5G, 5G evolution, digitalization

Network Disruptions towards 5G

There is a lot of discussion about the disruption that 5G will bring to many areas of society.  At the same time, it is worth noting the network disruptions that have actually taken place during the last several decades with the development and global expansion of digital mobile communications as a whole.  The focus of this article will be on disruptions at the network segments of technology and what these would mean for shaping the 5G networks to come.

The Shift from Voice to Data

The shift from voice to data was the most remarkable and sustainable evolution until now. It started with late 2G technology and was completed with 4G, and happened in several stages.  User data channels changed from circuit-switched to packet-switched channels, while IP transport was introduced and substituted SDM and ATM transport. #7 signaling moved onto IP-transport and was later replaced by SIP, while voice handling was removed from MSCs and shifted behind the network.  Furthermore, codecs were adapted, and various new ones were introduced.

Simultaneously, voice became basically just another IP application, and the system became data orientated.  The evolution shows that the network adapts to the primary traffic type being carried. The network evolution simply reflects the changed user behaviors and vice versa. An interesting question will be if the network should always just adapt to the main traffic type or if a system should generally optimize itself to the different traffic types on demand. The slicing debate goes in such a direction but misses the focus on the channel types.


Roaming is one of the real success stories of 3GPP. Today, roaming between networks is well known and practiced, but it was a fundamental disruption in the early days. Authorizing external parties to use their own system and even allowing other operators to apply policies in their own environment seems very risky and unusual. But against all skepticism, it became implemented and drove GSM to success.  Interesting to see that the primary roaming environment did not evolve too much over all the years. Still, the same mechanism and principles are applied. Only with the appearance of network slicing a debate about more fundamental changes came up, allowing to steer policies and even inject foreign functions into a visited network. Also, the discussion on private networks will stimulate a broader debate on more dynamic roaming principles.

Smart Cards & Security

Subscriber Identification Modules (SIM cards) were a real disruption when introduced in the first GSM systems.  This still, after 30 years, constitutes an unbroken security system, even in today‘s world of hacking and viruses. SIMs are an essential asset when looking at the degree of influence an operator can take on terminals/devices. Although GSM security was early available and far ahead, it did not receive a breakthrough for other application fields, like banking and e-payment. Nowadays, terminal and OS-providers take the chance to make the smartphone a payment device. The same inability of MNOs to evolve the business holds true for SIM-application-toolkit, which was an attempt to get apps on the smartcard. There was, for example, even a complete web-server available on the SIM.

Over the last years, eSIMs were introduced, which allows reprogramming the subscriber profiles. This is equally an opportunity and a risk to each operator since the MNOs may lose control of customer relationships. Interesting to see that the eSIM is still a kind of physical SIM, rather than a pure soft-SIM, which can well be thought of today. It is interesting to see for how long this “remaining wall” holds before it crashes. There are some indications that this has happened meanwhile and that Soft-SIM has silently appeared on the market already.

5G & Virtualization

5G virtualization is also another area that could disrupt the industry. However, the industry has not yet taken full advantage of the benefits of virtualization.  Providing a global cloud network with software as a service function is just beginning to lift off. Nevertheless, even in 5G virtualization and network slicing, there is still a long way to achieve a fully automated slicing service creation without the need for extra physical intervention.

What comes next

The real disruptions in telecommunications were very few over the last 30 years. 2G came along with fundamentally new concepts, especially roaming and smart cards. The subsequent generations were mostly incremental improvements, although highly complex, especially in the RAN part of the system. The only exception is the transition from CS to PS and the eve of smartphones and app-stores. However, these were driven by players outside of the 3GPP ecosystem, especially the terminal vendors. It seems that visions for fundamentally new networks are missing, although there is at least some apparent demand from society. It may be worth to focus on areas such as:

Coverage Everywhere: This issue deals with connectivity and how to get coverage everywhere, at least with moderate data rates, and expand gradually to gigabit speeds where applicable.

Green Networks: How to build networks that produce a smaller carbon footprint.

Critical Infrastructure: How to protect systems against attacks and misuse, where economic wealth is directly dependent on these networks’ well-functioning.

Political motivation

The above topics may demand a political push from the governmental and regulatory side. A solely business-driven discussion on networks may not be enough. Like GSM, which started out in the late 1980s with a strong political push and ended up setting a global mobile network. There were apparent customer demands and a political willingness to actively support economic wealth and evolve networks and communications. GSM, the involved countries, and suppliers dominated for a long time in the mobile communications market. GSM’s financial success raised the attention of U.S. firms to join the standards, and 3GPP was founded. From that time onwards, GSM became a global standard. Since then, the attention spent from a macroeconomic perspective on telecom networks decreased significantly.

A political perspective on networks is currently coming back and relates to a global cloud to create competition against Hyperscalers and network protection.  This means keeping data inside telecom networks and understanding the whole system as a mission-critical infrastructure.  The next step will be how to channel these political interests into a new vision for 5G mobile networks.


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