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5G: Where Are We Now, and Where Are We Going?


After four days last week in Barcelona at the annual Mobile World Congress, I’ve been reflecting on everything I saw and heard about 5G. I encountered views from optimists, who stressed the new capabilities and services, and pessimists who felt there simply isn’t a business case for 5G. And then there were the 100’s of companies who are trying to figure out their particular play in the 5G world.

Of course, no one knows for sure how all this will play out. But I have put some thought into this, and here is how I see things shaping up.

1) We are at the very beginning of the 5G evolution. I mean the VERY beginning.

Two years ago I wrote the zin-like statement “to believe in 5G you must understand there is no 5G”. (Yes, there was hype even back then.) Well, that’s not true anymore as there are now standards-based 5G implementations underway. These deployments are based on the 3GPP Release 15 standard which defined the basic 5G radio and core elements. These deployments tend to be thin layers of coverage utilizing early stage devices, so from a feature and functionality standpoint there is not a lot to be gained over LTE Enhanced. But we also need to keep in mind the bigger picture.

As 5G evolves, the intrinsic capabilities upon which the standard is based will provide 5G networks with significant advantages. It’s important to keep in mind that a major portion of 5G specifications (Release 16) will not be completed by 3GPP until early next year (2020). Release 16 will contain more complex requirements for things we tend to associate with 5G - like enhanced IoT, high speed trains, and autonomous driving. That’s why I think we’re just getting started with 5G, and I wouldn’t get too hung up on what early stage deployments look like right now.

2) So, what are those 5G intrinsic advantages?

5G is optimized for providing very low latency, high service quality, and very high bandwidth. That begins with an entirely new radio specification, extends through a new network core, and its all connected together by high speed fiber. 5G networks will also have self-optimizing features, allowing for dynamic allocation of wireless network resources based on demand, as well as network slicing. The slicing capability further improves the user experience by keeping traffic flows separate. Finally, the implementation of Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) in 5G networks supports low latency by moving content and processing closer to the end user. In practice, it really is a totally new overlay network.

With those capabilities in mind, the advantages of 5G become more evident. Demand for Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) services is growing, both of which require very low latency and high service quality. Another example is remote gaming where players want to compete with other players with very high-quality video graphics. For applications like these, 4G will simply not be able to keep up as they are rolled out on a volume basis.

Also think about the IoT of the future. 5G will be needed for the high density of devices in massive machine type communications that are envisioned. It will be critical for the network to segregate traffic that is mission critical (E.G., remote health care or autonomous car) while still providing acceptable service quality to VR/AR and other applications.

Finally, as things begin to scale, I believe that 5G networks will provide cost benefits over 4G. 5G base stations are expected to be approximately the same cost as 4G base stations, but, with the big increase in capacity, the cost-per-bit goes way down. 5G will also broaden the spectrum utilization options compared to previous G’s, opening up large amounts of millimeter wave spectrum in higher bands. And while some of these bands are limited in propagation distances, they are ideal for heavy small cell densification. Finally, 5G will be supportive of unlicensed spectrum such as CBRS, opening up network ownership to a whole new group of enterprises.

Over the next few years, these advantages of 5G will become more apparent as the full network capabilities are deployed.

3) So, how will we evolve from the initial implementations into the 5G future?

As in previous new technology roll outs, carriers generally focus on high density areas, or “hot spots”, with new higher capacity technologies. I expect the same for 5G, with the exception that fixed wireless 5G will also be introduced in some suburban and rural areas. (This is an area to watch to see if fixed wireless begins proving in versus fiber). As we enter 2020, with more standards established, more complete networks will deployed and carriers will be establishing national footprints. That will be important for more complex services like autonomous cars. Taken together, I believe we will be in mostly a build mode for the 2019 with 5G revenue streams starting to materialize in the 2020/2021-time frame.

Conclusion

The full 5G ecosystem will be comprised of powerful building blocks that I believe, over time, will transform both communications as well as everyday life. Full connectivity and high reliability, regardless of where you are and how fast you are moving, will become achievable. This has both exciting and profound implications, and all companies need to be planning for how they can prosper in this 5G future.

Early “winners” will likely be the companies involved in network build outs like tower companies, OEM’s, fiber, antenna, and construction companies. It is less clear when the next wave of “winners” will come along which will be a function of market forces, rates of adoption, and perhaps the development of that “killer ap” that everyone likes to talk about.

But it is clear that we have begun an exciting journey into a 5G world that promises to be unlike any “G” we have experienced before. Those are my thoughts, and I’m happy to hear yours as we begin to head down that road.

Bill Mayberry
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