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5G hype gives way to reality, almost

Between Mobile World Congress Shanghai and 5G World in London, last week saw a slew of 5G announcements, demos and keynotes. But for once, it was more about pragmatism than hype, and we may have actually witnessed the point where the 5G hype cycle gave way to the practical realities of deployments.

Last week’s major 5G highlights were an interesting and perhaps unprecedented balance of sexy apps and pragmatic network upgrade strategies.

KT said at MWC Shanghai that it will have 5G up and running in time for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, with apps including 5G video drones, live holograms of the athletes and “omni-view” camera angles. Ericsson demoed various 5G-enabled apps, including Machine Vision for manufacturing quality assurance, vehicular connectivity for smart vehicles and intelligent transport applications, and even tactile robotic surgery.

However, it wasn’t all futuristic apps – Ericsson also teamed with SK Telecom and Deutsche Telekom for the world's first transcontinental 5G trial in South Korea and Germany, making use of key 5G technologies including SDN/NFV, distributed cloud and network slicing. Nokia demonstrated a functioning 5G network using its AirScale Radio Access technology and Cloud Packet Core running on a Nokia AirFrame data center platform. ZTE showcased its Pre5G solution portfolio at MWC Shanghai by stressing the “Pre” part of Pre5G, explaining how cellcos can evolve their existing 4G networks smoothly. Qualcomm's new 5G radio prototype was developed for the sub 6-GHz bands to caters to operators’ practical needs to focus first on coverage and performance boosts. Earlier in June, Ericsson revealed its 5G Plug-Ins that essentially enable cellcos to evolve to 5G at their own pace a software upgrade at a time.

As Rethink Research co-founder and research director Caroline Gabriel observed in this blog post, the upshot of the latest 5G press blitz is that 5G is no longer a vaporware pipe dream or a lab-only experiment. It’s here and it’s real and (perhaps most importantly) you can deploy it at your leisure where it makes sense without blowing your capex budget.

That argument was lubricated somewhat by activity on the standards front last week. The 3GPP issued a solid timetable for finalizing New Radio requirements in Release 15 (Phase 1 5G) for 5G interfaces and IoT apps, which is now set to be finalized by June 2018. Meanwhile, the Small Cell Forum published Release 7, which gives cellcos a futureproof and realistic roadmap for hetnet and SON deployments as 5G technologies are developed and finalized.

It's significant that both the 3GPP and SCF announcements emphasized pragmatism in their press releases, with the aim of giving device/equipment vendors something tangible to latch onto and build on. It’s the clearest indication yet that – despite whiz-bang visions of surgical robots, driverless cars and holograms – the 5G hype cycle is finally fading.

Even Huawei Technologies executives spent their keynotes at both the MWC and 5G World events giving delegates a 5G reality check. In London, Ying Weimin, president of R&D for Huawei’s wireless network product line, advised cellcos to take a step-by-step approach to 5G in the face of current uncertainties over things like standards, business models and spectrum allocations.

Meanwhile, in Shanghai, rotating CEO Eric Xu said that IoT and connected cars won’t be the main drivers justifying 5G deployments. (He did, however, say that virtual reality looked like a more likely 5G driver – which might be the case, although for the moment the excitement over VR seems more driven by the same kind of kind of novelty value we saw with 3D displays.)

And while it may be folly to turn to analyst forecasts for reality checks, Ovum’s inaugural 5G subscriber forecast – released last week – projects 24 million 5G subscribers globally by 2021 (the first year that 5G will be commercially available. Two points to consider here:

1. Ovum has also forecasted that LTE subscriptions will grow from over 1 billion this year to 3.6 billion by 2020 – which makes that 24 million (spread over 20+ markets) look puny. So it ain’t going to be all about 5G in the next five years – LTE is going to be the main wireless access technology in play well into the next decade.

2. The main use case for commercial 5G through 2021: enhanced mobile broadband services.

Anyway, it does seem that we may finally have reached a turning point for the overall 5G discussion where cellcos can look past the hype and get to the actual business of rolling up their sleeves and figuring out how to deploy it. 

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