5G: Which Came First, the Technology or the Standard?

Carl Weinschenk
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Embracing the Mobile Development Trends of 2016

A funny but expected phenomenon is hitting the nascent 5G market: Providers and vendors are announcing tests, choosing sides and generally building hype long before anyone knows precisely what 5G is.

CNET’s Roger Cheng reported today that Verizon has made what appears to be a broad announcement regarding its path forward on 5G. The company has established radio specifications for 5G with its vendors that put in place “a common blueprint for everyone regarding the network infrastructure, processors and devices.”

The reality is that 5G standards are still in the formative stages. According to Franz Seiser, the vice president of Core Networks and Services at Deutsche Telekom, standards are important, but achieving global standards will also be central to realizing the full potential of the emerging technology: “There is a huge competition but we need to be very careful about not ending up with fragmentation if some [in the industry] are moving too fast and too far. We need global standards,” Seiser explained.

Last month, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released a report that called upon the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to essentially get out of the way when it comes to 5G standards setting. The point isn’t whether the ITIF’s approach is prudent or not. It’s that the industry is still at an early enough phase of standards setting that such issues are still on the table.

Not to belabor the point, but last week, 5G Americas released a white paper that outlined progress on 5G. It’s clear that 5G standards are very much a work in progress.

So what is going on? Why are regions still competing to become leaders if 5G is as close as it is to being ready as press releases imply they are? Is there a contradiction between what companies are saying and the true state of affairs? And, if so, what is the real dynamic?

One fact that should be recognized is that creating standards is a long process – and writing a press release isn’t. It is easy for marketing departments to make extravagant, though suitably fuzzy, claims. Secondly, many elements of a new technology can be tested and perfected before standards are in place. So, from that perspective, the claims are true: 5G is being tested. However, it is a bit misleading. The trials and tests established after standards are put in place will be vital – perhaps more than what is happening today.

The final and probably most important point to consider is that the companies are putting themselves in positions to influence those standards. Cheng got the context right in describing the Verizon announcement:

It's a significant step on the path to 5G. And by moving quickly now, Verizon hopes to set the agenda for how the standards look, a similar strategy it took with its 4G LTE deployment.

The takeaway is that marketers no doubt are trying to create the impression of a technology that is closer to being deployed than it really is. They have to create demand and attract investments. But that doesn’t mean that today’s tests and trials are unimportant.

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 cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.



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