slope”. 
“It will shrink the ecosystem, which in turn will have a major knock on to R&D and future innovation,” he said.
This is particularly poignant when considering the many delays already imposed on 5G development as a result of the pandemic; in Europe, for example, numerous countries have postponed their spectrum auctions as a result of the virus. Taken together, political and pandemic disruptions could be a major roadblock for 5G.
But the answer to this challenge may also lie within our global experience of the pandemic itself. Increased digitalisation means that now more than ever people from all backgrounds have a newfound understanding of the benefits new technologies can bring. From telcos working closely with schools to facilitate online learning, to working with health services to help overcome the virus itself, it has been clear throughout the pandemic that improved connectivity can about huge changes for the better.
“COVID is offering us a chance to change the narrative around technology and what we can achieve,” said Prof Sally Eaves from Forbes Technology, CTO & Emergent Technology Strategic Advisor, who moderated the webinar. “It’s taken down digital barriers to let more people take part in the conversation and that’s going to have an impact on 5G.”
For now, operators must work closely with policymakers to ensure that barriers to 5G deployment are removed and that the true potential of this next-generation technology can be delivered for the benefit of all.
“So many verticals are going to benefit from 5G. It’s coming, it’s real, and its going to be transformative,” said Townsend.
This webinar is available to watch in full for free. To do so, please register here.
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