This may be remembered as the year the telecommunications industry stopped squabbling over standards for next generation telecommunications networks and started to make 5G a reality.
The announcements regarding 5G surged into a tidal wave this year at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. After several years of countries and companies making bland pledges to form committees to consider standards and partnerships to conduct research, the latest edition of the industry’s largest gathering was filled with concrete product announcements, pilot launches, and promises that the next revolution is at hand.
Despite the pervasive talk of 5G at MWC, and the need for every booth and product to hype it relentlessly, the reality is that it remains far over the horizon. The need to sort out technical issues, standards, and business models points to the roadblocks that still remain. For the near future, users can expect more evolution than revolution when it comes to wireless network speeds.
“Many of you are wondering, ‘Why do we need 5G?’” said Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri in a keynote address. “‘Is it worth the billions that will be spent on it?’ Yes.”
But in trying to temper expectations, he added: “It will not happen overnight. We believe that most carriers will want an evolutionary process that maximizes their current investment.”
It’s easy to see why the notion of 5G gets the industry’s adrenaline pumping. The leap from 3G networks to 4G, with a top theoretical speed of 100 Mbps, was giant. But it would be nothing compared to 5G, which must provide a minimum of 20 Gbps and be capable of connecting 1 million devices within a square kilometer.
This speed and density are almost unfathomable today. 5G is the technology that will allow us to control fields of robots with no latency and allow for roads filled almost exclusively with autonomous vehicles and skies filled continuously with unmanned drones. Not to mention all the developments that we can’t possibly imagine in a world where everything is connected all the time.
Mats Granryd, director general of GSMA, the industry group that organizes MWC, predicted there would be 1 billion 5G connections by 2025.
“Our industry is driving standards, business models, and public policy,” he said. “We’ll have self-driving cars reacting in milliseconds to make crucial decisions. Robots will interact with themselves and their environment.”
But that number of connections is smaller than it sounds. It’s not clear in this case if GSMA is talking about people or machines. Still, getting even to that modest 1 billion will be a long and unpredictable road. That’s because telecom companies have a delicate balancing act ahead, in part because standards are not entirely settled. So whatever goes in the ground, they want to make sure it can be adapted if necessary. But more than that, many of these companies are still in the process of investing in 4G LTE, the current top speed.
After almost a decade, 4G LTE is still only available in about 34 percent of the world, according to GSMA, which is a sign of just how long such changes take. In a report released last week, GSMA predicted that by 2020, 75 percent of the world’s population will be covered by 4G. Currently, about 23 percent of all mobile connections go over 4G, and the industry hopes that number will increase to more than 40 percent by 2020.
That is the year the industry believes carriers will really start to deploy 5G. But even then, these companies don’t want to tear out all that 4G equipment that hasn’t even been paid for yet. Instead, as the Nokia chief suggested, they will want to evolve it to a kind of 4.5G with 1 Gbps speeds, and then maybe 3 Gbps. So expect to hear a lot about “gigabit wireless” in the coming years.
Still, who wouldn’t want a 1 Gbps wireless connection, right?
With those caveats in mind, however, the flurry of 5G announcements at MWC this week shows that the industry is clearly ready to start taking the next steps down this brave new wireless road.
The 5G hype started in advance of the conference.
The week before MWC, Qualcomm and Intel announced their respective progress toward building chipsets and modems capable of realizing the 5G dream.
In its traditional keynote slot on Sunday, Samsung, along with its partners, made a series of announcements about 5G. Samsung announced a suite of 5G consumer products, including a 5G home router and radio. There was no word on when they would be available, but such gadgets are a critical piece of enabling a 5G world. There was even some talk that there might be a 5G phone by next year.
On the same day, Nokia announced a technology bundle called “5G First” that’s aimed at telecom carriers. 5G First uses the industry specifications developed by the Verizon 5G Technology Forum ecosystem. The idea is to make it as quick and easy as possible for carriers to launch trials. Meanwhile, Ericsson announced collaboration on 5G trials, together with Qualcomm and NTT DOCOMO in Japan. Qualcomm is also working with Ericsson on a new 5G radio for Vodafone.
“5G will enable operators to provide new use cases in areas such as the Internet of Things, automation and big data, and the ability to build new revenue streams with radically new business models,” Ulf Ewaldsson, senior vice president and chief strategy and technology officer, said in a statement. “To speed up commercialization of the global 3GPP 5G standard, we continuously work with leading operators and ecosystem players in 5G to enable global scale and drive the industry in one common direction.”
The goal of these announcements, and tests, is to encourage people to start developing applications for these networks. The estimated investment to build 5G will run will into the trillions of dollars over the next decade. The carriers want developers to be creating richer IoT uses, advanced video, and other robotic-related applications.
And that’s another reason telecom companies are going to proceed with caution when it comes to 5G. The last thing they want to do is sink all that money into the ground and then have to wait other decade for someone to figure out how to use the bandwidth.