Pac-Man Fever was a hit song in the early 1980’s. Capitalizing on the video game craze of the time, the song was about the classic video game of Pac-Man. In case you have forgotten, or are too young to know, people of that time were freaking out trying figure out how to win the game and post high scores… and the video arcades were raking in the cash.
As I think about where we are now with 5G, this old tune comes to mind. It seems that 5G FEVER is everywhere, and EVERYONE is trying to figure out how to win the game!
But to those who may be “freaking out” about 5G, let me offer some words of comfort. We are still very early in a 5G game that is going to play out over many years. And, with that, I’ll go into my latest 5G update.
5G: Where are we now?
Three years ago I wrote the zen-like statement “to believe in 5G you must understand there is no 5G”. (Yes, there was a lot of hype even back then!) Well, that’s not the case anymore as there are now actual standards-based 5G implementations underway with the New Radio (NR) and early stage devices.
These deployments are based on the 3GPP Release 15 standard which defined the basic 5G radio and core elements, though the LTE Enhanced Packet Core (EPC) is still being used today. And that is a very important point. Most people don’t expect the actual 5G Core to be deployed for another one to two years, perhaps not even until the next set of standards are released. That's because of the significant investments made in the EPC, the need to continue to support 4G for many years, and the complex core interworking that must be accomplished as 4G and 5G coexist. So yes, 5G radios are being deployed, but there is still an entire 5G ecosystem to be built out.
These early deployments tend to be focused on hot spots, fixed wireless, with thin layers of coverage in between. Early adopters can benefit from the additional speed of the NR, while Carriers can evaluate early stage devices and the new spectrum bands being used. But, the features and functionality being offered are not much more evolved than LTE at this point.
5G: Where are we going?
As implied earlier, we’re still in the early innings of the 5G network deployment game. In fact, a major portion of 5G specifications (Release 16) will not be completed by 3GPP until early next year (2020). Release 16 will contain the more complex requirements for things we tend to associate with 5G - like Industrial IoT (IIoT), Vehicle-to-Everything (VTX), and LAN support in 5G. As 5G evolves, the intrinsic capabilities upon which the standard is based will provide 5G networks with significant advantages. But, it's important to remember that today we’re just getting started.
What are the intrinsic advantages of 5G?
The short answer is, there are many.
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 it’s all connected 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 (keeping traffic flows separate). Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) in 5G networks supports low latency by moving content and processing closer to the end user.
With those capabilities in mind, the advantages of 5G become more evident. For example, 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 on a volume basis.
Also think about the IIoT 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.
Even with the incremental cost of 5G base stations and the introduction of complex MIMO antennas, the cost-per-bit goes way down compared to LTE. This is because of the 5 to 10 times speed increases that will be possible with a fully deployed 5G ecosystem.
5G will also broaden the spectrum utilization options compared to previous G’s, opening up large amounts of millimeter wave spectrum in higher bands. This is in addition to the mid-bands and lower bands that eventually will be repurposed for 5G. While some of these bands are limited in propagation distances, they are ideal for heavy small cell densification and fixed wireless. Lower bands are more suitable for macro coverage. 5G also will be supportive of unlicensed spectrum such as CBRS, opening up network ownership to a whole new group of Enterprises. In short, operators will have a variety of spectrum bands to choose from as these networks evolve.
Over the next few years, these advantages of 5G will become more apparent as the full 5G ecosystem is deployed. And, that’s when it really begins to get interesting.
How will 5G evolve?
In previous new technology roll outs, Carriers initially focused on high density areas with a fairly uniform roll out from dense urban, urban, suburban, to rural. This is what happened with 2G, 3G, and 4G. With 5G, however, I think we'll see something different. The initial focus will be on small cells (cell site densification) and on fixed wireless, with Enterprise 5G solutions also playing a key role. One can envision a coverage map with areas of signal concentration connected by thin layers of wireless connectivity.
As for fixed wireless, it has been around a long time and has generally been used in limited cases. But, with the 5G introduction of mm Waves, particularly if Carriers can “avoid the truck roll” to the home (self-install of home units as Verizon just announced), the economics change. This could represent a real threat to MSO market share as time goes on.
So, in summary, as Release 16 is finalized (early 2020) more complete networks will be deployed. Carriers will still be establishing national footprints for complex services like connected cars, but the peak activity will be on concentrated access locations. Taken together, I believe we will likely be in a build mode for the 2019 – 2021 with 5G revenue streams materializing in the 2020/2021-time frame. Profitability, however, may come later than that. There is still a lot of network investment to be made before 5G subscriptions will start to significantly increase.
The full 5G ecosystem will be comprised of powerful building blocks that, 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. This is true of all members of the 5G network ecosystem as well as potential users such as health care, manufacturing, entertainment, and gaming.
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 and rates of adoption. There could also be non-traditional entrants into the 5G market. Dish is still out there with its spectrum holdings, cable companies need to compete in this space, and even Amazon is rumored to be eyeing wireless opportunities. There may also be room for wholesale core network slicing and edge computing infrastructure services to support Enterprise networks. It would not surprise me if, 5 years from now, we are looking at a much different competitive landscape.
So, hang on to your hat! Though 5G has already been talked about for several years, it’s not too late to catch 5G Fever and get ready for an exciting future. As I like to say, you can debate the timing but not the trend. My hope is that you and your company make the right decisions so that you, like the little Pac-Man himself, can gobble up your competition!