Ready or not (and it's not) 5G is coming

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Credit: iStockphoto

5G is expected to make its debut in 2020. There are a few problems though, such as key standards aren't anywhere near being ready and there's no one universally-accepted definition of 5G.

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At the end of May, telecom giant Ericsson announced it had begun testing 5G networks in Stockholm, Sweden and Plano, Texas. To be precise, it is running tests for both 5G mobile devices and 5G radio base stations -- the former from a minivan that can accommodate the test equipment. Don't worry, though, Ericsson assures us, "by 2020, it'll fit nicely in your smartphone, watch or other wearable."

Wowing attendees at Brooklyn 5G

Ericsson is hardly the only company prepping for this next generation of mobile networking.

At the 2nd Brooklyn 5G Summit, held in April, companies such as Nokia Networks demoed a number of proof of concepts can only be described as 5G porn.

According to Nokia's blog post on the event, it and National Instruments demonstrated "a 10 Gbps over-the-air data rate at 73 GHz using 2 GHz bandwidth, 2×2 MIMO and 16 QAM modulation" network that would give users the ability to download a full-length, high-definition movie to a mobile device "in a matter of seconds rather than minutes."

This network could also deliver video chat "so immersive that users will feel as though they can reach out and touch someone right through the screen."

Rolling out by 2020

5G networks are widely expected to start to roll out by 2020, with a few early debuts at such global events as the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea. It is an ambitious deadline given what is expected from 5G -- no less than the disruption of the communications market in general, and telecom in particular, as well as related sectors such as test equipment.

While consumers and businesses might be excited about its coming arrival -- downloading movies in nanoseconds! immersive video chat! --- this date could be a problem for providers in this space and their own suppliers.

Reuters hints at this in a piece about Nokia's acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent.

While 5G is not expected to be introduced until 2020, analysts say carriers will judge 5G suppliers by their ability to present a single product roadmap by late 2017 or face a loss of market share for future orders.

To say nothing of consumer expectations that are already building up. After all, how can Ericsson know for certain its 5G equipment will be small enough for tomorrow's mobile devices and wearables when so much about 5G is still a giant question mark?

A massive to do list

Simply put, key standards haven't been established yet for 5G -- or even, to hear FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler tell it at the Mobile World Congress in March -- a universal definition of what 5G is. "I see something different than you see," he during the keynote. "I think that’s where 5G is right now -- it's all in the eye of the beholder." Think of it like a Picasso painting, he said. Really.

There are some other issues too.

The U.S. is behind in millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum research and development compared with other countries, according to New York University’s Polytechnic School of Engineering NYU WIRELESS. It is their stance that mmWave frequencies will be the only way to keep pace with mobile data demand and support IoT, among other advanced uses.

As such, NYU WIRELESS's team has said that it "advocates an urgent and unprecedented allocation of new broadband spectrum, along with light-touch regulations to foster rapid development and attract private-sector investment for entirely new businesses."

But it was only last October that the FCC called for public comment on using high-frequency radio waves in the mmWave spectrum. When the comments were made public in January, it was clear there was a lot of industry dispute and dissent.

As NYU WIRELESS sees it, the FCC and industry can get some breathing room by using spectrum above 24 GHz to supplement current cellular technologies rather than replace them, "at least for the next decade."

Then, "after initial rollout in urban areas -- where mmWave technology is expected to be most effective because of topography and proximity -- 5G technology utilizing mmWave spectrum will be ubiquitous across all 50 states in fewer than 20 years."

Okay, but what about the suppliers that need to give carriers their product roadmaps next year?

There also needs to be greater industry involvement and cooperation among the many industries that will be affected by 5G, according to comments Ken Rehbehn, principal analyst at 451 Research, made in the Brooklyn 5G video (around the 2 minute mark).

"One thing that needs to happen is a broad umbrella needs to established to go over these industries…to bring them in and join this discussion…so we can get an architecture that is flexible," he said at the event.

Rehbehn, who also attended the World Mobile Congress, touched on this point again in a blog post in which he noted that Next-Generation Mobile Network (NGMN) Alliance and the 5G Public-Private Partnership (5GPPP) Association released their initial official documents on 5G at the event. He wrote:

What is important is that NGMN presented a comprehensive mobile network operator view of potential use cases and a recommended architecture for 5G evolution.

While the document is remarkable for the range of use cases cited, the mobile operator focus means that non-mobile stakeholders may not have been fully represented. Who is representing the needs of government transportation bodies that may ultimately rely on 5G for vehicle-to-vehicle communications? Who is engaged with IoT stakeholders such as industrial segments and manufacturing industries?

He concluded: "We remain in the early days of 5G requirements development. This was written in March. Of this year.

Okay then, Ericsson. Just so you know, I am counting on having 5G in my mobile device (whatever that may be) by 2020 on the dot.

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