Feature Article

April 01, 2015

Questions on the Road to 5G

By Ed Fox

Last month, the tech industry gathered at Mobile World Congress (MWC) to address the future of mobility. This year’s hottest topic? 5G. From healthcare professionals to the auto industry, everyone has something to gain from a high speed, low latency network. The possibilities seem endless, and the connectivity 5G promises will undoubtedly reshape our fundamental understanding of network technology and how it affects our everyday lives.

With all the buzz, it’s far too easy to get caught up in the hypothetical. Yet, looking back at MWC, a few glaring questions remain definitively unanswered:

  • What will 5G look like, exactly?
  • What is the expected timeline for adoption?
  • What will the biggest roadblocks be on the road to deployment?
  • What now?

What will 5G look like, exactly?

Surprisingly, we still don’t have a fully-crafted definition for 5G. In his MWC keynote, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler compared 5G to a Picasso painting, stating “I see something different than you see. I think that’s where 5G is right now. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.” At the moment, it remains an umbrella term for the future of mobile and connectivity.

Looking ahead, it’s clear that the need for a 5G network is intertwined with the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). With new smart devices hitting the market every day, we need a network that can support the flood of connected applications.

For consumers, an intelligent network will mean reliable, pervasive, lightning-fast connections across all of their devices. For enterprises, 5G will fuel the movement away from fixed-line broadband to a converged fiber-wireless network that will be able to keep up with the demands of a connected workforce.

What is the expected timeline for adoption?

The road to 5G will be long, and we’ve only just begun. My best guess at an adoption timeline would be the following: 

  • 2015: Proof of Concept Trials and Lab Designs
  • 2018: Standardization
  • 2020: Handsets & Network Builds
  • 2022: Network Trials
  • 2024: Mass Availability

At the moment, we’re in the concept trials and lab design stage. These processes are currently being carried out in public, carrier and manufacturer labs, and will continue throughout the next few years.

Once proof of concept trials are complete, we should be prepared for the standardization process to take a long time, most likely carrying on through 2018. The industry needs standards to become compartmentalized and focused, and to acknowledge that the extensive promises floating around regarding 5G today may need to be shelved for future incorporation tomorrow.

Coming out of MWC, many are speculating that mass availability could arrive as early as 2020, but I find that timeline very optimistic. Once standards have been set, I anticipate 2020 will be focused on the development and engineering of handsets and network builds for future release.

In fact, I don’t believe we’ll see network trials rolling out until at least 2022! At that point, carriers will need to run trials on different manufacturers, some taking longer than others, with the process likely stretching through to 2024.

Once the industry has moved through the adoption timeline, I predict consumer and enterprise users will see 5G mass availability by the year 2024. By that time, new networks will be built, 3G services retired and the race to roll out 5G to the mass population, along with some very funny competitive commercials, will be underway!

What will the biggest roadblocks be on the road to deployment?

Even though enterprises are clamoring for the speed and flexibility 5G promises, there are some major roadblocks that need be addressed. The four biggest issues standing in the way of mass availability are:

  • Standardization

Right now, many organizations are working on settling the standardization debate. All the vendors, handsets, antennas, radios and networks have to work together for a successful deployment of a 5G network. This process is still in the early stages, and we run the risk of 5G network requirements becoming muddled in the enterprise craze for 5G connected technology, particularly in the B2C space.

  • Cost

The process of developing a 5G network will certainly be costly, as there are still carriers spending millions of dollars a day on 4G buildouts. Our best hope in overcoming this roadblock will most likely spring from M2M and IoT developments, which should open the door to deployment and monetization of new 5G services. Once again, the B2C space will likely be early adopters and hopefully help fuel the network growth as paying customers.  Additionally, it’s possible that the prevalence of net neutrality application providers could begin subsidizing the network in the coming years, paving the way to more cost effective solutions.

  • Enterprise Deployment

As enterprises march towards higher levels of data consumption, there’s a good chance 5G may already be behind the market bandwidth requirements for enterprise use by the time it’s deployed.  The enterprise market, particularly the mid-market, is already bandwidth starved. WiFi 802.11ac is supposed to begin to address the wireless interface bottleneck in the short term, and in the long term this solution— along with wired network expansion—may be enough for enterprises. The other aspect of this to watch closely is the enterprise stance on BYOD as we wait for 5G to arrive. 

  • Carrier “Garden Walls”

Some variations of 5G deployment predictions have the “network oracles” painting pictures of carrier closed networks, where your wireless carrier will have complete control over the sharing of personal meta-data and the OTT services.  I have to imagine certain enterprise and consumer groups, as well as the biggest OTT providers today, may take great offense to this model.

What now?

Although the desire for 5G deployment is already here, the technology is not. Looking back on the 5G hype flowing out of MWC, it’s easy to get caught up in the “what-ifs” and the Jetson family lifestyle a connected network promises. However, looking at the roadblocks standing in the way of enterprise and commercial deployment, telecommunications professionals know we need to focus on development now. The first step will be continuing proof of concept trials and lab designs, and from there we’ll overcome the roadblocks one step at a time. 4G networks are becoming oversaturated, making the need for 5G very real, which should be powerful enough to spawn new models within existing businesses. Yet, as technologies such as WiMAX have proven in the past, “media hype” can be far greater than the technology it initially delivers. 

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