The idea that 5G would not hit in significant numbers until 2020 has changed during the past year or so. Smart people are working on the issues and first mover advantages are enticing. The industry is not taking a comfortable “it will come when it will come” attitude.
It’s still too early to say with any certainty how 5G will roll out. News items and commentary during the past few weeks reinforce the idea that the rush toward 5G is accelerating.
There is an important caveat. 5G refers to both the new radios (NR) that operate at frequencies thought unusable for cellular services and the network core into which they will fit. The core network handles elements such as authentication, session management and security.
There are two approaches to the network core: Standalone and non-standalone (SA and NSA). The idea at the dawn of the 5G development cycle was to develop a SA 5G core network. It still is. The twist, however, is that the desire to get to market quickly led to the tweaking of the existing 4G LTE core network to support 5G NRs. This is the 5G NSA network core. In addition to cutting time to market, it allows mixed networks and a smooth transition to full 5G when it is ready. The drawback is that it won’t provide the fullest functionality that marketers are promising for 5G. That will come with the 5G SA core.
This of course doesn’t mean that announcements aren’t important. It simply means that people should keep in mind that the glitziest services likely will be introduced more slowly than carriers are implying.
The rather fluid state of 5G is summed up nicely in a story at EE Times that described the attitude of executives at Mobile World Congress San Francisco last month. At this point, major tests are being conducted by carriers while standards are still in the pipeline. That’s not unusual for technology. What should be kept in mind is that things must happen much more quickly now than network evolutions in the 1990s and 2000s. The competitive pressures are intense. On the other hand, 5G involves a tremendous amount of new science and the standards that follow. This takes time.
This paragraph suggests the current state of affairs:
Speakers at a panel about 5G — including the chief technology officers of the largest wireless carriers in the U.S. — spoke glowingly about the promise of 5G even as they acknowledged that much remains to be done before the technology is ready to deploy on a large scale.
Important announcements are indeed being made. Qualcomm Technologies, a Qualcomm Inc. subsidiary, made two 5G announcements today, both on the radio, not core network, side. The company said that it made a 5G data call on the Snapdragon X50 5G mobile modem chipset in the 28GHz mmWave radio frequency band. The company also released a reference design for testing and optimizing 5G that uses power and consumes space appropriate for smartphones.
Last week, Deutsche Telekom said it is testing four 5G radio cells in Berlin. The telco claims it is the first live 5G test in Europe. The press release is very interesting. It describes the current test and some glitzy services that will be demonstrated, such as augmented reality and virtual reality (AR and VR). This is a good example of the mix of an incremental announcement with pretty pictures of what may exist years in the future. What Deutsche Telekom is saying is not necessarily wrong. But it may be a bit unbalanced: Mobile AR and VR won’t be available for some time.
The marketer’s job is to talk about the promise of 5G. Observers must remember that big challenges lie ahead.
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 [email protected] and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.