As exciting as the forthcoming world of 5G connectivity will be, it’s fraught with incredible complexity as well. Many technology pieces must come together in a seamless manner for us to enjoy the kind of speed, reliability, and responsiveness that the telecom industry has promised.
The required pieces include everything from beam-forming antennas for efficiently connecting to speedy millimeter wave spectrum, to tens of thousands of Carrier Aggregation (CA) combinations of RF frequencies that modems designed for 5G smartphones must be able to negotiate. In total, there’s an impressively lengthy list of technologies that will be underpinning 5G—particularly when it comes to mobile phones.
In fact, in part because of this complexity, the first versions of 5G will sit on top of existing 4G LTE standards in what’s referred to as non-standalone (NSA) mode. Practically speaking, this means early 5G-equipped smartphones will actually have two modems—one for 4G and one for 5G. Similarly, 5G networks will be built on top of 4G ones and early phones will provide connections to both. This provides a fallback network operation in the event a 5G signal is lost (much like standard 4G does for LTE connections today), and it allows network operators to leverage their significant investment in the existing 4G LTE infrastructure. This is what’s allowing the major US carriers to start talking about enabling 5G services in several cities across the country as early as later this year (and promising the first 5G-enabled smartphones in early 2019).
Eventually, we’ll move to standalone (SA) 5G networks, but that’s still several years away both for the phones and the network infrastructure to which they connect. In the meantime, there’s a great deal of testing going on to ensure that all the various technology pieces work together. Companies like National Instruments, for example, have been playing a critical role in helping to enable 5G interoperability across multiple equipment suppliers for several years now.
Of course, companies like Qualcomm, who have strong core technologies in most every aspect of the 5G component food chain, are particularly well positioned in the highly complex world of 5G because of their ability to make sure all their own technology pieces work well together.
Qualcomm demonstrated this recently with the launch of its millimeter wave antennas and sub-6Ghz RF module: two critical components that work hand-in-hand with its previously announced X50 5G NR modem to enable 5G-capable smartphones. Essentially, the pieces work together to allow a smartphone to connect to a wide range of different radio frequencies that will be used as part of 5G deployments by network carriers in the US and around the world.
For smartphone and other device vendors looking to bring 5G connectivity to future smartphones and other computing devices, the ability to integrate a complete solution from a single vendor looks to be a key competitive advantage—particularly in the early days of 5G.
Despite all the interoperability testing that’s occurred, there are likely to be major differences in real-world throughput and data connection speeds between early 5G phones. Different combinations of modems, RF front ends, antennas, network infrastructure equipment, and overall network coverage are significantly more complicated than in the past because of the complexities involved with 5G. In addition, there could be large variances in battery life across different smartphone designs, depending on how the various pieces of the overall 5G solution are integrated together. Early commentary from industry insiders suggests that challenges in making 5G phones both speedy and battery-friendly are significantly harder than with 4G phones.
Worldwide industry standards, such as the 3GPP’s Release 15 and forthcoming Release 16 ensure that all 5G devices that follow the standards will be able to interoperate. However, there is a significant difference between simply being able to communicate and doing so in the fastest and most power efficient manner. Given the enormous complexities involved in making the new 5G standard real, companies who don’t take advantage of fully integrated solutions could face some big competitive challenges.