Some of the world’s top mobile operators are working hard to roll out 5G. In South Korea, for example, bidding for 5G frequencies took place on June 14, paving the way for a network whose launch will cost an estimated $18.5 billion.
Yet skeptics maintain that 5G’s benefits – low latency and super-fast speeds – are still a long way off.
Yes, vendor and operator marketing have kicked into high gear as everyone vies to be seen as a 5G leader. But that doesn’t mean the technology is a distant dream. In fact, the 5G train has left the station and is on its way to a town or city near you.
Critics who say 5G has been overhyped are overlooking a salient fact: the 5G train will not come all at once. Instead, it will arrive one train car at a time.
Car number one, planned for next year, is the deployment of fixed wireless access providing broadband services to homes and offices over the wireless network. Operators have been rolling out fixed wireless networks using LTE and LTE-Advanced technology, often to provide high-speed access in rural areas that lack fixed-line solutions. For example, US Cellular has been offering fixed wireless service in the rural states of Kansas and Nebraska. AT&T and Verizon have both announced plans to roll out similar services based on 5G.
5G allows wireless operates to deliver fiber-like speeds of up to 2Gbps without the cost of running fiber to every home. This will open up new competition in the home broadband space – something that everyone except current providers can get excited about.
The second 5G train car will arrive when 5G mobiles devices hit the market sometime next year. To support these devices, operators will need to add 5G functionality to their base stations, at least in the most populous areas. These base stations are likely to use lower band frequencies, which have a longer propagation distance than millimeter wave, and better indoor penetration.
Vendors offer multi-band antennas that support both 5G and LTE-Advanced Pro (also known as 4.5G) allowing operators to support 5G and upgrade their existing 4G networks at the same time. 4.5G supports mobile data rates of up to 1 Gbps, and is already supported by a number of currently available mobile phones, including the Samsung S8, LG V30, Moto Z2, and Huawei Mate 10. Operators who deploy multi-band solutions will not only be able to support new 5G devices at super-fast data rates, they’ll also bring 4.5G speeds to their 4G networks for anyone with a Gigabit LTE phone.
The third 5G train car will start arriving in 2020, bringing with it ultra-low latency of 1 milliseconds or less, and enabling massive machine-type communications. These are the technologies behind all those futuristic applications like driverless cars and remote surgery that you see at trade shows. Significant changes will be needed to support such ultra-low latency, so widespread deployment of these applications will indeed take time. Expect this technology to be deployed selectively, for specific applications that require a high level of performance.
Among these technologies, the wild card is augmented reality (AR), which, along with virtual reality (VR), requires both high speed and ultra-low latency. If some innovative company starts selling a device that provides an especially compelling AR experience – one that strikes the proper balance between usefulness and cool – then a mad rush of network upgrades could well follow. This happened when the iPhone first hit the market, and network equipment vendors are anxiously waiting for it to happen again.
All of this means that, naysayers notwithstanding, the 5G train has left the station. Anyone with a Gigabit-LTE enabled phone can get an advanced ride on the express train as the 5G upgrades happen over the next year or two. The remaining cars are in motion and will arrive in turn.
Brian Chamberlin is executive advisor in Huawei’s carrier marketing division