When I wrote my first 5G blog three years ago, I opened with the Zen-like statement “to believe in 5G you must understand there is no 5G”. That was my way of addressing the 5G hype of the day, even though we were still years away from deployment. Since that time, a lot has been accomplished in terms of identifying spectrum, developing standards, conducting trials, and defining common use cases. And, while we still have more to do as an industry, we enter 2020 with the expectation that this year we will see networks of scale deployed and begin to gain more than just anecdotal customer feedback. That’s why I believe that 2020 will be a pivotal year for 5G, and what we learn this year will shape how 5G will be deployed in 2021 and beyond. There is a lot going on with 5G, but here are five key things I believe are worth watching this year.
One of the questions debated over the past few years is “what spectrum is best for 5G?” As operators around the world roll out their networks in various spectrum bands, there is a growing view that the answer is “it depends”. From a definition standpoint, there are three strata of spectrum. Here is that list as well as what they are best suited for.
High band 10GHz – 100GHz (mmWave) Provides localized coverage, highest capacity
Mid band 2GHz – 10GHz Provides wide coverage, good capacity
Low band less than 2GHz Provides wider coverage, but lowest capacity
Every Carrier currently has a unique spectrum profile, and, predictably, tends to stress the advantages of the spectrum they have. It will be interesting to see if they can make what they have work for their business model as traffic begins to ramp, or if they will need to acquire spectrum in different bands as market segments emerge. That intelligence will heavily influence the necessity of, and value of, additional spectrum for Carrier use.
Closely coupled with the available spectrum are expected use cases that will emerge as 5G networks are deployed. Keeping in mind that user experience and innovation will likely create applications undreamed of today, it is still useful to categorize the four major areas of main interest as we enter 2020:
Fixed Wireless Broadband: This use case serves as a fixed broadband-to-the-home replacement that leverages high-band wireless spectrum and existing fiber backhaul to provide home broadband. It eliminates the need to build fiber all the way to the premise. Antennas are required, either mounted externally or internally, to provide this “last mile” link. If Carriers are successful in eliminating a truck roll for fixed wireless broadband provisioning, as some are claiming, this area could grow quickly.
Enhanced Mobile Broadband:These use cases utilize all the expected 5G benefits of high data speed, low latency and connection density. Examples in this category include virtual/augmented reality and multi-user interaction. Given the popularity of video and e-gaming, this is an important area to watch.
Industrial IoT: This large area of use cases involves all matter of device communication. This includes both human-to-machine and machine-to-machine interactions. Potential applications are transport and logistics (fleet management, goods tracking), utilities (smart metering, smart grid management), smart cities (parking sensors, smart bicycles, smart lighting), and industrial (process monitoring and control, maintenance monitoring). This is the area to watch to see if 5G really does spur a second industrial revolution, as some expect.
Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Applications: These are applications where 5G capabilities are used in the extreme, as health and well-being are often at stake. Examples include urgent healthcare/remote surgery (i.e., remote patient diagnosis and treatment), robust communications in case of natural disasters, automated factories that enable time-critical factory automation, and the growing area of connected cars. I expect connected cars to be a particularly big area in 2020.
Frequently lost in the 5G hype has been the need for uniform standards.Last year saw the completion of 3GPP R16, phase 1 which allowed for the New Radio (NR) to be deployed (albeit utilizing an LTE core). This is called non-standalone 5G. A second set of R16 standards is due out by June 2020, which will add more 5G functionality and facilitate 5G core-based services. This is referred to as standalone 5G. There are two things to watch carefully this year in this area. First, will R16 Phase 2 be released on schedule (freeze in March of 2020; release in June of 2020)? Further delays in the standard will delay deployment. Second, when will major carriers start deploying their own standalone 5G cores? Both are necessary to enable 5G network slicing and more complex use cases in the future.
Mobile Edge Computing (MEC)
From a definition standpoint, the edge computing refers to the distribution of computing, storage, and communications resources closer to end-user applications. It is believed for mobility this network architecture change will be shaped by the Industrial IoT and the proliferation of connected devices that have tighter performance and latency requirements than 4G devices today. As these MEC resources begin migrating from centralized data centers, they could even be at the base of a macro tower or where a cluster of small cells are placed. Most carriers are still developing plans for MEC and perhaps 2020 will be the year we begin to see how this will take shape.
Having spent a lot of my career in network deployment, I can fully appreciate the deployment challenges facing Carriers this year. In addition to the deployment of New Radios in 5G spectrum, there are other building blocks needed. Those including fiber backhaul, small cells for network densification, and new, high capacity, MIMO antenna systems. All these components must work together to produce 5G high-bandwidth, low latency services that will differentiate 5G from today’s 4G. Small cell deployment issues are well documented, as there continues to be tensions between municipalities and carriers facing aggressive roll out schedules. Less well documented is the shortage of qualified tower crews to perform the necessary work on macro towers. If you use the United States as an example, in 2020 all major carriers will be competing for these scarce crews in order to be successful. I believe that the Carriers who do the best job of addressing these deployment issues in 2020 will be more successful than their competitors in obtaining initial 5G market share.
As I said in the introduction, I believe 2020 will be a pivotal year in the 5G evolution. After years of hype, real networks are being deployed, real services and being offered, and customers will be voting in with their dollars.
In this blog I’ve tried to highlight five key areas to watch, though I’m sure I’ve missed a few that others view as important. As always, I’m happy to hear your thoughts as we all