5G networks and subscriber behavior—a two-way street that demands analysis
Human behavior is not fixed. In only the short time that mobile networks have existed, the way people live their lives has changed, in both subtle and radical ways.
For example, the move by consumers to online and mobile shopping and away from the high street and bricks and mortar stores is well understood. But that’s not the only change—in recent years people have also switched from big weekly shopping trips to smaller trips every few days. Business practices have also shifted, with telecommuting slowly increasing in popularity, meaning 9 to 5 is no longer the norm. Some of these changes were happening before the pandemic, which has only served to accelerate them.
Operators understand this. Needs and behaviors change, this affects how the network is used and in turn affects how it should be managed. They need to pay close attention to these changes to ensure that their networks work as intended. But this is not a one-way effect. The availability of faster networks changes behavior.
One good example is the recent need to limit or even ban spectators at live sports events, leading to more people watching remotely. This is happening with youth events that would never previously be considered candidates for streaming, and are now being broadcast thanks to amateur set-ups, or even just a handheld phone camera pointed at the action. Parents who would watch from the sidelines are now watching their kids compete via Facebook Live, along with grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings… and this won’t stop when the pandemic is over. There are now thousands of sports tournaments that are live streaming, both officially and unofficially, using unlimited data packages to both broadcast and receive content.
Even a few years ago, this wouldn’t be possible. But now the mobile network is creating and encouraging new behaviors.
5G and subscriber behavior
But as the network enables new behaviors, operators need to closely consider and react to cause and effect working in reverse: not how subscribers affect the network, but how the network affects subscribers. The range of applications made possible by 5G is likely to enhance this effect, changing both subscriber and network behavior radically in ways we cannot easily predict. And as these changes occur, the network will have to react in an ongoing feedback loop to maintain an adequate level of quality of service and experience.
So how might this work in practice? One example is that having a fast and reliable connection on demand may change how consumers select and view video content. A slower connection may mean people download the latest episode of their favorite TV show using Wi-Fi ahead of their morning commute. But why do that if instead you can simply choose what to watch while on your commute and stream it over a fast 5G network? Suddenly the network not only needs to cope with what people were doing before, but also with this new changing behavior; parts of the network that were coping perfectly well with people idly scrolling through social media now must deal with high-definition video. Clearly this needs action from the operator to ensure that the network can cope as this behavior gains traction—this won’t be an overnight change, but one that will shift as people learn what 5G is capable of.
Over time, 5G is predicted by some to have a bigger impact on enterprises than consumers. Yet we will likely only see a variety of 5G innovation materialize once slicing is available. Smart manufacturing will make it possible to cut down on headcount thanks to automation, use IoT networks for monitoring, and adapt quickly to necessary changes. 5G will improve connected cars and here is even an opportunity for 5G to support drone flights that go further and take more complex routes than is possible today. However, these use cases will take time to emerge, and consumer use cases will be a bigger revenue opportunity in the short-term. The streaming of live events, as discussed above, represents just one potential use case—operators can look to offer guaranteed quality for those broadcasting or attract consumers by offering packages that better support the streaming of live video content.
All of these changes have implications for the network. A dedicated network slice may be necessary to ensure that industrial area has a network that is tuned to its needs. Businesses may even decide to relocate their businesses entirely to make the most of the smart manufacturing opportunity, changing how the network is used again.
The subscriber and network ouroboros
A network and its subscribers are ultimately like an Ouroboros, the ancient symbol of a snake eating its tail—a feedback loop where it’s difficult to tell where cause end and effect begins. The network and its capabilities affect how subscribers act, from single consumers to entire businesses. How they act affects the network creating new issues that need to be resolved. And so on.
How will this work? Operators will need to use analytics to discover how their consumers are using the network to better sell products and content to consumers. These offerings can be sold in real time to meet specific, immediate needs, and successful sales will have a real-time effect on the network. Enterprise sales to meet specific needs may take longer but may have a bigger effect on the network and will also need real-time feedback to ensure careful management.
The way to help cope with these changes is through automation. 5G brings with it more data sources—network data, and customer usage records of all kinds, telemetry and so on. This means greater insight and context into what is occurring across the network, but it also presents a challenge. How can humans analyze and understand all these different data points to identify network performance issues or abnormal network behavior? How can they tell what is a minor blip and what is behavior changing wholesale? They can’t. They need automation and machine learning to even get close to coping with this new influx of data.
But there should also be planning, a proactive approach to complement the reactive approach. Operators need to think about how their subscribers will react to their network’s capabilities. How will behaviors change? If entire business models are to be upended, this will undoubtedly affect the network. Operators can either react when it happens, or plan for it now. If they cannot plan, they can put into place ways to soften the blow of unplanned spikes in traffic by automatically reconfiguring the 5G service. Operators now need to be experts not only in telecoms, but also dabble in human behavior and psychology. What trends will shape the network, and how will the network shape future trends?
There is a well-understood phenomenon in city planning of “induced traffic”. Building new roads and increasing capacity doesn’t mean there is more room to drive—it means that more people will drive, will drive further, and take more trips in their car. Counterintuitively, building roads doesn’t solve the traffic problem, it creates new, even more complex traffic problems. 5G networks will do the same, solving old problems but at the same time creating new ones by creating new demands, new use cases, and even new industries. And its only with the right tools in place that operators can unlock the 5G opportunities that lie behind the 5G obstacles. What an exciting future that lies ahead of us.
As published on telecoms.com