The Many Paths and Parts to 5G

The road to 5G is certainly interesting one and it’s increasingly clear that there are going to be multiple paths to get there. Different countries around the world are taking different routes and within countries, different carriers are also following unique strategies. The net result—realistically—is probably going to be an even more confusion as we move to what is already a complicated topic.

Thankfully, there are a number of important commonalities that will link all the stories together. First, it’s important to note that 5G is the first major new network that builds completely on its predecessor. Unlike the move to 4G from 3G or even 3G from 2G, 5G can fully utilize the very strong 4G LTE networks that have been—and are still being—built all around the world. In each of the previous network transitions, entirely new networks had to be put in place before the benefits of the new standard were really felt.

The practical impact to 5G of this existing technology base is that LTE is going to stick around a lot longer than previous superseded networks. In addition, it’s likely that the full transition to 5G could take longer. At the same time, a number of major technical advances used to enhance LTE, including MIMO (multiple-input, multiple output) and OFDM (orthogonal frequency division multiplexing), will be beneficial for both 4G and 5G users and their devices.

In fact, it’s even conceivable that some advanced versions of Gigabit LTE could be faster than early 5G network deployments because of all the refinements that have been made to 4G LTE over the years. To be clear, as 5G evolves, it will be faster than 4G, but many of the initial benefits for 5G will be focused more on delivering consistently high speeds in many different environments—think stadiums, trade shows, surrounded by skyscrapers in a dense city—as opposed to just the bursty high speeds we can occasionally now get from 4G. In part this is because early 5G mobile network deployments are almost entirely focused on high-frequency millimeter wave spectrum signals, which require many more small cell towers and can transmit over much shorter distances than the lower frequencies used for 4G LTE. Transition to full 5G support in the lower frequency bands currently used for 4G is still several years away.

Many of these key advancements are being driving by important innovations from leading telecom industry players, such as Qualcomm, Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Intel and Huawei, all of whom provide their efforts to organizations like the 3GPP, which help create and promulgate critical worldwide telecom industry standards. Of course, enormous amounts of R&D dollars and efforts go into creating these standards, so the companies involved all charge royalties to recoup and justify their efforts. While some of these practices have been viewed as controversial, the fact is, companies should be able to benefit from the intellectual property they’ve created—even though they become part of industry standards. The laws behind these principles can get complex quickly, but the bottom line is that there is a long and rich US business tradition of being rewarded for key technology innovations. In fact, it’s one the key reasons companies have been willing to make the investments necessary to push critical standards forward in many different industries.

How these technologies get deployed by chip, device, network equipment makers and carriers is, of course, the real trick to differentiation and strategy, in particular as 5G starts to be rolled out. From a carrier perspective, one of biggest early differentiators will be which markets they choose to focus the technology on. In the US, for example, Verizon has talked about first using 5G for fixed wireless deployments, providing a wireless alternative to broadband services currently offered by cable companies and different technology solutions from carriers. AT&T, for their part, have said they plan to focus first on mobile 5G applications. Of course, all the telcos will eventually provide a wide range of services—particularly for mobile networks—but the manner with which they offer those services will vary.

As the technology base evolves, we’re also going to see a much wider range of services available with 5G than we’ve seen with previous network generations. While it’s easy to simply call this hype, there are a number of important reasons why 5G really is going to be a big deal. First, much of the network infrastructure and services associated with 5G are arriving at a pivotal time for other related technologies as well. Software-defined networking, or SDN, in particular, marks a particularly important shift in technologies for networking equipment. While SDN has been around in private networks for several years, its real impact in terms of flexibility and range of services available won’t be felt until 5G is more widely deployed.

Similarly, the influence of edge computing models is emerging, just as 5G is becoming an important factor. With edge computing, the idea is that instead of focusing on a centralized cloud computing architecture, it’s going to be more important to spread those computing resources across a wider range of devices that are distributed across the ends of the network. Ironically, some have argued that the rise of distributed edge computing could actually lessen the importance and dependence on a network connection because the compute and storage resources are more readily accessible. But when you think about the issue from an overall computer systems perspective, you realize that in order to most efficiently take advantage of those resources, you need to dramatically increase the throughput to and from these edge devices. Otherwise they could sit their starving for data—a classic design flaw. By providing speedy access to data, along with a flexible, software-driven network architecture, 5G can fully enable the potential of edge computing—hence it’s direct tie to, and dependence upon, the 5G technology shift. In fact, as AT&T hinted at during their Spark developer’s event in San Francisco yesterday, the company is intensely interested in bringing more compute power directly into the telecom network, as well as developing more sophisticated software that can balance the compute load in an intelligent way across the network, while they transition to 5G.

To be clear, the 5G hype is very real and early deployments in late 2018/2019 could prove to be disappointing. However, when you analyze the key technological developments behind the 5G transition and put them in context with other key tech industry megatrends happening around them, it’s clear that the eventual impact of 5G will be enormous. At this point, it’s just about figuring out which parts and which paths will be used to get there.

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Bob O'Donnell

Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, LLC a technology consulting and market research firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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