Major Telecom Trends in Voice and 5.5G Evolution

At the Huawei Global Analyst Summit 2023, HuaweiTech sat down with Andy Hicks, Senior Principal Analyst at GlobalData, to explore the latest trends in voice services and 5G and the implementation of 5.5G.


HuaweiTech: What major 5G trends can we expect for 2023?

Andy Hicks: I think the main trend we can expect for 2023 is that we will start to actually benefit from 5G. The thing about the way the standards were constructed for 5G is that we had to lay this huge technological infrastructure and we had to basically change our entire wireless network.

But what that what meant was that, so far, we have been basically using 5G to support 4G use cases such as faster wireless broadband.

Now, operators are actually starting to install 5G cores, which means that they can use that better radio network in much more intelligent ways. They can segment it differently and they can control the quality of experience much better. So, we are going to start to see that throughout at least the developed world in 2023. Then we are going to start talking about making that a little bit smarter with the next generation of standards, what some people call 5.5G or 5G Advanced.

HuaweiTech: While the large-scale commercial use of 5G is accelerating, the development of 5G is uneven in different regions. 2G, 3G, and voice services will remain in many networks for a long time. How do you think the voice network architecture will evolve?

Andy Hicks: I think the first thing that needs to happen is to get everyone onto 5G and onto VoLTE, which is 4G calling, but that is the standard that we will be using for voice.

A lot of operators and a lot of users are still using what is called circuit-switched voice, 2G or 3G, and they know that they want to get rid of it because it is a huge cost, it is duplicative, and they want to use the spectrum for other things. The problem is that different countries will shut off 2G versus 3G at different times. Some countries have already shut off 2G, and some have already shut off 3G. But because of IoT demands and government regulations, emergency services, and so on, what gets shut off varies from country to country.

So, operators are stuck having to run these old circuit-switched networks for a while as they are developing these 4G and 5G networks, especially on the voice side. As a result, they are going to do one or two things: Either they are going to have to negotiate extended service contracts for sometimes quite old voice networks, and those are going to run off at some point. Or they are going to develop what is called a converged core, which is a single voice core that can handle both circuit-switched 2G/3G networks, as well as the 4G and 5G networks in one. That will help with migration over the longer term, even if it is maybe a little bit more of a migration sore in the shorter term.

HuaweiTech: In some regions, such as North America and Europe, 2G/3G networks are being retired. However, the global penetration rate of VoLTE services is only 40%. In this context, how can the voice experience be improved in the 5G era?

Andy Hicks: The first thing to do is to get everyone onto VoLTE. As less than half of the world's population is currently using VoLTE calling, and those of us who are already using it, very quickly got used to the fact that there's a shorter call setup time. The fidelity is better, the voice is better - you can understand things more clearly when you're on VoLTE calling.

For the rest of the world, there is a bit of a problem getting people off the standard, but then we are running into difficulties because some countries are already shutting off one network or the other network. Now, the difficulty becomes that the roaming standards for VoLTE just are not there yet. So, what we are really using is this whole thicket of bilateral agreements on the 3G side.

What happens to those if you are shutting off your 3G network? A lot of work needs to be done in the industry on figuring out how to do these bilateral VoLTE agreements, and until all that gets sorted out, how to piggyback on top of 3G roaming to let people use their phones in other countries.

HuaweiTech: So, based on the current situation of the voice industry, what do you think can be improved in terms of standards and industry cooperation?

Andy Hicks: I mentioned roaming already, making sure that we all work on roaming agreements, making sure that, for example, as a European when I go to America that I can use emergency services if I have to. That’s actually a problem nowadays.

We can also work on being able to develop more value-added services. As an industry, being able to support our voice networks making us money, which we have not really been able to do as an industry in a number of years.

HuaweiTech: As a bridge between 5G and 6G, how should operators approach 5.5G deployment?

Andy Hicks: Well, it is all about monetization and there is a data side to that and there is a voice side as well. We have built this whole 5G infrastructure, and we have not really been able to make a lot more money out of it as an industry. The nice thing about 5.5G is that it builds on the 5G core that operators are still putting in place to enable things, for example, better location and better timing - that kind of thing will help us with autonomous use cases. Drones will be able to pilot themselves much more exactly, for example, and you will be able to find a person and target them with a certain service or a certain connection in much more granularity than you can now.

On the commercial side, it is not quite 5.5G, but it is running in parallel along with it. There's something called 5G New Calling, which initially I was kind of skeptical about. That is where we're running a data and a video connection along with the call channel. But the videos that I have seen have kind of made me a believer in that, as they offer a better experience than over-the-top - just being served from the cloud or data center.

If we can still enable this level of experience in production, I really have some hope that the operators who adopt it will be able to use it to drive monetization with a sort of rich content voice call.

For a deep dive into this topic, download the white paper released by GlobalData and Huawei in April 2023: The 5G Voice Transition: Managing the Complexity.