2020 vision for 5G seems nearsighted

CommunicAsia Show Daily

5G was a hot topic last year at CommunicAsia. It’ll be even hotter this year. There will be hype. And some will sneer at it.

Given the hype cycles of the past, who could blame them? But while it might seem a bit soon to be working on 5G when 4G is still being rolled out, it’s probably not soon enough.

The key factor with 5G is that it’s not just the next generation of radio access technology. 5G will be the product of the parallel evolution and coalescence of a number of ecosystems - including (but not limited to) cloud, Big Data analytics, network virtualization and the Internet of Things. 5G won’t be the straight access network that previous “G”s were - it will be more like a heterogeneous, on-demand, context-aware environment that any given device can use to stay connected to whatever services a customer needs at a given moment.

So, little wonder that industry players have started working on it now. But that’s also why talk of commercializing 5G by 2020 comes across to me as arbitrary marketing hype. Sure, 2020 sounds catchy as a target date for rollouts, and a few markets will probably hit that target - namely Japan and South Korea.

But most won’t, and many markets may not even need 5G until well beyond 2020. Ask any delegate from any emerging market operator about 5G, and for most of them it’s a technology that’s interesting, but in practical terms at least a decade away. They’re more likely to be interested in 4G and the Internet of Things.

So in 2020, we’ll be lucky to see more than a few 5G launches, and most if not all will be limited commercial trials at best. And coverage won’t be ubiquitous or uniform. Like every “G” before it, 5G will be rolled out piecemeal - in markets that are ready for it.

On the other hand, 5G is actually being designed for piecemeal rollouts. 5G isn’t meant to provide ubiquitous macro coverage. 5G’s sweet spot will be ultra-dense traffic areas that need sufficient and flexible capacity. Put simply, 5G is meant to augment 4G rather than replace it.

Which makes sense because 4G and even 3G will be part of the mobile broadband landscape for a long time. In fact, 4G won’t even account for the majority of mobile users in 2020. Yes, some individual markets will have more 4G users than 3G users (South Korea already does, for example). But according to Ericsson ConsumerLab, even though every market will have LTE services available by 2020, the majority of mobile users (4.4 billion) will still be on W-CDMA/HSPA networks, compared to 3.5 billion LTE users.

In other words, by 2020, mobile broadband networks will be so heterogeneous that consumers won’t care that much about what “G” they’re on. So long as they’re connected and their apps work, it’s all the same to them.

Which is why the term “5G” has always been a bit misleading. Of course it’s too late now - “5G” is the term that vendors have managed to fossilize. But it’s an easy term to misunderstand, and that can have real-world consequences.

In Turkey - which has been planning to auction 4G licenses this year - President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly said in April that the country should leapfrog from 3G to 5G, and avoid being a “garbage dump” for 4G equipment. President Erdogan also reckoned that Turkey could deploy 5G in the next two years. A month later, the Ministry of Transportation, Maritime Affairs and Communications delayed the auction to August.

According to Mobile World Live, Turkish operators haven’t publicly contradicted the president’s remarks, saying only that they’re ready for whatever “G” they’re eventually allowed to pursue.

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