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5G UPDATE - THINGS I LEARNED IN MAY


Like many of you, the month of May has been another time of working from home and exercising social distancing. And, just like last month, I have tried to use this time to learn from some smart people in the industry. The 5G world continues to evolve, and we are seeing additional pieces of the puzzle emerge all the time. So, for this month, I’d like to share with you several observations that I found to be noteworthy.

1. 5G Is a Marathon, Not A Sprint

5G has been hyped for many years, so I can appreciate why some folks may think that we are entering a mature phase of the technology. And, of course, some are already passing judgement. (Example from a cable executive this month: “5G is just 4G with millimeter wave, and millimeter wave has problems.”) But the truth is, we really are just getting started with 5G implementation. I think it’s important from time to time to remind ourselves of that.

Right now in the US 5G radios are being deployed based on the New Radio (NR) Release 15 standard developed by 3GPP. The 5G radios are connected to the existing LTE 4G core, and this is referred to as Non-Stand Alone (NSA) configuration. What is still to come are three major 5G standards releases. Release 16 is scheduled for June 2020, Release 17 is anticipated in December, 2021, and Release 18 will likely be late in 2022. Each release builds on the previous one and will provide additional capabilities. Since field implementation of a standard generally lags standard approval by about a year, you can see why we need to be looking at 5G in a longer-term fashion.

In parallel, carriers will continue deploying the 5G building blocks. These include unique 5G Cores, MEC (Mobile Edge Computing), highly sophisticated MIMO antenna systems, software-based network functions, more fiber for connectivity, and thousands of more small cells for site densification. Enterprises are also expanding into 5G with Industrial IoT applications and the anticipated use of CBRS spectrum. The licensed portion of CBRS goes into auction later this year.

As this entire infrastructure is deployed over the next 3 – 5 years we will see the complete picture of everything 5G will be. Services will be rolled out based on these ultra-fast, ultra-reliable, and ultra-low latency capabilities. These services will include robotics, Industrial IoT, autonomous cars, AR/VR, and lots of other services typically associated with 5G. And, perhaps most powerful of all, every carrier in the world will be rolling out this 100% standards based 5G network architecture with seamless compatibility across the globe.

So that’s where we’re heading, but we’re not there yet. In fact, as the picture above illustrates, I believe we’re just coming out of the starting gate. Alan Carlton, VP at InterDigital recently said we’re at 5G Rev 1.0 right now, and I think that is the right way to look at it. So, we need to be patient, but also be aware of what’s coming. It will be a game-changer.

2. 5G and Wifi

You notice I didn’t title this section as 5G versus WiFi, even though that is the subject of heated debates in some circles. The picture I see emerging is one of coexistence or perhaps even the compatibility of the two technologies. Here’s why.

Companies are looking to solve problems. That’s all. They aren’t enamored with particular technologies or spectrum bands, and they aren’t staffed with people who live and breathe that kind of thing. I believe that leads us to a world where each technology is used based on its specific utility in a non-homogeneous environment.

Let me provide some examples. Kristan Kline, Network Strategy Leader at Kaiser Permanente, says that Kaiser will use both technologies. He believes that WiFi will continue to be used for general communication purposes, but they plan to use CBRS based 5G to provide “mission critical” communications. Examples of mission critical include health sensors, heart monitoring, and critical voice between health providers. That is because of the additional protections available in the technology.

Another example is provided by Mark Duebner, Director of Aviation for the City of Dallas. He believes both technologies will run together for a long time at the city’s main airport. With exploding data demand, there is simply a need to use all the tools in the toolbox. “It will be messy for a while with all these technologies and spectrum bands, which is why partnerships are important.” As he concludes with “I’m a building operator, not a technical guy.”

So, I believe these technologies will co-exist and support each other as time goes on. WiFi will continue to evolve, and so will 5G. Successful companies will continue to focus on how problems can be solved and leave the “religious” technology debates to others. That leaves room for both technologies.

3. COVID-19 Impacts

Last month I speculated on how COVID-19 will affect 5G network rollouts this year. So far, I have to say that blog is holding up pretty well. This month I’ll add some additional detail.

The industry consensus seems to be that, after some near-term deployment delays in mid-2020, COVID-19 will actually accelerate the digital transformation that was already underway. A key focus will be on improving the safety of work environments. Examples cited by Parag Shah, SVP Customer Business Executive at Amdocs, include social distancing, the use of robots in hospitals, AI in warehouses, and remote pathology analysis in health care. In addition, Marc Ganzi, CEO of Digital Colony, believes that COVID-19 has further illustrated the mission critical nature of connectivity. He feels that we are entering an unprecedented period of demand for remote connectivity, cloud computing, mobility, data, and storage. All of these, of course, are major components of 5G networks.

The next few months are going to be very interesting. As our society opens back up, I believe you will continue to see 5G use cases shifting towards solving the problems created by COVID-19. Companies can simply not afford another shut down like this one due to a pandemic.

4. 5G Conspiracy Theories

Finally, I want to say a few words about 5G conspiracy theories. Somehow, the notion is out there that 5G causes the spread of COVID-19. While this initially seemed like a harmless fringe theory, we are now seeing cases of towers being set on fire and tower crews being harassed.This has to stop.

I think it’s important for all knowledgeable people in the wireless industry to strongly reject such theories at every turn. And so, here are some facts:

  • 5G radio waves cannot transmit a virus. Radio waves are electromagnetic in nature. They carry signals which are encoded to transmit and decoded at the receiving end to reconstruct the original information that was sent. We now know that COVID-19 is transmitted by respiratory droplets from infected individuals. Respiratory droplets cannot be carried by electromagnetic waves. Otherwise, you would catch colds from your transistor radio.

Clear enough? Of course, if that doesn’t work, you can always accentuate the positive. (This response is attributed to an employee of the Australian operator Telstra). “You know, the 5G towers will help download your conspiracy videos faster.”

And if THAT works, my friend, you have a great career ahead of you in sales! 😊

Bill Mayberry
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