How Far Away Is 5G?

Carl Weinschenk
Slide Show

Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2016

The good thing about the continual explosion of technology – which has gone on for a few decades now – is that we better understand the very process of innovation and how industry deals with it.

I do not mean this in the technical sense, of course. Each innovation is complex, unique and understandable only to a few highly trained engineers. What is better understood by the rest of us is the way in which phrases attach themselves to the new concepts and almost always get used prematurely.

This is the fault of marketing departments, who habitually encourage this. Whether it’s a new broadcasting standard, the Internet of Things, or the emergence a few years ago of LTE, marketers push the envelope in how they describe their company’s technology in a way that makes them look innovative and ahead of the curve.

It’s important to keep this in mind as the press release corps sets its sights on 5G.

The first thing to be aware of is that 5G won’t happen overnight. It’s a sophisticated technology and lots of science has yet to be done. This isn’t an incremental step from LTE; it’s a huge leap forward.

That means that it will take time. Companies saying that they are rolling out or testing 5G may be stretching the envelope a bit. Many of these carriers and vendors are too savvy to actually lie. Instead, they may be testing a bit of a piece of something that someday may play a role in 5G. The marketing and PR departments are doing their jobs by overstating what actually is going on. It’s up to the rest of us to keep aware of what they are doing.

That said, there has been some news on the 5G front. In mid-December, Verizon Wireless said that it will commercially deploy the technology in 2017. Zacks reports that the carrier will do trials early next year at its 5G network in Basking Ridge, N.J. Partners on the pilots, which will be in San Francisco, New York and Boston, will be Ericsson, Qualcomm, Nokia and Samsung.

Here’s where the yellow flags should go up:

Although several industry researchers have predicted that a full-fledged 5G network deployment will not start until 2020, Verizon expects some level of commercial deployment in 2017. Industry researchers expect the Asia-Pacific region to spearhead the global deployment of 5G wireless networks. However, neither South Korea nor Japan – the two leading countries opting for 5G network – are likely to start commercial deployment before late 2018.

Verizon is saying that enough progress will have been made to roll out a working network – you can’t roll out to even friendly users without one, after all – next year. However, experts have consistently said that things won’t really come together until 2020. Something doesn’t quite fit. It’s a long time between when a technology is ready and all the accoutrements (operational, management and other elements) are bolted down tight. It seems that the Verizon team may be pushing a little too fast. 

Indeed, the equivocating is starting. Light Reading’s Iain Morris, in his report from the 2020 Vision Executive Summit in Dublin, discussed the “tremendous amount of work” that has to be done on 5G. The crux of his report is that a gap exists between how the radio access network (RAN) is being designed and other parts of the network.

The reality is raised by this quote from Heavy Reading Senior Analyst Gabriel Brown:

While progress on standardization activities has recently been encouraging, the ‘Phase 1’ services that appear over the next few years will not count as ‘true’ 5G, according to Brown.

When industries begin parsing between what is or is not a “true” version of a standard, the reality is that some companies are rushing to use the label, but want to finesse where the boundary issues. Whenever engineers argue with the marketers, the latter group wins.

The industry is at odds with wanting to claim that tests are pending – while the real work is just starting. RCR Wireless’ Kelly Hill put it this way in a story about what 2016 will bring for 5G:

At this point, 5G is primarily a buzzword and marketing term, since no standards have been defined. In 2016, the industry will start to see the first steps toward definition and distillation of the hodgepodge of 5G ideas and dreams. 3GPP has established a tentative timeline for 5G development, had an initial workshop on the topic and is expected to approve a radio study item on 5G at its December meeting. A study phase for 5G is expected to be included in Release 14 of LTE (after Release 13 is completed early in 2016), and most observers don’t expect to see 5G specs emerge until Release 15 in the 2018 timeframe and full requirements by the end of 2019.

There is really no bad actor here. Marketers do what they do, which is push. Engineers – slowed down by physics and the other laws of nature (as well as their own iterative natures) -- plod along more deliberately. We’ve all seen this before and shouldn’t be surprised by how it unfolds.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.

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