I've been writing about 5G for years now, and it seems we're making progress. More vendors are mentioning their interest in positioning themselves within the nascent 5G ecosystem.
But many of the building blocks for 5G are still being shaped and debated. Think of this way: 5G will be an enormous, complex, finished structure. You can think of as a massive office building with elaborate interconnected systems—a building with infrastructure that enables tasks we can perhaps imagine today, or perhaps not.
If we think of 5G as a building, right now the framework is being planned, but there are stumbling blocks. Not all standards are fully defined. There's not much point in creating a magnificent building if the overall structure is built using metric measurements while the elevator shafts are constructed using the Imperial scale (feet and inches, still in use, although cubits and furlongs are not).
Work continues on those pesky-but-essential standards, and progress is ongoing. But it will be some time before we see anything resembling true 5G.
At the recent Mobile World Congress in Shanghai (organized by the GSMA, who also put on their flagship show in Barcelona), experts on 5G spoke about future directions for the nascent technology. ZTE president Zhao Xianming addressed the role of the IoT during a keynote, saying the IoT had "created significant progress" areas like intelligent manufacturing and transportation, smart cities, and smart homes.
And he also addressed the issue of standards: "All parties across the industrial chain have a collaborative, cooperative role to play in the development of the IoT industry,” said Zhao.
Standards are critical to 5G's advancement. But guess what: 4G and LTE continue to advance and for most traditional telco uses (remember that 5G will be a paradigm shift), satisfy customers' needs.
LTE still the dominant metric
During a ZTE-sponsored 5G Industry Summit on the sidelines of MWC Shanghai, Enrique Blanco Nadales—global CTO for Spanish telecommunications firm Telefónica—explained that his firm's timeline for a 5G rollout is largely dependent on the maturity of their 4G/LTE deployments.
Nadales said that he expects the UK (which enjoys an LTE penetration rate of over 57%, according to Telefónica) to be his firm's first market for 5G services, although he gave no firm date, saying it would happen either in 2020 or 2021.
5G may be the whiz-bang future, but when listening to industry players like Nadales, it's clear that old-school concepts like customer requirements and ROI are still vital parts of the equation.
5G: when and where?
Journalists who cover telecoms shouldn't try to predict the future. But I'm going to do just that.
Executives like Zhao and Nadales realize that 5G isn't a speed-bump, but a new ecosystem. It isn't going to magically appear—it will be built in stages, with disparate elements like antenna arrays, sensors within-the-IoT, small-cell deployment, and spectrum all in the maelstrom.
But here's what I say is going to happen, and you can check back later and see if I was on track.
Next February, the Winter Olympics will be held in PyeongChang, South Korea. Something will be displayed at that event which some people in officialdom will call 5G, or a precursor of 5G (4.99G?). It might be a driverless-car environment which shuttles athletes to events, or something along those lines. In any case it will provide photo opportunities and will be hyped as much as possible.
The Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2020 will also feature something officials will call "5G" but whatever it is will more closely resemble what we can expect from 5G as we close out the second decade of the twenty-first century.
It's worth remembering that the 1964 Tokyo Olympics featured the Shinkansen: the first-ever high-speed rail service. Back then, telephones were big black plastic things attached to cords plugged into walls. The Shinkansen was a radically new service that “changed the style of business and life of the Japanese people significantly, and increased new traffic demand,” according to Wikipedia.
High-speed rail networks now carry passengers in many nations across the world, and the availability of rapid city-center-to-city-center transportation has permanently changed both intranational and international travel. Will 5G be as dramatic? As with the Shinkansen, we're going to have to wait a few years to find out.