The barren years are forecast to end as 5G profits close in

Research from Gartner suggest the 5G spending boom is almost within the grasp of the beaten and battered vendors, with 5G infrastructure spend set to increase by 89% over the next 12 months.

The last three to four years have been a frustrating time for most of the network infrastructure vendors. Those selfish telcos halted the lavish spending on 4G infrastructure, choosing to try and muscle some ROI to keep investors happy, while 5G has seemingly been hovering on the horizon for an age and a day.

“5G wireless network infrastructure revenue will nearly double between 2019 and 2020,” said Gartner’s Sylvain Fabre. “For 5G deployments in 2019, CSPs are using non-stand-alone technology. This enables them to introduce 5G services that run more quickly, as 5G New Radio (NR) equipment can be rolled out alongside existing 4G core network infrastructure.”

Gartner is forecasting 5G spend from the CSPs will increase to $2.2 billion over the course of 2019, up from $612 million last year. In 2020, this number will jump 89% to $4.1 billion and then up-to $6.8 billion in 2021. There will of course be a significant spend on maintaining and improving 4G networks, though the vendors will want to gain returns on 5G R&D sooner rather than later.

The next two years are expected to be an increasingly aggressive scrap between the network vendors to secure valuable 5G contracts. With early launches of 5G networks in the UK, US, South Korea, Italy and Switzerland (amongst others) taking place this year, there will be a horde of fast followers over the next 12-18 months, before everyone else starts to catch-up.

These deployments will of course be focused on the larger cities to start with, though it won’t be long before some telcos start scaling. However, what is worth noting is the nationwide deployment of 5G will not be as fast as previous ‘Gs’.

“To maintain average performance standards as 5G is built out, CSPs will need to undertake targeted strategic improvements to their 4G legacy layer, by upgrading 4G infrastructure around 5G areas of coverage,” said Fabre. “A less robust 4G legacy layer adjoining 5G cells could lead to real or perceived performance issues as users move from 5G to 4G/LTE Advanced Pro.”

Although 4G spend will also increase to prepare the underlying networks for 5G, few of the vendors will complain as long as the dollars start flowing into their banks accounts not out of them. It does appear the barren years might be coming to a close.

And for the network vendors, the moment of 5G euphoria will bring with it a sense of relief, as you can see from the financial figures below.

2015 2016 2017 2018
Huawei Revenue 55.736 73.594 85.171 105.191
Net income 5.208 5.228 6.695 8.656
Ericsson Revenue 25.56 23.04 21.26 21.82
Net income 1.42 0.2 (0.65) (3.35)
Nokia Revenue 29.537 26.583 25.697 25.049
Net income 3.205 2.411 0.017 (0.065)
Cisco Revenue 12.8 12.6 12.7 12.8
Net income 2.3 2.8 2.4 3.8
ZTE Revenue 14.136 14.284 15.353 12.066
Net income 0. 527 (0.198) 759 (0.98)
Juniper Revenue 4.857 4.990 5.027 4.647
Net income 0.633 0.601 0.306 0.566

Figures in US Dollars (Billions), taken from Annual Reports

It is also worth noting that some of the numbers in this table are slightly misleading. For example, during the period above Huawei’s smartphone business surged, while Nokia’s numbers also include fixed line revenues. We’re not exactly comparing apples with apples; however, you can see there is a general slow-down across the vendor community.

Aside from a few exceptions, many of the figures above are not the end of the world. Executives will point to over-arching trends and suggest that while there is no growth, maintenance of revenues (or managing a slight decrease) is an acceptable performance. However, this cannot go on forever.

The likes of Rajeev Suri at Nokia or Chuck Robbins at Cisco have been keeping themselves employed by pointing towards the 5G bonanza. The telcos are sweating 4G assets for ROI while making preparations for the world of 5G; profits are on the horizon for many of these firms, they just need to hang-on a little bit longer.

You do get the impression some investors are starting to get a bit frustrated with the continued quest through the barren connectivity desert, though if Gartner is to be believed, there is an Oasis forming on the horizon. Let’s hope

TIP 2018 is a wakeup call for the big kit vendors

The third Telecom Infra Project (TIP) Summit marked an further attempt by operators and Facebook to accelerate the development of the telecoms industry.

In his opening keynote Axel Clauberg, TIP Chairman and VP of technology innovation at Deutsche Telekom, was careful to stress that the big kit vendors are an important part of the telecoms ecosystem. But most of the discussions that followed on the first day of the 2018 TIP Summit was focused on fixing a telecoms kit market that TIP participants clearly feel is underperforming.

Clauberg spoke about the persistent exponential growth in data traffic that is set to continue for the foreseeable future. He stressed that, while he’s not saying kit vendors don’t do enough, the industry collectively needs to do better. The clear inference is that if we leave it to the incumbent vendors things won’t move quickly enough.

A lot of what this comes down to is putting into practice all the worthy talk of agility, devops, etc that everyone agrees is a great idea in principle. Through a network of ‘community labs’ minimum viable products are built and deployed. The message is that the traditional constraints imposed by the protracted standardisation process and exhaustive testing just won’t cut it anymore and telecoms needs to get a bit more Silicon Valley in its approach,

This seems to be where Facebook comes in. One of its core strategic needs is active user growth and it it’s running out of opportunities to do that in developed markets. So its quest for ‘the next billion’ is heavily dependent on improving access to connectivity in less developed regions. This requires some new thinking on both the technological and commercial fronts.

So TIP claims to be all about novel thinking, rapid turnaround and expanding the telecoms ecosystem to a broader range of players, including startups that traditionally find it hard to engage with operators, via its TEAC programme. The general aim seems to be to open up the whole ecosystem via things like open interfaces such that it undergoes a transformation equivalent to the computer industry a generation ago. Its all about more players, more choice and more flexibility.

You can see a summary of its many working groups below, which illustrates how broad its ambitions are. Another speaker said TIP reckons it can bring about a 30% reduction in total cost of ownership of running a network. This saving will ultimately come of if the pockets of the big kit vendors. Nokia is a TIP member but there’s no sign yet of Ericsson and Huawei, for whom the very existence of TIP poses some serious existential questions.

TIP 2018 working groups