The sky’s the limit for 5G app developers

How application developers can scale new apps and services across multiple geographies quickly and easily

Sponsored Feature The past year has seen huge growth in the spread and popularity of 5G services.

There are now around 1.4 billion 5G connections across the globe, a figure projected to hit eight billion by 2028, according to data from independent research firm Omdia. This would make it by far the most widely adopted cellular technology ever, surpassing 4G LTE by 2.5 billion subscriptions.

There's particular appetite in the mobile industry for the possibilities offered by 5G Standalone (5G SA), so-called true 5G which isn't subject to any of 4G's limitations. This supports capabilities including network slicing, ultra reliable, low-latency communications and massive machine type communications (mMTC), which can all help to power a dazzling range of new use cases.

As well as delighting consumers and enabling businesses, this new era of 5G innovation is presenting fresh horizons to the developer community. Improvements in data speeds, latency and network capacity are making it possible to create the kind of applications that are powering smart cities and injecting new life into the Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem. And developers can now integrate AI and ML into their applications, offering an ever more sophisticated user experience. Moreover, the expanding number of 5G networks globally means .

Hurdles to overcome

But there remain challenges to overcome before the fruits of all this creativity can be set before potential adopters at scale. For one thing, developer skill sets are not yet familiar or aligned with the complexities of today's network architectures. The world of communications remains a second, non-native language for most of them. Some in the industry believe this is as it should be - ie application developers don't need to be intimately familiar with network architectures, but should still be able to weave network capabilities into their apps.

On the other side of the coin are network operators, eager to tap into the sort of compelling applications that will drive usage of their assets and help them monetize the capabilities of the 5G-era networks they have spent so much to construct. But how do they gain access to this world of software visionaries?

A solution designed to meet the needs of both developers and operators emerged in early 2023 with the launch of the Open Gateway Initiative (OGI) by mobile industry organisation the GSMA. This saw a group of 21 influential operators agree on a uniform way to expose their networks to developers via API. The initiative is underpinned by a set of standardised capabilities, devised by the Linux Foundation's CAMARA program and created to bring consistency to the way networks are exposed through APIs.

The idea quickly took wing and now over 40 operator signatories are subscribed to the OGI, along with a number of technology partners that sit in the middle of the process, acting where required as aggregators to unite the disparate worlds of developer and network. Operators, of course, reserve the right to approach developers on a 'one to one' basis, as opposed to the 'many to many' opportunity that an aggregator offers. Or they can combine the two models. It depends on which strategy they think will help them reach the developers they need. For the developer, on the other hand, the best solution will always be 'write once, reach many'.

Write once, reach many ideal for developers

One aggregator with a compelling proposition is Nokia with its Network as Code platform. This can be accessed via a specially created portal, provides simplified network capabilities to developers as software code that can be easily integrated into applications, says Nokia. The platform and portal provide developers with tools such as Software Development Kits (SDKs), network API documentation, and a 'sandbox' for simulation and testing. Commercially, it is based on a revenue share model between developers, operators and Nokia as platform provider.

"A good platform is about more than just being a gateway for transactions," explains Shkumbin Hamiti, Head of Network Monetisation Business Unit, Nokia. "Providing simplification on top of the gateway is one of the areas where we are particularly focussed at Nokia. We want to make life easy for the developer, allowing them to develop code in as fast a time as possible. Speed to market means a lot to an app creator. If they have to wade through a bunch of network complexity, then 'fast' is not happening. And of course, integral to our proposition is that once they have developed an application for one use case, they can take that work and repurpose it for a variety of other use cases."

Nokia is targeting Network as Code not just at individual developers, but systems integrators focussed on particular industries which can act as channel partners, extending the platform to relevant development talent: "These integrators can help us reach into the industries they specialise in," says Hamiti. "An app produced for one industry can be adapted for others."

Hamiti adds that as well as servicing the interests of developers, Network as Code is a vital resource for communications service providers: "The participating operators behind the OGI now represent 65 percent of all the mobile devices held globally," he notes. "They know that being on an aggregator platform is something they need to be doing. We now have 10 operators on board with Network as Code. I should point out that one of our differentiators is that we are not limited simply to mobile networks - we can address the needs of fixed network operators as well."

Apps in Antwerp action

A great example of Network as Code in API-driven action is furnished by the partnership between Nokia and communications giant Liberty Global. Telenet, a Belgian provider of 5G services and a subsidiary of Liberty, was able to use the platform to deliver a solution that is being trialled at the Port of Antwerp, one of the world's largest commercial waterways. The slicing capabilities of Telenet's 5G SA network are allowing remotely-located captains to operate vessels in the port safely and efficiently, supported by real-time data made available through ultra-low latency network capabilities and zero-touch automation. The solution not only creates operational efficiencies but deals with a shortage of experienced captains.

The trial, part of Liberty Global's Network as a Service program, involved shipping firm Seafar NV and imec, an innovation hub for digital technologies. The Network as Code Platform, along with its accompanying developer portal, worked with imec's edge application middleware to bridge the gap between the vessel's real-time requirements and the 5G network in ways that standard commercial networks do not provide.

"The trial illustrates two different API capabilities– Device Location and Quality on Demand - in action," explains Hamiti. "These. What's radical is that an industry-specific business application can just make an API call for either and the network reacts on-demand in real-time."

A further and very public example of Network as Code in action took place at the most recent Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona where the GSMA ran a real-time hackathon session. A group of software engineers were tasked with creating real-world applications using Nokia's Network as Code developer portal to incorporate network capabilities directly into their application designs. After two days of coding the results were revealed, showcasing a variety of consumer, business, and government scenarios, ranging from ensuring connectivity during emergency situations to collecting sensor information from elderly patients. Other apps were designed for tracking pet location, enabling medical assistance across language barriers, monitoring drone fleets, and promoting space tourism to the Moon. The APIs they used covered capabilities like location retrieval and verification, device status, and quality of service on demand. Winners were voted on by their peers and prizes awarded.

The bigger picture

Hamiti believes though that the real value of a platform like Network as Code is not best illustrated by individual uses: "I am often asked what's the killer app," he says. "But it is perhaps more helpful to think in terms of killer capabilities. It's about taking capabilities like quality on demand and device location and applying these not to a single industry but to many different ones. That's where developer ingenuity comes in. The genius is in the platform, not in individual use cases."

Platforms like Network as Code are great news for both developer and operator, because they can harness the power of ubiquitous APIs to increase revenues. They do this by facilitating the quick creation of focused yet adaptable applications that can be easily distributed to a large global audience. API standardisation saves developers money both on regulatory compliance and costly systems integration and telecoms expertise. The ultimate result is improved customer experience, satisfaction and loyalty through applications that can be confidently backed by watertight SLAs.

Sponsored by Nokia.

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