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What is 5G and how far are we from rollout?

By Nicholas Fearn

February 23, 2017


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Mobile technology has come on leaps and bounds over the last few decades. In 1973, American electronics engineer John Francis Mitchell demonstrated the world’s first mobile phone, which weighed a whopping 1.9kg (4.4lbs).

A decade later, mobile phones were beginning to make waves in the consumer world. Although they were still seen as gimmicky by many, they gave people the ability to make and receive calls over radio frequency links. Now, billions of people across the world use mobile phones and they act as portable entertainment hubs and computers.

But it’s not just mobile phone hardware that’s evolved hugely over the years. The networks that allow us to make calls and browse the web have also undergone dramatic change every decade or so. 4G is today’s dominant network type, and it’s around ten times faster than 3G.

4G has taken a few years to roll out across the world, although there’s already lots of talk about its successor, 5G, it could start rolling out as early as 2020. This technology will have a higher capacity than 4G, improve device-to-device communication and better support the Internet of Things. What else can we expect?

4G will remain dominant

Research into 5G services has been going on for several years and some positive advances have already been made. Just last summer, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the spectrum for the development and rollout of 5G connectivity. It includes 28 GHz, 37 GHz and 39 GHz bands.

The earliest estimate for a 5G go live date is 2020, with the technology rolling out gradually worldwide over the course of the following five years. According to Tata Communications COO John Hayduk, this will be followed by a decline in investment in 4G technology and infrastructure.

The industry expectation is for the first 5G services to go live around 2020. A conservative estimate is that by 2025, 5G will be deployed in many geographies. While 5G demand is still gathering momentum, 4G will remain an important part of the wireless ecosystem, but it’s expected that by 2025 investment and innovation in 4G will slow down as 5G takes prominence. In tandem, older 2G and 3G systems will begin to disappear from some markets altogether, he says.

5G will be expensive

Hayduk says it can’t be assumed that most consumers will want to purchase 5G plans as soon as they become available. For a start, they’re likely to be expensive when they first appear and still maturing. This, he says, is because network operators are spending large sums of money on spectrum and they’ll need to make their money back, somehow.

In Europe and the US, operator strategies that are not built around 5G are rare. It strikes me however that it is bold to assume that consumers will take up 5G the moment it’s available, and that 5G will underpin the modern digital business from day one. The economics of providing 5G connectivity will make it difficult for mobile operators to drive costs low enough to make moving to 5G tempting for users, he says.

Operators are spending huge amounts of money just for the spectrum space to provide 5G connectivity, and they will have to pass the cost on to their customers. Increasingly price sensitive consumers won’t stand for price rises and will stick with 4G. They will change their behaviors, picking and choosing which apps are stationary and which are mobile. They will use Wi-Fi for data-hungry video and VR apps, created for a 5G world, which will remain stationary.

Standards needed

Leading firms such as Korea Telecom, Verizon and EE have announced plans to offer 5G services to consumers in the future, but there’s a clear difference between rhetoric and action. Dr. William Webb, a fellow at the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineering and CEO of the Weightless SIG, says common standards are needed if 5G is to evolve.

Because the definition of 5G is so vague, it’s hard to say far we are from rollout. If 5G is just whatever we rollout in say 2020, then by definition we’re 3 years from rollout – but what that will be and how different it will be from what we have today? Korea Telecom claims it will deploy 5G this year, ready for the Winter Olympics, and Verizon also aims to start fiber-replacement deployment this year or next, he says.

However, without any standards, whatever they deploy is not a globally agreed solution. Some suggest that a real’ 5G – with a carefully developed and worthwhile new technology – might not occur until 2025. It’s all a bit of a mess. Many expect that the standardization process will act as a filter, delivering what collectively is determined to be important and viable, and then we will label whatever arrives as 5G, perhaps around 2018-2020.

5G will be huge for IoT

The internet has grown exponentially since its birth and with the rise of connected technology and appliances, it’s set to get even bigger. The Internet of Things (IoT) is an industry that’ll be worth trillions by the 2020s, and billions of everyday objects will be connected to the web. To support this new revolution, a stronger, denser type of mobile connectivity is needed and 5G will eventually fill this void.

Mark Skilton, a professor of practice at Warwick Business School, says 5G will be designed to support the future technological economy. 4G has been paramount in the rise of mobile apps and social media networks, but 5G will have a major role in supporting the future of connected tech such as driverless cars and smart sensors.

5G performance and architecture is a fundamentally different technology and capabilities to 4G and all other previous networks. With 1 to10 Gbits/sec bandwidth; 1ms latency and supporting a density of 100 or more devices in any given room size location, it’s truly instant, always-on, and able to download the equivalent of a whole movie in a few seconds, he tells us.

This is the new competitive level of performance for the 21st-century economy. It enables real-time mission, critical rapid response – such as connected self-driving cars, Internet of things sensors, mobile devices that will drive connected buildings, smart cities, savings energy, and new skills and services.

For 5G to be a success – and if the UK is to become a leader in this area – Skilton suggests that more cooperation between government and the telecoms industry is needed. Overall the 5G move in the UK will not happen without strategic leadership from government, industry and enlightened academic research. It’s a rapidly moving, complex and expensive endeavor that will need collaboration with other leading cities and countries to leverage economies of scale and accelerate solutions into practice, he says.

When 5G rolls out across the world, it’ll be huge. By the time it’s the dominant mobile connectivity standard, internet-connected objects and services are likely to be all around us. Technology will be far more immersive than it is now, and 5G will be a catalyst for it all. However, there’s still a plethora of challenges ahead and the industry is in desperate need of standards to ensure that 5G is a success.


This article was written by Nicholas Fearn from IT Pro and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.