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The Future of 5G positioning Panel Discussion Key Takeaways

Last week, I was honored to moderate a panel session organized by ABI Research that debated the future of real time location system (RTLS) technologies, the role that 5G positioning will play in shaping this market, and what steps the 5G ecosystem should take to make 5G positioning the right technology for solving key enterprise pain-points (watch the replay here).

Veterans Sylvia Lu, Board Member of 5G ACIA, Chair of WG4, and Chief Cellular Strategist at u-blox; Doctor Arndt Kadelka, Technology Innovation Expert at Deutsche Telekom; Daisy Zhu, Vice President of Wireless Marketing at Huawei; Joe Barrett, President of the GSA; and Malik Saadi, Vice President of Strategic Technologies at ABI Research, were invited to the panel session to share their expertise and experiences and identify key opportunities and challenges facing 5G positioning in the market place.

The session started with an overview presentation by Saadi, where he presented key pain-points RTLS is aiming to address while highlighting the size of the RTLS market. He also shared key feedback from the industry through a recently conducted survey with 213 decision makers from various industry verticals, which explored their views on the RTLS market landscape, barriers to entry of existing technologies, key use-case requirements they want technology suppliers to address, and their ideal technology of choice. A summary of key outcomes from the survey can be found in the chart below. Malik ended his presentation with a plea to the 5G supply chain and 3GPP standards influencers in particular, urging them for the need to accelerate the agenda of 5G positioning if the industry wants to tap into the market full potential.

The discussion continued with Lu, who was asked on key priorities of RTLS from the end-user perspective. She highlighted the ease of implementation, operation, and maintenance as key priorities from the end user perspective and explained why current RTLS technologies are focusing on simpler use-cases that are easy to install, including retail applications. In the manufacturing industry, Lu sees an increasing demand for use cases that require higher accuracy to support industrial IoT applications, for instance, monitoring the 3D location of automated vehicles and other assets in modular assembly areas. The end-users want RTLS solutions to support seamless location experiences, enabling them to support inbound and outbound use-cases, for example, tracking equipment and personnel inside or outside the operation floor.

So, could 5G positioning address these priorities? Zhu is convinced that 5G, notably its positioning features, will lower the total cost of ownership (TCO) to the end-user because 5G is a single physical network that covers both communications and positioning use-cases for many industry verticals. This will enable the technology to scale which will push the infrastructure to affordability level. In comparison to other RTLS technologies, Zhu believes 5G positioning could provide higher positioning synchronisation and greater accuracy, thanks to the wider spectrum it supports. In addition, Zhu argued that, because 5G spectrum is licensed, 5G positioning could enable higher security and reliability of positioning services compared to alternative technologies that operate in unlicensed spectrum.

Dr. Kadelka provided an operator perspective towards 5G positioning, arguing that cellular service providers are exploring 5G positioning as a key feature of the overarching 5G network infrastructure, private networks in particular. For these networks to gain traction, massive rollout based on standardized solutions are necessary. Kadelka agrees with Zhu that the ability of 5G to offer an all-in-one solution addressing both communications and RTLS use cases is a fundamental value proposition to the enterprise market. So, end-users are not only looking for technologies that will enable premium performance, but they are also looking to deploy end-to-end solutions that could address all their pain-points, whether in the communications domain or in the positioning domain. However, Kadelka argues that 5G positioning is not yet mature enough to be able to address system complexities, such as handling seamless indoor-outdoor positioning, handovers across multiple cells, or integrating 5G positioning within existing IT/OT frameworks in a manufacturing environment. These challenges are not easy to solve from day one. Kadelka also highlighted cost and availability of end devices as key challenges.

Barrett seemed to be aligned with all points made by Lu, Zhu, and Kadelka. He argued that 5G is still a very young technology despite the fast rollout of 5G networks around the world. He argues that private network rollouts will be key for 5G positioning and that operators have a key role to play through shared spectrum. Barrett agreed with Zhu that economies of scale associated with 5G rollouts in the enterprise is key for 5G positioning. He hopes that with the rollouts of networks compliant with Release 17 and above, both the accuracy and other technology challenges will be addressed.

Panellists were then asked about the urgency to accelerate 5G positioning agenda to be able to tap into the technology full market potential.  

Zhu argued that Huawei is currently fulfilling thousands of 5G contracts addressing the enterprise, and that within all of these contracts, addressing 5G positioning use-cases including asset tracking, vehicle tracking, or logistics management are almost mandatory. However, the entire industry chain is still in the early stage of developing enabling technologies, and this is specifically the case for end-terminal chipsets. The current generation of 5G chipsets are specifically designed for power consuming enhanced mobile broadband and smartphone applications, less so for power constrained massive IoT, and certainly not for 5G positioning applications. Zhu took this opportunity to urge the 3GPP standards organizations to define the specifications for low energy and high accuracy required for 5G positioning applications. She also sent a call to the supply chain, including chipset suppliers, device vendors, infrastructure suppliers, and mobile operators, urging them to work together so they can provide end-to-end solutions that are usable, affordable, and accurate, as well as being able to effectively address the enterprise users’ requirements.

Kadelka seems to agree with Zhu on the need for more collaborative approaches to provide end-to-end 5G positioning solutions that the industry craves for. However, he did note that it could take up to three years for the industry to translate standards work to commercial solutions, not just from the infrastructure side but also the availability of end-devices. Another aspect Kadelka is concerned about is compute system integration. He was not sure this is being addressed properly by the 3GPP since the standard body only offers positioning service interfaces to operator’s technologies for public networks, and he is not sure this approach is enough to address private networks. For example, manufacturing players may want to integrate the positioning servers within their own IT and OT systems, and not within the operator’s network. Therefore, it is crucial for the 5G ecosystem to create end-to-end solutions when considering 5G positioning as a value proposition to the end-user.

Lu believes that the positioning feature of 5G should be considered from day one, when 5G connectivity is defined in the 3GPP standards. So far, 5G positioning was introduced as an incremental feature in the upcoming releases of 5G, not an integral part of the 5G value proposition. The risk here, argues Lu, is that once the network is deployed based on the initial connectivity requirements, it may not be the optimal topology for positioning purposes. So, 5G positioning features should be an integral part of the 5G deployment and not one that is set on top of it.

Barrett is of the opinion that 5G is made from a multitude of frameworks and specifications, and 5G positioning is just one of them. Barrett thinks the industry should be patient with 3GPP standards makers as it takes time for stakeholders to align and agree on common consensus. He believes that once this step is addressed, the supply chain will create adequate solutions able to address the end-markets pain-points.

Panellists were asked about the key nodes of the supply chain that are likely to have an influence on the 5G positioning commercial roadmap. Zhu believes chipset and modules vendors could be the source of the bottleneck when it comes to 5G positioning commercial rollouts. This is not unique to 5G positioning as this has happened with other technologies in the past. For example, Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) struggled to take off initially, but when enabling modules and chipsets became widely available, prices of chipsets came down to almost US$2, enabling the technology to enjoy a spectacular commercial success. She also believes that operators and vendors should come together and bring their proof of concepts and demonstrate that 5G positioning can meet the market requirements while outperforming existing technologies. Zhu believes the supply chain should initially focus on key business potential and should not spread themselves thin across many use-cases. Only when these initial use-cases are being delivered as services, should the industry scale-up their technology to meet the requirements of other use-cases.

Kadelka agrees with Zhu that the bottleneck is on the devices side, mainly within reducing the cost of these devices to the affordability level of end-users. However, the end-devices are not the only challenge. Anchor point densification is crucial in handling 5G positioning, mainly when it comes to high-accuracy positioning use-cases. Kadelka argued that while in a manufacturing floor you may only require three access points for communications use-cases, 5G positioning may require up to six anchor points, hence increasing the upfront cost and the TCO of the 5G positioning solution.

Lu cautioned that the end-device availability and cost may be one of the issues, but it is by no means the only major issue. She believes the industry should work together on end-to-end solutions, otherwise they could face a potential issue of market fragmentation. This is why she is urging the industry to collaborate together to create 5G frameworks where 5G positioning is an integral part of the 5G solution.

In summary, panellists agreed business opportunities for 5G positioning are immense and that implementers are waiting for the technology to mature. However, the industry needs to join their efforts together and create end-to-end solutions in order to tap in into the technology’s full market potential. Panellists are confident that the best is yet to come, provided the richness of the 5G positioning roadmap, but they all agree more efforts are needed to accelerate and execute on this roadmap.