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One giant leap for mankind? The forgotten space race narrative for all firms racing for 5G supremacy

When Neil Armstrong said those famous words in 1969, his boots forever imprinting the surface of the moon, it in many ways erased all that had come before and much of what was to come. The failures of those many other missions that both preceded and followed Apollo 11 are nothing in historical memory compared with that single moment.

With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing just passed, the failures of forgotten expeditions provide an important lesson for telecoms companies racing for 5G supremacy.

Much like being the first man on the moon, the prospect of a faster network is an exciting development for the international community at large. Yet many people have seemingly not paused to take stock of the many operational challenges posed by the transition to a 5G network, and the disastrous fallout that could follow a ‘failure to launch’.

Recent discussion has all but sidestepped this issue, with the ongoing Huawei debate and various provider launches dominating the conversation. Yet the very telecoms providers that were struck down by IT failures last year have faced little pressure to demonstrate any significant steps towards addressing the operational deficiencies within their 4G networks. Instead they are being pushed to deliver a full 5G network as soon as possible.  

This is deeply concerning as the core network functions of a 5G network are a direct progression from 4G. So if a network so centrally embedded within the telecoms community cannot pinpoint and address operational deficiencies in its 4G network, scaling up this system to a vastly more complex 5G network will pose even greater issues.

Despite the core similarities, 5G is not simply 4G but faster. For one, it uniquely depends on the use of millimetre wave frequencies. These allow for faster data speeds, but require much shorter distances of communication, and therefore create more base stations and more points of vulnerability when it comes to systems failures. 

5G is also highly susceptible to atmospheric interference, meaning that outdoor signals are at the mercy of Mother Nature herself, with foliage and high temperatures just two examples of potential disruptors. And all these changes are set to come on top of a necessary cloud migration for the IT of many mobile network providers who have yet to take the plunge.

Ultimately what this means for telecoms providers is that their IT estates are about to get a whole lot bigger and more complex. While faster network speeds are a natural and positive evolution for the UK, firms need to be assessing risks and carefully monitoring this change at every step of the transition. Moving forward, the degree to which various providers prepare themselves from an operational resilience perspective – including the implementation of monitoring tools, capacity planning and thorough stress testing – will forever define who rises to the heights of Apollo 11 and who falls painfully back to earth.