By Bruce McClelland, CEO, Ribbon

Operators have the dedication needed to unlock 5G enterprise gold

Not all 5G networks are created equally, but neither are all 5G markets.

Those 5G networks which have dedicated transport connections can offer a wider range of specialist services, while the enterprise market promises greater returns than its price-competitive consumer mobile broadband equivalent.

The old adage that if a job is worth doing then it’s worth doing well could certainly be said to apply to the deployment of 5G networks. The earliest rollouts, reliant on existing 4G infrastructure for backhaul and transport, were not designed or able to take advantage of the advanced services made possible by 5G technology. They simply couldn’t deliver full 5G.

From the outset, it has been clear to many that an evolution of the X-haul transport network is required to unlock the full potential of 5G and support new services and access to new markets. And there is plenty of evidence and belief that these markets exist. For example, just over a year ago our own consumer survey showed pent-up demand for dedicated gaming channels on 5G networks and analysts the world over are united in their opinion that the enterprise market, including areas like private networks, utilities and smart cities, is an untapped goldmine for specialised 5G network services.

However, in terms of doing the job well overhauling that supporting infrastructure beast is certainly not an overnight job. Inevitably it will most likely be achieved step-by-step as the networks evolve through 5G and possibly even onto the next generation. But in terms of unlocking the gold in the enterprise market, the operators which wait the longest to overhaul their backbone will be the ones with the smallest market left to address.

So what can be done to address the market now, given the operator investment pot is not limitless? As is often the case, the answer might lie in what history can teach us.

In the earliest days of cable television, operators would attack entire neighbourhoods, digging trenches and laying cable, while sending out the sales agents and the mailers to sell the dig and convince consumers about the wondrous new TV and connectivity services which would soon be available.

It was a shotgun-style approach and enough targets were hit to make it work, but when it came to business parks and premises, the technique changed and the sales team went in alone. The diggers only followed if the sale was made: digging to the sale offered guaranteed returns.

It’s an approach for operators to think about, and quickly because the looming threat to their 5G enterprise market opportunity comes not just from their rival operators and alternative service providers, but from the enterprise customers themselves because, it seems, when it comes to 5G, enterprises like the idea of dedication too.

Around the world, regulators are warming to the idea of awarding 5G spectrum licences direct to enterprise customers to allow them to build their own private 5G networks, together with the supporting backbone infrastructure to allow specialised services to flourish.

There are many advantages to enterprise customers in such an approach. For starters, they can build a network to exactly their own specification: determine speed, specify latency, and ensure availability and resilience through techniques such as synchronous data replication across their own private optical backbone network.

With so many of the resources that enterprise business operations rely upon today becoming cloud-based, especially in terms of computing power, having a dedicated, and exactly specified, network drawing down real-time actionable data serves to boost efficiency and speed business digital transformation programs.

And while there would be capital costs involved in creating the network, those one-off costs are mitigated by the absence of network usage fees or leasing charges and control over service agility when compared to standard approaches.

All of which might seem to indicate that operators are currently caught between a rock and hard place. They are not able to overhaul their entire transport and backbone network quickly enough to support full 5G everywhere and they run the risk of losing lucrative business to enterprise customers who opt for a do-it-yourself approach.

Rather than consider themselves caught, operators should be thinking that two avenues have now been opened to reap the rewards of the higher value enterprise 5G market.

First, targeted upgrades of the IP Optical transport layer of their network can be implemented to support enterprise customers, digging to the sale so to speak. Secondly, those enterprises considering private networks may not have the resources and skill sets to build those networks themselves, and operators could adopt a position as the natural partner to design, build and operate the end-to-end private network for enterprise customers through a Network-as-a-Service option.

The key to both approaches lies not just in the 5G and network technology which will be used, rather it is in the dedication to designing and promoting the services these technologies can support.

Operators which can demonstrate an understanding of the business and operational requirements of their enterprise customers which could be served by dedicated 5G networks, rather than just an understanding of the technology, will be best suited to sell those specialised services.

And having sold the services, the only question to answer is what is the most cost-efficient way to deliver it: via a dedicated private network the operator provides, or a dedicated share of the public network?

And remember, this isn’t a new question for those customers, or indeed for the operators. Today, both parties are already making decisions about whether to buy private space within a public cloud provider, or to create their own cloud resource. Taking the same approach to the 5G network is not a big leap.

Operators know they need dedicated routes to unlock the specialised enterprise services 5G enables. Smart operators realise there are two avenues to provide that dedication.

If the job is worth doing, it is worth doing well and that is easier to accomplish if you are building it to order for the specific requirements of your customers.