According to LightReading, 5G is set to dominate the upcoming Mobile World Congress. So it was timely to get ahead of the curve (and the crowds) at this week’s Cambridge Wireless Special Interest Group (SIG) session on 5G hosted by BT.

Aria CTO Jay Perrett opened up the technical presentations by pointing out that 5G will present new challenges of operating at speed and scale. While tremendous opportunity exists, it is really dependent on being able to make complex, objective-driven decisions – exactly the sort of problem that AI and Machine Learning are essential for.

In particular, the ability to make changes in real time will mean that operators will have to find ways to consider additional factors within their operational processes. In a market where customers expect flat rate tarrifs, 5G network slicing could provide a way to protect service quality for priority customers – if operators can automate the process.

Virtualization provides part of a 5G solution, but ultimately 5G is about having – and exploiting – the flexibility to adapt to market demand. By way of example, Jay showed an example of automated instantiation of a 5G slice, driven by response to changing demand and service quality.

BT’s own Andy Corston-Petrie followed up, reinforcing the importance of automation to the success of 5G.

Intel’s Julian Ramos explained how 5G represents a progressive “cloudification” of the telco, shifting from hardware to software architectures:

Finally, Ericsson’s Stewart Lacey explained how 5G is the response to two new areas of requirement: massive connectivity of devices, and/or latency-critical communications such as for medical or safety applications. Refreshingly for an equipment vendor, Stewart warned against seeing 5G as a specific technology solution, but more as an umbrella term for the next evolution of the entire network.

The lively and wide-ranging panel discussion that followed suggested a cautious optimism about 5G. Great potential, but a lot of questions still to answer.

It’s clear that 5G still has a long way to go: technical showcases of sophisticated new equipment can tell only a fraction of the full story. Operators and vendors alike realize that only a combination of market trials, backed by full operational capability to automate at scale, will tell whether 5G is Hype or Opportunity.