Skip to main content

20 industry predictions for 5G in 2021

Infovista 5G predictions.
(Image credit: Infovista.)

2020 is a year that will live long in the memory. Not just for the obvious reasons: a global pandemic; a trade war between the US and China, which impacted the telecoms sector; and history’s most divisive US presidential election; but the year will also be remembered as the one that saw 5G technology tip into the mainstream. 

5G predictions for 2020

Mobile network operators around the world chose 2020 to roll out their first 5G services, billions of dollars were spent on upgrading technology and marketing these new services, and Apple – although a little late to the party – chose 2020 to release its 5G iPhone.

But with so much disruption within the networking and telecommunications industries, what can we expect to see in 2021?


Marc Serra, CMO and head of strategy and development at Infovista, offers up his predictions of what the near future may have in store for the telco industry:

1) Mobile operators accelerate OSS integration and cloudification

"Operation Support Systems (OSSs) are often an obstacle to evolving mobile networks as most of them were designed and built in the 2G/3G era.  With the rise of virtualised networks and newer OpenRAN technologies, more operators are preparing to move their OSS to the cloud to become more agile while reducing their total cost of ownership (TCO).

"Crucial network functions – such as planning, design, service assurance, troubleshooting and optimisation – can now be delivered from the cloud in support of the 5G rollout."

Marc Serra, Infovista.

A few operators have already started this journey, with Rakuten, Elisa and DT being some of the most visible examples, each of them following specific paths and dealing with radically different backgrounds. But they all demonstrate how crucial network functions – such as planning, design, service assurance, troubleshooting and optimisation – can now be delivered from the cloud in support of the 5G rollout."

2) Consumers will drive 5G adoption

"A host of lower cost 5G chipsets released in 2020 along with Apple’s recently unveiled iPhone 12. 5G will lead to a surge in 5G adoption during 2021 with consumers rather than businesses leading the charge. As Covid restrictions ease, video will continue to drive the bulk of data consumption but fixed-wireless access (FWA) technology, which aims to provide “fiber-like” connectivity at homes through 4G/5G will gain more momentum especially in suburban and rural areas.  All this may help counterbalance the uncertainties toward 5G within the Enterprise market, where the pandemic aftermath will be felt in many industries, some harder than others."



3) The network lifecycle gets automated

"Half of CSPs intend to deploy or expand automated solutions within the next 12 months."

Marc Serra, Infovista.

"The promise of SON (self-organised networks) has been around since the early 2010’s but has failed to deliver on its potential. For several years, there have been efforts to automate parts of the network lifecycle through specific use cases and a recent study commissioned by Infovista suggests that half of CSPs intend to deploy or expand automated solutions within the next 12 months. The expansion of 5G networks during the next few years will provide a catalyst for more automation to span the full set of network lifecycle activities.

Over the coming year, more operators will follow the example of disruptors such as Rakuten in Japan, Dish in the US, or Jio in India, that have started their mobile networks from scratch in the 4G/5G era, with the big advantage of no legacy technology to support. The headline benefit is that by combining the latest RAN technologies with advanced network automation, these pioneers can produce services at 40-50% lower cost than leading carriers. This is not going unnoticed by other operators, which are starting to prioritise automation, looking for more interoperability, as well as vendors which can offer integrated solutions."


Ofir Zemer, CEO at Cellwize, agrees that automation will be a fundamental element of 5G's make-up in 2021 and beyond: 

4. 5G Must Be Born Automated

"Automation - both at the network level and throughout all business processes - will be a crucial element towards operators’ success in their 5G rollouts."

Ofir Zemer, Cellwize.

"5G is not just another “G”, but an entire sphere containing multiple levels of complexities: multi-band, multi-technology, multi-layer, multi-architecture, and multi-RAN players. These complexities pose challenges for mobile network operators, who are already under pressure to deploy 5G quickly enough to meet market demands. Therefore, automation - both at the network level and throughout all business processes - will be a crucial element towards operators’ success in their 5G rollouts."


Nick Offin, Head of Operations at dynabook Northern Europe, believes that 2021 will be the year that mobile edge computing (MEC) comes into its own:

5. Mobile Edge Computing

“Edge computing has continued to gain significant traction in recent years, yet it’s this coming year that we’ll finally see where this technology can bring real benefits. While public 5G is still years away from mainstream adoption, Forrester sees immediate value in private 5G – a network dedicated to a specific business or locale like a warehouse, shipyard, or factory. 

"With mobile edge computing solutions acting as the gateway, smart glasses are a natural next step and close to becoming mainstream."

Nick Offin, dynabook.

This technology is here now and is ready to drive edge computing in 2021. The evolution of 5G and mobile edge computing technology will also provide a platform for enterprise wearable technologies to really come to the fore. Smart glasses allow field workers to carry out tasks hands-free, while still having access to the information and tools they need. With mobile edge computing solutions acting as the gateway, smart glasses are a natural next step and close to becoming mainstream for frontline and field-based workers.”


Dan Graham, global product leader, mobile edge computing at WWT agrees that edge computing will be key, especially when it comes to opening up new revenue opportunities:

6. Edge computing as a revenue engine

"In 2021, Edge will be critical in creating new revenue streams for network operators, helping offset the costs of executing their 5G strategy. Increasingly, Enterprises are looking towards Edge computing as a solution to help fix business problems, decrease cost, and increase efficiency. 

Edge computing is also enabling private mobile broadband to fill in the gaps of geographic coverage, reach latency targets, and support industrial IoT and manufacturing use cases. We’ll also see traditional cloud applications get extended into on-prem or near prem locations to take advantage of the new 5G infrastructure, real-time data processing, and low latency use cases. 

"5G is a catalyst for brand new enterprise edge use cases and private connectivity which will set the stage for the fourth industrial revolution."

Dan Graham, WWT.

5G advances aren’t just about deployments, they are about perception change. In 2021 the days of 5G simply being perceived as the next stage of mobile phone connectivity will be over. 5G is a catalyst for brand new enterprise edge use cases and private connectivity which will set the stage for the fourth industrial revolution. Carriers will either meet the demand of these new use cases and support their enterprise customer’s digital transformation or will be relegated to costly dumb pipes."


Graham's colleague at WWT, Paul Rhodes, who is an OpenRAN and 5G principal consultant at WWT sees 2021 as the year O-RAN becomes integral to mobile network operators, as they create new network blueprints:

7. Operators will lay out O-RAN roadmaps

"By the end of the year, it will be mainstream for service providers to commit to deploying Open RAN. 2021 will be the year of confirming Open RAN commercials and refining blueprints. Setting out roadmaps is about confidence, and we’ll begin to see real momentum as deal terms come into view. We may even see the first practical Macro deployments of O-RAN towards the end of the year, with Enterprise and Private Network deployment likely even sooner.

In 2020, Vodafone laid out an updated commitment to O-RAN deployments, promising to deploy equipment at 2600 sites. This includes a commitment to deploy 1150 sites by the end of 2023, countering pessimism from those who were saying sites would not begin rollout until 2025. The roadmap is putting pressure on other service providers to lay out similar commitments. Confidence in the system is critical, as it encourages investment and proves there is a market for equipment makers. At the time of going to press, Telefonica has announced that it has plans to connect a live Enterprise Open RAN pilot to its network in the new year, leveraging UK & Ireland System Integrator Vilicom’s Mavenir-based blueprint.

"Service providers have voiced public support for O-RAN before, but they will be keen to set out a timeline for delivery so they do not appear to be holding up progress."

Paul Rhodes, WWT.

Service providers have voiced public support for O-RAN before, but they will be keen to set out a timeline for delivery so they do not appear to be holding up progress. Operators are likely to realise that simply promising ‘open’ or ‘virtualised networks’ rather than specifically O-RAN deployments is no longer enough. Those promises slightly sidestep the O-RAN question - but are still a step in the right direction.

The rollout will target specific use cases such as 4G O-RAN in rural areas, with the expectation that other use cases like city centres will catch up later. Network operators will continue to pursue both 2G/3G and 5G deployments for specific use cases too. Expanded testing schemes are already in progress in the private space. For example, Mavenir is conducting 2G/3G O-RAN trials, and Vodafone has created a 5G O-RAN proof of concept in the Netherlands. On the basis of trial successes and vendor roadmaps, in November 2020 the Telecom Infra Project published their own readiness plan for 2021/22 and they believe that all rural, residential, urban and dense urban deployment requirements will become available in 2021, with the sole exception being massive MIMO beamforming which arrives in mid-2022."


Teradata’s Martin Tidell, a senior industry consultant, sees 5G and IoT having a much greater impact over the next 12 months:

8. 5G and IoT continue to prevail

"Telcos are increasingly turning towards partnerships in adjacent industries, which will be enabled by 5G and IoT."

Martin Tidell, Teradata.

"Most recent trends in telco rolling over to 2021, are related to 5G and IoT. Telcos are increasingly turning towards partnerships in adjacent industries, which will be enabled by 5G and IoT. Examples of new business benefits are countless, but industry 4.0 related topics, such as predictive maintenance and automation will be significantly improved. 

In smart health, we are already seeing advancements beyond fitness trackers and blood pressure measurements. Products already exist that with subdermal sensors (implants), can capture fever at an early stage, in a population, and hence predict pandemic spread closer to real time. Enhancements and just-in-time precision in supply chain will continue and cities will become smarter beyond emptying waste bins and optimizing traffic lights, powered by analytics and connectivity."


Mark Bole, CEO at Quortus, believes that 2021 will be the year where private 5G networks become essential for enterprises looking to open up new opportunities.

9.  The year that private 5G networks truly arrive 

"2021 is set to be a year of 5G maturity as standalone networks start to launch in earnest. This will focus minds of global enterprises as they look to leverage optimal, bespoke connectivity to suit their own specific needs. This will see a flurry of private 5G, and LTE, network deployments across all sizes of enterprises, across many countries and many vertical markets. The US will lead as enterprises look to realize a return on the $4.6 billion they have invested in CBRS spectrum."


Martin Morgan, VP of marketing at Openet believes that 2021 will see the emergence of a 5G value plane that will bridge a service provider’s network with its supporting IT and business systems.

10.  Bridging beyond the network 

"With the roll-out of standalone (SA) 5G, the emergence of network embedded services and the subsequent monetisation of the 5G network, there will be closer scrutiny on how service providers develop, manage and monetise 5G services. 

"5G policy and charging functions in the Value Plane need to be integrated to service catalogs in existing BSS stacks."

Martin Morgan, Openet.

Clearly the network functions in 5G need to be very tightly integrated into BSS - after all, the network attributes are not just a means of delivering a service, but they are now part of the service. As such we’ll see the emergence of a 5G Value Plane that bridges IT and business functions and the 5G network. 5G policy and charging functions in the Value Plane need to be integrated to service catalogs in existing BSS stacks and also to the 5G network, thus providing a bridge between business & IT, and the 5G network. This provides the agility needed for service providers to quickly develop, launch, manage and monetise new SA 5G offers."


Alan Carlton, VP at InterDigital Europe, is getting ahead of the competition, and predicts that the biggest issue facing 5G in 2021 will be how we progress to 6G technology.

11. 6G must finish the work of 5G

"2021 is the year that industry attention will turn to 6G. Although 5G has been touted as the last generation, just like any other G, it’s only when deployments begin that limitations are noted and the need for the next generation is made clear.

While 5G has made significant moves to a more software defined Core Network and RAN, there are some big steps remaining. Take extended reality—mainstream adoption requires the technology to facilitate both augmented and virtual reality as well as piece the experiences together in real time. This roadmap is very rich, and the truth is 5G may only take us so far.

"6G must also fix 5G’s sustainability shortfall. While many claim 5G will be more energy efficient than previous generations, these claims myopically focus on energy consumption per data unit."

Alan Carlton, InterDigital Europe.

6G must also fix 5G’s sustainability shortfall. While many claim 5G will be more energy efficient than previous generations, these claims myopically focus on energy consumption per data unit, which will be lower. But 5G will require much higher data units than any other generation, meaning overall energy consumption will significantly increase. Put simply, to claim 5G is more sustainable is to say that a Bugatti Chiron is more efficient than a Toyota Yaris because it uses less fuel per horsepower.

5G has opened the door to new use cases such as immersive reality, but it will be 6G that pushes these use cases into the mainstream—and does it sustainably."


Sanjay Bhatia, VP of solutions marketing and strategy at Ribbon, thinks that commercial services that harness the power of 5G will become prevalent in 2021.

12. Commercial services that harness 5G

"Mobile cloud gaming is a perfect example of a consumer service that needs the low latency (less than 10 milliseconds) that 5G offers."

Sanjay Bhatia, Ribbon.

"This year South Korea Telecom partnered with Microsoft to provide “SKT 5GX Cloud Game” Powered by Xbox Game Pass Ultimate. It’s very much a sign of things to come in 2021 – operators partnering with content providers to better monetize 5G network capabilities. Mobile cloud gaming is a perfect example of a consumer service that needs the low latency (less than 10 milliseconds) that 5G offers. 

This has the potential to revolutionize the global mobile gaming experience and insert mobile operators firmly within the service value chain. More operators in more countries will pursue mobile cloud gaming along with other services that rely on low latency, mission critical connectivity that results from investment at the network edge."


Paul Miller, chief technology officer at Wind River, predicts that virtualization will take  center stage in 2021, providing benefits for deployment, operation, and ROI.

13. Operators will continue the vRAN buildout

"Global operators also contemplated how they could benefit from the significant CAPEX and OPEX savings the new architecture presents."

Paul Miller, Wind River.

"2020 saw Verizon complete its first end-to-end fully virtualized 5G data session in the US. Rakuten and Dish continued to pursue greenfield vRAN deployments and many other global operators also contemplated how they could benefit from the significant CAPEX and OPEX savings the new architecture presents. 

However, these cost savings will not be the only catalyst for growing momentum behind vRAN in 2021. It will also help operators accelerate deployment of distributed cloud architecture needed to power vRAN and a host of other enterprise use cases across a range of vertical markets including industrial, automotive and healthcare, to further accelerate 5G ROI."


Angus Ward, CEO at BearingPoint//Beyond, predicts that CSPs will need to move fast in 2021, moving beyond the traditional formula, and moving towards a more innovation and experimentation.

14.  CSPs must innovate in 2021

"With the value of listed telecoms companies dropping almost 20% on average over the past year, it’s become clear that staying in the comfort zone of simply selling connectivity and clinging on to legacy business models is having a stranglehold on the business, as more stakeholders start to abandon the Communication Service Provider’s ‘sinking ship’.

The truth is that customers are losing patience and CSPs can’t rely on the “traditional formula”. In 2021, this will become even more apparent when CSPs will need to assure payback from their $1 trillion investment in the much hyped 5G technology. The traditional way of monetizing 5G by selling smartphones and contracts to millions of retail customers is simply no longer viable. We have already seen this in China and S. Korea where this approach has been met with a relatively cool reception, so there needs to be some reputational damage control.

"In 2021, CSPs need to execute a much broader set of changes if fibre and 5G is to be an economic success for them."

Angus Ward, BearingPoint//Beyond.

In 2021, CSPs need to execute a much broader set of changes if fibre and 5G is to be an economic success for them. Most are uncomfortable with change and it will take time, but time is not on their side! Survival means the acceleration of the speed of innovation, opening up to experimentation with new business model(s) and moving beyond connectivity into the ecosystem, data services and technology."


Jurie Roux, product marketing manager at TEOCO, thinks that operators will need to address how to automate and manage small cell contracts, whilst the race is on to deliver network slicing, and the plethora of services that it will open up.

15.  Smart contracts for small cells and beyond

"The regular joke is that blockchain is a solution in search of a problem. With telecoms, it’s found it. Infrastructure and hardware is often a mess of complex relationships and agreements, and smart contracts that run on blockchain can manage these relationships effectively. 

"The rollout of 5G also means also rolling out hundreds of thousands of small cells across cities and towns over the next year."

Jurie Roux, TEOCO.

The rollout of 5G also means also rolling out hundreds of thousands of small cells across cities and towns over the next year. Many of the best sites for these small cells involve complicated right-of-way issues that will require resolution. 

Every municipality has its own rules resulting in complex contracts between carriers, equipment vendors, landowners, technology partners and government agencies. Adapting contracts for each of these is tricky, but made much easier by using smart contracts that replace legalese with code, and use blockchain to record transactions. This is one example that could start  the use of blockchain in mobile networks."

16.  The race is on for 5G network slicing

"Earlier this year in October, Nokia announced the world’s first automated 4G/5G networking slicing within RAN, transport and core domains – a huge step forward. With standalone 5G core available, I expect 2021 will see the race begin for the first non-commercial trials of 5G slices to be configured with selected leading operators and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

"We’re already seeing plans by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos for low orbit satellite rollout which would see drones always staying connected."

Jurie Roux, TEOCO.

Slicing has so far been touted as operators’ solution to delivering end-to-end 5G services within their existing operations – that may be overpromised. In some cases, it’ll require more than just a mobile network slice to make new use cases a reality. In the realm of 5G drones for example, connectivity assurance will be a combination of satellite as a primary and mobile as secondary, for the simple reason that mobile doesn’t cover everywhere geographically, particularly in rural areas. We’re already seeing plans by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos for low orbit satellite rollout which would see drones always staying connected. This two-pronged approach could also be adopted for autonomous cars on rural roads where forestation means mobile signal struggles to penetrate.

But that’s not to say that network slicing won’t deliver a great deal of benefit in 2021. The sports industry is huge, spanning billions of sporting fans across the globe. The initial use cases for 5G network slicing will be applied to live VR sporting events, and there are fans ready to pay a premium for this service."


Raj Talluri is senior vice president and general manager of Micron’s Mobile Business Unit, and believes that our increasing reliance on mobile technology will come with an increased demand for low-power memory.

17. Increased demand for low-power memory

"We’ll see increased demand for low-power memory such as LPDDR5 which will be critical for keeping pace with compute-intensive behaviors."

Raj Talluri, Micron.

"In 2021, we’ll see near-term benefits in mobile, especially with the deployment of 5G networks this year — which will accelerate globally.  The fast speeds and low latencies will enable people to truly multitask with their phones as the hub.  Consumers will be able to stream a high-definition multiplayer video game to their television while video chatting, texting, and doing work on their phone simultaneously.  With all these rich, data-heavy mobile needs, in 2021, we’ll see increased demand for low-power memory such as LPDDR5 which will be critical for keeping pace with compute-intensive behaviors without draining battery."


Kris Baxter is corporate vice president and general manager of Micron’s Embedded Business Unit, and although 2020 didn't see the level of adoption many people expected, Baxter says the first step towards autonomous vehicles could be taken in 2021 via advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS).

18. Advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS)

"For 2021, set autonomous aside for a second and think about advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS). COVID put a damper on the aggressive adoption we might’ve seen otherwise in the mobility space; people are hesitant about public transportation and ridesharing. We’re also a long ways away from having the technology to be fully autonomous. We’ve seen Tesla backing away from autonomous claims and highlighting ADAS Level 2 and Level 3. We see an increase in that space — adaptive cruise control, lane keeping, automatic braking, driver monitoring systems. The overall market is going to be very strong in 2021, not for autonomous vehicles, but digitalization of the cabin.

"We still believe that autonomous vehicles are going to make it into the enterprise first: robo-taxis, long-haul trucking applications."

Kris Baxter, Micron.

"We still believe that autonomous vehicles are going to make it into the enterprise first: robo-taxis, long-haul trucking applications, areas that can afford the costs associated with autonomous. And with the explosion in automotive data, we’ll also see a shift towards centralizing vehicle computing. There’s an architectural transition where we're going to go from having a fragmented architecture with individual ECUs around the car to having a single domain controller."


Raj Hazra is Micron's senior vice president of emerging products and corporate strategy, and Hazra says that the Coronavirus pandemic has transformed the way data centers operate, and envisages a post-pandemic world where streamlined resources and AI-as-a-service will be key.

19. Disaggregated composable systems

"The pandemic has allowed hypothesis to be proven true by catalyzing digital transformation. As meetings go virtual, streaming data has exploded. And all of the sudden, AI self-learning models look less risky. In the past, a CIO would say “It would be great to do that, but I can't take those risks.” This risk tolerance has changed because they’ve had to make the changes.

"This move toward streamlining resources will be critical in reducing the rising environmental impact of IT."

Raj Hazra, Micron.

"In 2021, the prevalence of remote work—even post-pandemic—will continue accelerating capabilities in the cloud. This will drive unprecedented interest in disaggregated composable systems, so there aren’t wasted resources in an over-provisioned environment. This move toward streamlining resources will be critical in reducing the rising environmental impact of IT. For example, information and communication technology is already predicted to use 20% of the world’s electricity by 2030. As companies look to incorporate sustainability into business strategy and reduce OpEx for compute-intensive workloads such as AI and high-performance computing, we’ll see escalating demand for energy-efficient memory and storage."

20. Boundaries between memory and storage will blur

"2021 is going to see AI-as-a-service become mainstream, intelligence migrate to the edge, and 5G come to life. This is going to propel fundamental changes in the way server systems are architected. Memory will extend into multiple zones—and will become a shared resource. And storage and memory will merge. You’ll no longer think “DRAM for memory and NAND for storage,” because faster NAND will create the ability to use it as memory.

"As data demands complexify, we’ll see enterprises asking, “Can we get memory with half the power of DRAM”."

Raj Hazra, Micron.

"The age-old demands of “Let's get one more generation of faster DRAM” or “Let's get less costly memory at higher capacities” are going away. As data demands complexify, we’ll see enterprises asking, “Can we get memory with half the power of DRAM” or “Can we get memory with a different interface to be pooled amongst servers?” The real interest is in innovation beyond CPUs and GPUs. In 2021, we’ll see enterprises seeking new kinds of solutions such as storage-class memory and memory virtualization to meet these evolving needs."


As new predictions come in, we will be updating this post, to bring you the the most complete list of 5G industry predictions for 2021.

Dan Oliver

Dan is a British journalist with 20 years of experience in the design and tech sectors, producing content for the likes of Microsoft, Adobe, Dell and The Sunday Times. In 2012 he helped launch the world's number one design blog, Creative Bloq. Dan is now editor-in-chief at 5Gradar, where he oversees news, insight and reviews, providing an invaluable resource for anyone looking to stay up-to-date with the key issues facing 5G.