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September 16, 2015

Five Facts on 5G Derived from CTIA Super Mobility

If you're confused about 5G wireless technology, join the club. Marketing people are trying to claim the visionary high ground when there's very little "there”.  I made the rounds last week at CTIA's Super Mobility Show and got an interesting picture from industry executives as to what is real verses leaning-forward claims.

1) Standards for 5G aren't going to be set until 2020.

 So say multiple executives ranging from Ericsson to the 4G Americas trade association.   Between now and 2020, there's going to be a lot of jockeying to define standards for 5G and lots of hype around the term.

This should be no big surprise, given the controversies around what 4G meant and eventually became.  In the beginning, the only "real" 4G was LTE. Sprint came along and its marketing people co-opted 4G to extend to WiMax.  (The 3GPP crowd was ultimately right. LTE is now the one and only 4G solution because WiMax died a horrible death.  Point to the standards people. Is there a lesson to be learned here?)

2) There is a lot of pre-5G work going on, which may or may not be relevant to the 5G standards that are actually finalized.

Verizon says it is planning 5G trials within the next 12 months, with "some level of commercial deployment" to start by 2017, whatever that means.  I'm skeptical given Verizon's promises on rolling out VoLTE and all the hype it spun up about LTE back in the day.  I can't be the only one who remembers how every device in the home would be LTE-enabled so you could have new business models, such as being able to pay the washing machine by the wash rather than actually buying one.  Yah, like that.

Regardless of what happens in the US, South Korea and Japan are hoping to get 5G networks up earlier than 2020.  South Korea wants to deploy a trial 5G network in 2018 for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang while Japan wants its 5G up for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. 

Unless the politics of standards making can be accelerated out of the 5 year plan that major equipment manufacturers and standards bodies seem to be set on, it is likely you won't see a "true" 5G phone until the 2020 timeframe.

3) There are two opposite visions for 5G: IoT and multi-gigabit wireless speeds.

 The Internet of Things (IoT) requires the network to be able to handle billions of little devices with hardware addressing being the biggest baseline issue that needs to be fixed/upgraded from LTE and IPv6 is a necessity on the software side.   Data flows from lots of little devices should be manageable.

On the other side of the coin, being able to crank gigabit speeds requires more RF spectrum, more antennas and smarter processing.  Samsung has conducting demonstrations of 1.2 Gbps wireless speeds to a car going around a test track at around 50 mph and stationary speeds of 7.5 Gbps. 

4) Whatever the 5G standards, it will smoothly go on top of existing 4G LTE infrastructure.

Carriers don't want to repeat the headaches of the 2G/3G era, with different sets of equipment all patched into a voice and data network with the rough equivalent of duct tape and cable ties.  In rolling out LTE, carriers are deploying a clean sheet all-IP network. 

LTE might make interim "pre-5G" deployments work in the same fashion, with an upgrade to standardized 5G being a more plug-and-play process at the physical level.  Since everything from the core network to the radio tower is all-IP with LTE, a pre-5G deployment becomes an IP stack/layer/thing on top of or in parallel with the existing LTE network.

5) SDN and NFV will play a prominent background role in enabling at least a part of the 5G vision.

If 5G is going to be a big IoT player, SDN and NFV are the software building blocks to make it happen. Individual IoT networks will be spun up as virtual instances, with their own unique service parameters based upon the application type.

Bonus fact 6) Network equipment manufacturers should be giddy about prospects for the next 7 to 10 years if even a part of the 5G promises come to fruition.

Delivering multi-gigabit speeds wirelessly will require up to terrabit speeds terrestrially.  Fiber is becoming increasingly strategic to meet the promises of 5G because you are going to need some monumental bandwidth to support all the bits flying through the air to and fro.

Consider stationary speeds of 7.5 Gbps and 1.2 Gbps in a moving vehicle when compared to (almost homely) gigabit Ethernet.  We're just starting to see 10 Gbps PON talk in the residential world, which should translate to 100 Gbps and faster upstream.  In a blazing fast 5G world, cell towers will have to be upgraded to 10 Gbps or 100 Gbps network connects almost by default.

Over the summer, ADTRAN CEO Tom Stanton spoke of a "reignition" in broadband fiber deployments by AT&T, CenturyLink, and Frontier.  New fiber builds may pay off big time to support 5G down the road.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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