This past week, Qualcomm hosted analysts and trade press for a ‘5G Day’, where they charted their progress on 5G and announced 18 operator and 19 OEM commitments to their X50 5G chipset. But in addition to the major news, this presents a good opportunity to reflect on the state of 5G, particularly on the eve of Mobile World Congress, where I’m told you’re admitted unless you pledge to say the words ‘5G’ at 50 times a day.
So here are my top takeaways:
- 5G is on track. If only our government could pass a budget or we could get going on repairing our infrastructure with this level of urgency! Qualcomm’s announcements about modem availability and OEM/operator agreements (plus expected news from the network equipment folks at MWC) tell us that we will large scale trials and some initial mobile 5G services (i.e. not just fixed wireless) launch in late 2018, with more widespread launches and commercial device availability in 2019. This initial phase will be ‘non standalone’, which means a simultaneous connection to both LTE and 5G. We’ll see a handful of cities turned up initially, and within those cities, swiss-cheesy type coverage and on a limited number of devices. This will be on a combination of sub- 6 GHz and mmWave spectrum, depending on the operator (but tending toward sub-s6 GHZ initially).
- The Level of Technical Accomplishment is Impressive. A few of the highlights:
- Smaller than expected form factor in the X50 chip, which will help from the standpoint of power efficiency
- Carrier aggregation of up to 8 channels in the X50 chip. That’s what will allow us to get to GB or better service, if the operators have the spectrum and open up the floodgates.
- Real world demos that showed download 4 Gbps speeds or better, latency below 5 milliseconds (ms), and in a pleasant surprise, upload speeds of up to 360 Mbps (a dramatic improvement over today’s LTE).
- Important advances in antennas, beam forming capabilities, and spatial multiplexing. This is reflected in the improvements in latency and performance at the cell edge
- The sheer complexity of RF systems and the number of bands and band combinations that have to be successfully supported
- Millimeter Wave Remains a Bit of a Wildcard. My impression is that there is still a lot that is still being figured out about how to design devices given the finickiness of mmWave signals. For example, the signal degrades much more quickly if your hand is covering part of the phone. This presents particular challenges in antenna placement. Another under-discussed wildcard, in my view, is what battery performance will look like in mmWave.
- LTE Will Play an Important Role for the Foreseeable Future. Irrespective of the standalone/non-standalone discussion, LTE is going to be a big part of 5G. For the next several years, it’s going to be ‘islands of 5G’ in a sea of LTE. We will need LTE in order to continue to provide reliable voice coverage (yes, some people still make calls on their phones), since a standalone 5G network would be all IP and would not have reliable enough coverage to support voice.Even with all the hype of 5G, the LTE roadmap is compelling. Don’t get me wrong – 5G is a big jump up from 4G in many respects and opens up some new market opportunities. But, if the operators enable some of the new capabilities in the LTE roadmap, your phone will be able to do pretty much anything you would want it to do, until someone comes along with that killer AR/VR app. Economics and data capacity will be big drivers of the move to 5G.
- 5G Will Be About A Lot More Than Smartphones. This is really one of the big stories in 5G. It’s being built to support a very large number of connected devices, with highly varying demands on the network. This has been the #2 or #3 item in 5G PowerPoints up till now, but this is being incorporated as a development priority in reality. At the Qualcomm event, we saw some impressive real-world simulations of millions of IoT devices connected with a part of a city.
- Major Investment is Going into Building New ‘Ecosystems’ for 5G. I was impressed with the level of effort going thinking about specific solutions for some very large verticals, among them the automotive and the industrial IoT segment.
There will be a lot more 5G related news in the coming weeks. But on some of the most challenging aspects of 5G development, things appear to be well on track and the accomplishments are impressive.