Crossing the three-year mark of commercial 5G roll-out, the telecom industry has witnessed rapid 5G deployments globally. Several 5G enabled innovative applications and services have helped telecom operators achieve the business success it had promised. In terms of adoption, by 2022, the number of global 5G users exceeded 1 billion, whereas gigabit broadband users reached 100 million, and a staggering 20,000 industry applications were put into use. 5G has truly transformed every industry digitally. Digitally enabled services such as 5G cameras, augmented reality (AR)-assisted maintenance, remote control, and robotic patrolling have moved past the testing phase and are now being widely used in verticals such as mining, healthcare, transport, manufacturing, to significantly improve security, safety, and efficiency. Despite the rapid deployment and adoption of 5G there is still room for considerable improvement to further unleash the true potential of this technology. With 6G technology likely to be commercially deployed only by 2030, the existing 5G technology might soon need to level up. Advanced 5G or 5.5G could be the answer to help telcos address this gap and enable them to provide superior user experiences and launch new innovative use cases.

The imminent 5.5G era could mark a key milestone in paving the way for a digitally enabled intelligent future. The 5.5G era promises five major characteristics: 10 Gbit/s experience, all-scenario Internet of Things (IoT), integrated sensing and communication, Level 4 autonomous driving network, and green Information Communication Technology (ICT)—all these capabilities stem from full-service enablement 5.5G Core. The 5.5G core is a fully converged cloud-native core that is a result of the transition from Virtual Network Functions (VNFs) to Cloud Native Network Functions (CNFs), from manual operation to automation, and from connectivity provisioning and enhancement to full-service enablement. A fully convergent telco cloud architecture proves to be the best way moving forward in the 5.5G era. This architecture can support and manage both Virtual Machines and containers, even if they co-exist. With converged resources, management, and deployment, the new telco cloud platform lays a solid foundation for 5.5G core services and can deliver considerable improvements in the following areas:

Voice Services: By adding features such as artificial intelligence (AI)-based media identification, rendering, and synthesis and an additional data channel based on the existing IP Multimedia Subsystem audio and video channels, 5.5G core can deliver better and smarter voice services by creating more interactive user experiences. 5.5G Core improves the quality of mobile network calls and upgrades the call experience from simple audio and video to intelligent interaction.

Video Services: The 5.5G core enables the introduction of intelligent media identification and scheduling capabilities, this allows the core network to offer immersive experiences with Extended Reality and spatial video capabilities. As video services evolve from simple entrainment mode viewed on a single screen to social networking across multiple screens, the 5.5G core would be able to build a platform for social interaction and entertainment based on video services with its ability to integrate the communications and video features of mobile phones and TVs.

Enterprise Scenarios: The 5.5G Core enhances the ability of industry-specific private networks to cover all scenarios in all domains from a single service in a single domain, hence meeting the requirement for multi-service private networks capable of improving connectivity and edge computing. Moreover, 5.5G Core also builds the mobile network into a Data, Operation, Information, Communication Technology (DOICT) foundation that can empower all industries.

The 5.5G Core demonstrates the possibility of deploying exciting features like New Calling, which upgrades the experience of audio/video calls by making them more intelligent, immersive, and interactive, New Video that has the potential to transform videos from entertainment on a single screen to multi-screen social networking and Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) to X– that allows industry-specific private networks to expand their capability from a single application in an individual domain to a broader range of applications across all domains. By leveraging these capabilities to bring services to more consumers, businesses, and household-facing scenarios, the 5.5G core network will place the industry in a strong position to build new businesses and thrive in the dynamically changing intelligent world and simultaneously increase customer loyalty to an operator’s brand.

In the current scenario, 5.5G evolution will be gradual due to the unevenly developing telecom industry in different parts of the world. However, to see the best results, operators need to be ready to make changes and investments in technology, networks, and AI capabilities. Additionally, standards need to be set, and key technological research needs to be promoted to ensure smooth development and adoption of 5.5G. Telecom companies should collaboratively focus on setting standards, making 5.5G networks deliver the promised 10 times better performance, and also ensure Release 18 is frozen by 2024. Moreover, as the industry continues to refine future standards, the capabilities of 5.5G need to be explored further to understand the requirement of supporting new services and scenarios. This will unlock the maximum potential of 5.5G and extend its lifecycle. The industry also needs to prepare more spectrum for ultra-large bandwidth. To build ultra-large bandwidth, operators need to utilize the sub-100Ghz resources. As mmWave is an important frequency band for 5.5G, operators will need to acquire over 800 MHz of this band to deliver 10 Gb/s experiences. Also, preparing for 5.5G with mature networks, devices, and chips is extremely important. Networks and devices need to be upgraded to deliver 10 Gb/s experience. Products that use Extremely Large Antenna Array technologies and can support over 1,000 antenna arrays suitable for mid- and high-frequency bands and massive MIMO will be required to support 128T capacity. Innovations will be needed to make 5.5G chips and devices more intelligent and capable of supporting 3T8R or even more channels, in addition to being able to support more than 4 carriers. Lastly, a thriving ecosystem and innovative applications need to be developed. While technological innovations in the 5.5G era will bring operators a 10x increase in network performance over 5G, they will also help operators unlock new business avenues that could potentially drive multifold increase in new business opportunities. The upcoming advancement to 5.5G will further accelerate and drive digital transformation across all industries. It would elevate 5G and pave the way for deployment of complex use cases by leveraging a stronger and more capable wireless system foundation.

With the rapid deployment of the first gen 5G networks, telcos and enterprises globally are evaluating and realizing the potential of these networks and how to leverage them to deliver superior experiences and optimized business outcomes. However, the telecom industry in the background is also gearing up for the next gen 5G networks – 5.5G or Advanced 5G, and all indicators of this next gen network with its new standards point towards an assuring to fulfill the promises that were made in the early days of 5G. Today, in the Middle East region, we are witnessing several leading telcos considering the move towards 5.5G to further enhance and deliver superior customer experience while providing new and innovative use cases to further increase their revenues. Regional leading telco e& has been one of the first to adopt 5.5G technology to provide a superior user experience to their subscribers. Whereas UAE-based telecom provider du signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on 5.5G strategic cooperation, Saudi Arabia-based Zain KSA signed an MoU to build a global 5.5G pioneer network. With the growing adoption and evolution of emerging technologies, consumers are continuously looking for unique and superior experiences and enterprises are looking to optimize their business operations and productivity through digital technology. Moreover, with climate change, the demand for sustainability in ICT is continuously increasing.

While 6G is still in its early stage of research, 5.5G is a necessary and natural evolution of 5G, and this has become an industry consensus. The telecom industry today has defined clear roadmaps for 5G-Advanced, 5.5G Core, F5G-Advanced (F5.5G), and Net5.5G standards and introduced clear spectrum strategies. Key technologies and applications have been verified, and the industry consensus has steadily progressed to best practices. With all these groundbreaking advancements, the arrival of 5.5G is rapidly accelerating, poised to revolutionize network capabilities by a staggering 10-fold for numerous industries seeking to unlock unprecedented levels of digital productivity.

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Mohamadsami Shaikh

Mohamadsami Shaikh is a Consultant with the ICT Practice at Frost & Sullivan

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