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Tech Trends: 2021 – Part 1

While the Cold Chain Challenge will be in prime focus in 2021, let us look at other technology trends the new year promises to offer

Everyone seems to be heaving a sigh of relief that 2020 is coming to an end. It has been humankind’s annus horribilis and there is sense that the new year will somehow bring an end to the turbulence we have been facing in all fronts. Unfortunately, the virus doesn’t know that we are going to flip the pages of the calendar. The biggest challenge the world will face is transporting the Coronavirus vaccine across the world to different countries – the cold chain challenge is perhaps the biggest technology issue of today and for 2021.

Early vaccine candidates require ultra-low temperatures, as much as -80° Celsius (-112° Fahrenheit). This is influenced by a lack of data storage specifications and shelf life for these new types of Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines. The containers to store and transport them are not widely available and not required for common vaccines. Constant temperature control is needed E2E from the manufacturing site to the inoculation sites.

Drug companies like Pfizer and logistics giants DHL and UPS are working together on expected supply chain gaps, including logistics and freezer farms. Questions remain about the providers of these ultra-cold freezers. One such company is Cryoport, with its C3 Ultra Cold solution dry ice shipper that can keep commodities at temperatures of -60° to -90° C. These suppliers are not particularly large companies. And not many offer transportable options (versus upright freezers from ThermoFisher Scientific).

A major concern is the need to seamlessly track temperatures and provide alerts for any out-of-spec loads. This involves integrated software, sufficient compute and sensor capabilities throughout, and the cooperation of both public and private entities across multiple modes and likely competitors. The search for critical Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and ventilators this spring unveiled dependencies on China sourcing, challenges scaling at a global level, and a lack of awareness of suppliers’ suppliers.

5G to become the fastest adopted mobile technology

5G remains on track to become one of the fastest adopted mobile technologies ever. In 2020, the world saw milestone after milestone being passed in 5G network deployments and device launches. Against an unprecedented backdrop of a global pandemic and economic disruption, the mobile industry has continued to see more spectrum allocated to 5G, more networks deployed, and more devices become commercially available; a momentum that has been mirrored in the growth in 5G subscriptions around the world. By mid-December 2020, 412 operators in 131 countries/territories were investing in 5G, while today there are 806 public LTE networks. 5G services are now launched in all regions, including 85 networks in EMEA, 35 in APAC and 15 in the Americas.

Looking ahead to 2021, GSA (Global mobile Suppliers Association) is forecasting more spectrum activity, with over 75 auctions/assignments underway or expected by the end of 2022. At current growth rates, GSA anticipates there being over 500 commercial devices by the end of 2021; it is also expected that the milestone of 200 launched 5G networks will be reached in the same timescale based on the current trajectory.

However, 5G brings with it a whole raft of technical challenges, features, and functionalities, as well as new radio elements for supporting new radio bands and combinations, all of which can lead to substantial changes in the design of mobile devices. This complexity level is not just limited to the high end, as the availability of 5G smartphone models will become more diverse, brought to market quickly at a wide variety of price points, democratizing the 5G experience. Many leading Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) are expected to push deeper into the lower-priced 5G smartphone segment. This will be the main growth driver for accelerating adoption in 2021 and beyond, aided by the continuing availability of more affordable 5G chipsets, notably those from Qualcomm, MediaTek, and UNISOC.

Smart Manufacturing to take off with 5G adoption

5G being a foundational technology it will trigger the take-off of several other trends like Smart Manufacturing and provide a momentum of Internet of Things (IoT) use cases and Edge Computing. Factory owners have been deploying industry 4.0 tools, such as condition-based monitoring, inventory management, and building automation using ethernet cable, but deploying wireless-enabled Industry 4.0 tools will bring smart manufacturing to its full potential.

4G improves IoT device management up to 50,000 devices per square kilometre (km2), but 5G private cellular is the real game-changer, bringing the full versatility and functionality of 5G to the smart manufacturing opportunity. With 5G private cellular, IoT density can reach as much as a million end-points per km2. A 5G edge server can provide enterprise applications and a subscriber database, User Plane Function (UPF), and 5G NG control plane management. Indeed, with 5G, some of these functions can be offloaded to a telco cloud if the factory owner prefers. By the end of 2021, while 5G private cellular investment will only have notched US$53.3 million compared to US$1.52 billion for 4G, private 5G cellular’s Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) is 2.6 times that of 4G.

Edge to become mainstream

Intelligent edge is maturing into a revolutionary set of capabilities that are already transforming some of the largest technology and communications companies on the planet. Although market estimates vary considerably, consulting firm Deloitte predicts that in 2021, the global market for the intelligent edge will expand to US$12 billion, continuing a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 35%.Expansion in 2021 will be driven primarily by telecoms deploying the intelligent edge for 5G networks, and by hyperscale cloud providers optimizing their infrastructure and service offerings.

The recent collaboration between Telefónica and Deutsche Telekom is a case in point. Their joint endeavour showcases how CSPs collaborate by leveraging 5G to build a multi-operator, federated edge cloud. In this case, it was a mobile cloud gaming demonstration, a consumer use case. “Until now, edge computing was promising but still developing. In 2021, new business models will emerge that facilitate the deployment of edge in production,” Forrester said in a summary of its predictions.

Telco must provide IT integrated services

Many telecom industry players consider enterprise digital transformation the next cash cow for boosting revenue streams. However, to address this market and simplify the technology complexity for business implementers, these players need to provide more integrated Information Technology (IT)-Operational Technology (OT)-Customer Technology (CT) solutions whereby operation data, applications, and services can be connected across IT and OT systems regardless of whether they are located in the cloud or at the edge of the infrastructure.

Telecom operators have been one of the sectors which have witnessed a significant Covid19 push as connectivity was essential while physical distancing and work-from-home became the norm. The pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital channels. Operators will be keen to ‘lock in’ the behavioural changes of 2020 and continue to deliver cost savings through digital experience initiatives. For many operators, a large retail presence has been a historical strength. For example, Telenor has a presence in almost every village in its footprint thanks to its million points of sale across Asia.

The pandemic has emphasized the importance of a digital presence, so operators must consider how to achieve a similar level of success in the online realm. Digital channels have been mission-critical for operators during lockdown periods and operators that already had successful digital experience strategies prior to the pandemic have performed better than those that did not.

Geopolitics impact on technology

While 2020 has seen an increasing number of countries in Europe and Latin America following the United States in restricting the role of certain “high-risk” vendors from 5G deployments, 2021 will show the indirect effect this geopolitically motivated move will have on cellular standardization work.

Until now, Chinese vendors have been among the top contributors to the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standardization. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is an umbrella term for a number of standards organizations which develop protocols for mobile telecommunications. With the number of countries deciding to restrict the role of Huawei and ZTE in deploying 5G networks (effectively excluding these vendors from monetizing their 3GPP contributions), they will certainly carefully consider any future contributions to 3GPP for global cellular standards.

This could give way to two possible scenarios: Huawei and ZTE will shift their focus away from cellular connectivity and focus on different technologies. Alternatively, Huawei and ZTE will look to work toward Chinese implementations and alliances to circumvent these restrictions. Recent announcements by Huawei about manufacturing its chipsets in Shanghai and shifting its efforts to its industry associations, such as the 5G Deterministic Networking Alliance, might be the first signs of this development.

Either way, in 2021, we will see geopolitics affecting the work of 3GPP and other standardization bodies. Therefore, the year to come will show the telecommunications industry how geopolitically motivated restrictions toward certain vendors can unleash a negative slowdown effect on the entire industry. Geopolitics will also impact the availability of semiconductors as the US has stopped the world’s largest manufacturer of the most advanced chips, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company (TSMC) and US technology companies to export to Chinese companies or allow them access. This in turn will be a major roadblock for China’s technological ambitions.

(Tech Trends 2021 will continue for the next two weeks)

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