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What Will (and Won't) Happen for 5G in 2024

What will happen for 5G

The continued expansion of 5G networks in 2024 will improve how we remain connected in more ways than ever before.

Consider, for example, a fitness tracker that has just been loaded into a shipping container in the Port of Shanghai. It can be monitored via a narrowband 5G sensor as it crosses the Pacific Ocean and continues to a U.S. warehouse, retailer, and eventually to you — the consumer who will monitor a heartbeat, step count, and sleep cycle through the tracker's own 5G connection.

These types of narrowband internet of things (NB-IoT) applications will drive most of the 5G growth in 2024. GPS trackers, smart utility meters, agricultural sensors, and remote health monitors are among the technologies that benefit from the increased deployment of 5G networks, which covered 32.5% of the world's population in 2022. That's up from 25.3% a year earlier, according to GSMA's "State of Mobile Internet Connectivity Report."

As has been the case for half a decade, we will again see modest yet meaningful advances in 5G by the end of 2024 — but the biggest change will involve mobile network operators (MNOs) beginning to rethink how their traffic can be monetized.

As consumer and enterprise usage of low-power, low-data sensors explodes, more and more NB-IoT devices are connecting to 5G. While this expands the 5G ecosystem, it strains MNOs because these devices consume network resources but generate very little revenue.

Each narrowband tracker transfers only tiny packets of data, such as location pings, temperature readings, or equipment faults, that total only a few kilobytes — a negligible amount to monetize, even in the aggregate. It's not anywhere near enough to justify the substantial investment MNOs are making in the 5G rollout. That kind of return won't be seen until big-data applications such as fully autonomous vehicles and last-mile drone deliveries come to fruition in the years to come.

But since networks need to continue supporting these endless NB-IoT connections in 2024 and beyond, carriers must soon rethink their business models. Rather than metering data usage, they may decide they need to charge customers based on the number of connections their devices make. This would allow them to profit from the increase in signaling and network traffic driven by the influx of these devices.

For this to happen, though, carriers must achieve greater visibility into what's accessing their network. Advanced analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) can help navigate the vast number of IoT connections and categorize devices by attributes like frequency, data usage, and quality of service. Applying AI models to examine network traffic data will give MNOs greater insight into pricing strategies.

We've learned how valuable it is to track when our shipments will arrive, how far we've just run, and what our glucose levels are. It won't be long before carriers start to put an increased value on that data, too.

While a revamped approach to monetizing NB-IoT devices is on the horizon, it's not the only 5G advancement we'll see in 2024. Other key developments will include:

— A prioritized 5G rollout in high-density urban areas. Expanding coverage into rural communities is expensive given the need to build more towers across wide geographies. Carriers will first focus on large cities, using millimeter wave and C-band spectrum, to enhance performance. An urban deployment will allow them to cover more potential customers in congested metropolitan areas, helping offset the considerable cost of building out these new networks.

— Greater demand for 5G ultra-wideband driven by autonomous vehicles. While widespread adoption of self-driving cars and trucks is still years away, 5G connectivity plays a pivotal role in their development and testing under real-world conditions. These vehicles will require extremely reliable connectivity, ultra-low latency, and remarkably fast data speeds as they travel, forcing MNOs to build out high-bandwidth 5G infrastructure.

— Incremental progress in true standalone 5G. Most current 5G networks still rely on 4G LTE cores. There are few fully standalone networks globally so far. Building wholescale 5G infrastructure requires significant investment, but MNOs have hesitated to spend heavily on standalone 5G because proven use cases are lagging. As a result, we'll continue seeing gradual deployments rather than a rapid expansion of standalone 5G in 2024.

We should also see increased 5G home broadband internet access in the next 12 months, while the U.S. government may take additional steps to free up additional spectrum bands. Regardless of what actually happens, though, every conversation will shape the ongoing 5G transformation.

While 5G is steadily growing, it remains in the early stages even five years after MNOs began rolling it out. That's in contrast to 3G and 4G, each of which had been widely deployed four years after launch.

The slower pace of 5G adoption reflects its complexity. Building these networks requires a major investment. As a result, we'll likely be discussing the same trends and narratives — NB-IoT expansion, urban deployment, and big-data use cases — a year from now.

The foundation is being laid, but realistically, the 5G transformation won't be complete until later in the decade. But incremental progress is still progress, and the industry is focused on its long-term vision, no matter how long it will take.


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