We are about half a decade away from full-fledged commercial 5G, yet the buzz engines seem to be firing up. With many observers mocking 5G as vaporware, while other pump it up as very real, why is there so much confusion, what can 5G do that 4G can’t, what is the actual state of 5G, and why are network operators so eager to rush to 5G?
Why So Much Confusion?
The main reason that there is confusion around what 5G is, and the state of the technology is that it is not really following the conventional “G” evolution pattern. Normally, each G represented a clear benefit in spectral efficiency, and better top data speeds for each user. The “speed” characteristic was easy for the average layman to understand. So people are naturally looking for 5G to fit that pattern, and just be “more bandwidth more fast”. But 5G, rather than being “a technology” that offers a speed boost, is more of a catch-all framework, where the progress is more about tying together a diverse batch of use-cases, for example IoT, low-power devices, low-latency services.
Because 5G doesn’t fit the pattern, many people just don’t get it. They say “It seems like it’s not clearly defined.” Well, it is . But not in layman’s terms. That’s OK, though. The layman is not expected to understand the “G”s — industry folk are. What will be important to the Layman is what 5G will offer to them in terms of better prices, new solutions, and greater functionality.
What Can 5G Do That 4G Can’t?
Cellular has been a somewhat poor tool for certain use cases, and this is limiting the market opportunity for the big cellular carriers. And carriers are facing competitive pressure from IEEE standards in unlicensed spectrum, which cost much less, and from proprietary solutions like SigFox and LoRa. If cellular cannot offer cost-effective solutions to these use cases, they stand to lose the opportunities to these competing providers. For example:
- Gaming requires low latency
- IoT requires low cost, low power consumption, non-chatty overhead signals
- IoT requires better nationwide coverage, with low frequency channels
- Connected cars need ultra-low latency for V2I instant warnings
- More capacity requires more spectrum bands, which 5G can multiplex
- Cellular needs a cheaper cost basis to respond to “Wi-Fi First” threats (like Republic Wireless or Google Fi)
The list above are things 1G-3G could not deliver well, and which 4G struggles to deliver. In contrast, 5G roadmaps include solutions to address those strategic imperatives.
And while 5G will offer speed and capacity enhancements, it will do so not by the usual increasingly efficient modulation schemes, but rather by standardizing heterogeneous cellular, multi-band spectrum multiplexing, bundling licensed and unlicensed spectrum, introducing long-range low-power features.
These are pretty creative techniques, so they merit some explanation:
- Heterogeneous cellular or HetNets is the notion of rethinking and mixing various ways of laying out a cellular network. Now “towers” can be long-range, short-range, concentric, overlapping, repeaters, indoors, leaky coax, femtocells. 5G will include standards-based ways of deploying HetNets using software-controls to handle the complexity.
- Multi-band spectrum multiplexing is the notion of adding two distant channels together to offer more speed to your mobile device. Current standards have the phone choosing a channel from the carrier’s licensed spectrum, and perhaps switching later to another. Multiplexing would have the device connect to multiple channels at once to increase throughput. And some radically different bands are going to be part of the 5G standard. Last month, the USA’s FCC voted to allocate large swaths of millimeter wave spectrum (above 24GHz) for 5G commercial services, and unlicensed use. mmWave is short range, but it offers huge bandwidth, and fits perfectly in a HetNet approach.
- Bundling licensed and unlicensed spectrum is a controversial approach promoted by telecom vendors, where network towers and phones could connect over unlicensed spectrum as well as the carrier’s licensed and exclusive spectrum. The Wi-Fi camp feels this is an over-reach and could squeeze out cheaper, or more innovative uses of that spectrum. But the “permissionless” nature of unlicensed makes it hard to stop. So 5G will have built-in ability to also use channels more commonly associated with Wi-Fi and other devices.
- Introducing long-range low-power features is a big imperative for cellular carriers. Many IoT devices are expected to be small, embedded devices that are both far from cell towers, and also hard to power or replace the battery. Think about embedded parking sensors, a vending machine, heart monitor, or oil-rig vibration sensors. With a 4G cost basis, the price to connect such a device is prohibitively high, and the battery life is woefully short. If carriers want people and enterprises to use cellular solutions for IoT, they need a new way of offering Machine-Type Connections (MTC). LTE Rel 13 offered a start, but 5G will incorporate complete solutions.
The above four are by no means an exhaustive list of the enhancements that 5G will bring. But they illustrate how 5G is about making this mixed bag of diverse ideas work, all together, interoperably, in a standard.
What is The Actual State of 5G
The state of 5G is, in a word, immature. But if course it is. Most key standards bodies and vendors have stated a goal of 2020, so while not here yet, neither is it late. And while these “G” standards have a history of arriving a bit late, for now, it appears that 5G is tracking well with expectations.
A number of carriers are rushing to market this year with what they are calling “5G Trials”, and in fact they are. But this is not a blanket launch of 5G. This is the carriers participating in the 5G development, where each carrier will seek to test out certain features of 5G. The trials harden the technology, validate vendor hardware, and often test interoperability with legacy equipment and other vendors. The take-away here is if you see the word “trial” or “pilot project” or “test” after the “5G”, then it means exactly that.
So Why Are Network Operators So Eager to Rush to 5G?
Oftentimes, new technologies are hyped by the vendors, promoted by them at tradeshows and conferences…but the network operators don’t seem as keen (looking at you, WiMAX.) There can even be a lot of hype – the Shakespearian “sound and fury…signifying nothing.” Those technologies are a solution looking for a market…and sometimes they find one, but at best that takes time. But with some new technologies, the carriers (who are the actual end customers of network technologies) demonstrate an eagerness that pulls the market faster, and that’s what we’re seeing with 5G. This eagerness is why we hear about a number of 5G trials around the world.
The reason for the rush is what we discussed in this article: 5G offers the network operators a tool to remain relevant against attacks from competitors with Wi-Fi-first approaches, it allows them to address new IoT opportunities with a credibly-priced offering, and to attack the connected car market. These are all fleeting opportunities that, if lost, would radically reduce the value of their stock. So, rush they will.
Further, 5G will offer the usual basket of “G” improvements like spectral efficiency, lower cost/GB, better user data speeds, access use new mmWave spectrum, and to offer a bunch of service enhancements.
5G basically is the carriers answer to “If our current 4G LTE cellular networks can’t address the growth opportunities, and just making them faster won’t solve that, then what will allow us to compete in those new markets?”
Derek Kerton is Principal Analyst at the Kerton Group and Chairman of TC3 Summit, the annual gathering of innovation executives from network operators, telecom vendors, startups and ICT investors each Fall in Silicon Valley at the intersection of telecom, internet, devices, wireless & VC. He can be reached on Twitter at @derekkerton.
 5G may not be defined completely yet, but the requirements are, the guidelines are all there, and the roadmap is formally defined. http://www.itu.int/en/ITU-R/study-groups/rsg5/Pages/default.aspx