What if 5G launched and no one could afford it?

Based on some of the standards work under way, 5G could shape up to be a very expensive connectivity solution

5G wirelesss technology
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5G is coming. And we should be glad. 5G, after all, will be fast. 5G will be the backbone of IoT. It will solve all our connectivity woes. We'll get new toys! 5g is the next big thing.

But is it really?

There is one group that says no, it's not. It could be, members of this group will tell you  — but only if it did a 180 from its current direction.

That group would be Cambridge Wireless, a not-for-profit industry forum in Cambridge, U.K., which started life as Cambridge 3G 15 years ago.

They are hardly Luddites: their purpose is to bring together high-tech companies across the globe to collaborate on wireless, mobile, networks, internet semiconductor and advanced software issues. So their skeptical attitude about 5G is worth noting.

What is 5G good for?

They are not subtle about that skepticism either. One of the topics of discussion at the CW Future of Wireless International Conference, held at the end of June in London, was 5G: "What is it, do we need it and what is it good for?"

2G, 3G and 4G all had their purposes — they facilitated phone calls and connected to the Internet, says Tony Milbourn, vice president of strategy at u-blox and keynote speaker at the conference. "The focus is now on connecting things, and most things don’t need super-low latency or mega bandwidth. So, is the standards-making machine on autopilot, developing a further extension of performance, while most people’s needs are pretty much satisfied by 4G, subject to better coverage of course?"

This is the Twitter-length version of CW's view of 5G. It is an advanced research project that has great potential for a number of things — including widening the digital divide and raising everyone's data rates.

Working hard on the future

Try telling that to companies like Ericsson or NEC or Nokia Networks. Or operators like Telecom Italia and Telefonica. Or smaller players such as CoreNetwork Dynamics. They are part of the Xhaul consortium, which consists of about 21 partners that are working on one small piece of 5G: the standards for integrated fronthaul and backhaul network solutions for 5G. The Xhaul consortium is part of the European H2020 5G Public-Private Partnership (5G PPP) Infrastructure.

Here is Arturo Azcorra, founding director of the networking research institute IMDEA Networks, and a full professor at the University Carlos III of Madrid, explaining what Xhaul, which began working on the project at the start of the month, hopes to achieve.

And this is just one 5G standard initiative in one part of the world that will compete with other standard initiatives underway elsewhere.

Maybe now you can see CW's frustration. What's happening now does not guarantee consistency across operators and infrastructure providers, says Paul Ceely, head of network strategy at EE and CW board member. Ideally, 5G should be usable and seamless from the start.

OK, OK — there might be a tad bit of geographic rivalry in the mix as well. He also helpfully noted this: "The U.K. has a great opportunity to lead the 5G ecosystem and there is an argument for a common test-bed environment to encourage greater cooperation and allow enterprises to build and trial new applications."

The trouble with standard setting

And indeed, some — maybe even much — of the general criticism of 5G (which is coming from other quarters as well as CW) could well be the usual behind-the-scenes death battle typically waged by companies and regional entities participating in the standards-setting process. Companies that will go on to compete with each other.

This is not an issue specific to 5G — almost every tech standard has been written by companies that stand to gain the most from their widespread acceptance. No matter how they spin it, it is not an altruistic endeavor, or at least not completely.

But for the most part, the system works. After all, who better to weigh in on a standard than the company that will be building products to it? But when the system doesn’t work, it can be trouble. One only has to look to the never-ending conflict between Microsoft and Google over Motorola Mobility patents and the alleged abuse of the FRAND patents to see that. Briefly, FRAND stands for fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms. It is a promise made by a company that participated in the standard-setting process to provide licenses on these terms.

Who wants to pay 5G rates?

All that aside, CW does raise some interesting points. 5G appears to be developing along the lines of what the companies want and not what consumers have in mind.

Consumers basically want a mobile handset that can serve as a remote control to life, is the apt description provided by William Webb, deputy chair at CW, CEO of the Weightless SIG and president of the IET.

But 5G appears to be moving in a different direction, he continued — away from this ideal vision of device connectivity to a system that enables "ultra-complex solutions" that would require data rates "well beyond those of any significant rise in consumer value."

"As 5G research and standardization unfolds, the problems will become ever more apparent," he says.

5G: Bringing ultra HD-movies to a few

Richard Smith, engineering project manager at Filtronic, expressed a similar view in a blog post for CW.

The attention of the 5G community is focused on enabling higher data rates and supporting new applications, like the Internet of Things," he writes.

Without a change of emphasis it seems inevitable that 5G will widen the digital divide because, at a time when ARPU (average revenue per user) is falling, it will be difficult for operators to fund new 5G networks with the increased number of basestations required to match the coverage of existing network.

Most users don’t want, or need, to be able to 'download an ultra-HD movie in 10 seconds' they want to be able to check their emails or read the BBC news website wherever they are.

5G could be the standard that closes the digital divide and brings mobile internet access to all, but if it continues on the current path it seems likely it will instead bring ultra HD movies to a few.

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