The hype is over. 5G is not going to go away - in fact, 5G networks are arriving now even though the first consumer smartphones will not ship in any volume until at least Spring 2019. What we see now is just the start of the 5G era because initial 5G services will provide just a taste of what 5G will eventually deliver. Over the coming years, 5G technology will continue to evolve as new versions of the global mobile standard add new capabilities just as today’s 4G/LTE services are considerably richer than initial 4G services.
Initial 5G launches will focus on just two areas: faster mobile broadband services to relieve smartphone congestion on current LTE networks; and, in some countries, fixed wireless broadband services which reach consumers unable to receive broadband in other ways. Perhaps the most important change with 5G services will be improvements in the responsiveness, or latency, of mobile networks, and not simply the jump in peak speeds, because it’s the latency improvement of 5G which will enable the launch of ‘uniquely 5G’ services in the years ahead.
There are a number of reasons for this focus. Massive Internet of Things (IoT) and other new target markets for 5G -- beyond mobile and fixed broadband -- will be the focus of future revisions of the 5G standard which will add the necessary new capabilities. For now, existing LTE and other wide area wireless technologies are cheaper and offer considerably wider coverage than 5G will for many years.
Yet the world’s mobile operators are all talking about 5G. Press releases abound. But it’s important to read the description of each ‘launch’ carefully to assess whether an operator is trailing 5G in just a few locations, is offering a pre-commercial trial with some external testers, is even marketing a service using a ‘5G-like’ technology but which does not actually use the 5G new radio standard, or whether the service is a live 5G network without 5G end-user devices. All of these examples have happened recently.
Beyond the PR value of 5G, the real question is: Which operators would benefit most from launching 5G mobile broadband services? How can we work out which operators should launch 5G mobile broadband services soon? The easiest way is to look at the performance of their current LTE networks because this indicates the degree to which their networks are congested and so would benefit from the new frequencies available to 5G technology and 5G NR’s greater efficiency.
5G enables operators to differentiate
At OpenSignal we see widely varying LTE quality around the world. In our State of LTE report, we found the country where smartphone users experienced the fastest average LTE download speed was a staggering 7.3 times faster than the country with the slowest average LTE smartphone user experience.
In countries where there is little difference between the LTE download speed experience today, operators should consider using 5G services to jump ahead of the competition. For example, the ratio between the operator whose smartphone users experienced the fastest average LTE download speeds and the slowest was just 1.1 in Australia and Singapore and 1.4 in the US; but a noticeably higher 2 in the UK, 2.1 in Brazil 2.1 and 3.1 in Taiwan.
5G responsiveness will be the most important advance
A significant improvement with 5G mobile broadband networks is latency. With 5G the industry aims to deliver just 1ms latency on the radio network and just a few additional milliseconds added by a 5G-standard network core. By comparison, globally OpenSignal finds smartphone users experience an average latency between 28.3ms to 194.8ms end-to-end across today’s LTE services, depending on the country. In major countries, the slowest average latency is more commonly around 70-80ms on LTE.
There is clearly enormous room to improve the responsiveness experienced by smartphone users which will benefit voice communications, online multiplayer games, and web browsing immediately as well as set up the potential for new categories of services for IoT devices such as safer cars in the future. 5G represents an end-to-end change in mobile networks and operators should think carefully about how their overall technology can deliver all of the latency benefits 5G standards should bring.
To help with 5G business cases, mobile operators should consider the potential to greatly improve the latency their users experience through 5G. In addition, they should assess the difference in the speed experience between operators in their market. In those countries where the latest LTE standard is extensively deployed already or where there is congestion on LTE services, moving to 5G will help an operator to challenge the competition’s mobile broadband speed experience.
Ian Fogg is VP Analysis at OpenSignal
This article first appeared in Telecom Asia 5G Insights November 2018