China to lead by 5G readiness

Stefan Hammond/ComputerWorld Hong Kong
04 Jan 2019

“Verizon activates the world’s first 5G network,” wrote Sean Bradley in an October 5 story from PC Advisor (UK). “The network is built upon the 5G TF standard which Verizon has been pushing for some time, over the 3GPP 5G NR standard that will take some time to incorporate into network equipment. Verizon has gone on to say that it will upgrade its customers free-of-charge when the 3GPP 5G NE standard becomes more mainstream.”

So...Verizon is pushing a standard not-endorsed by the 3GPP? That sounds counterproductive. Especially if we take a macro view of the 5G ecosystem currently under construction.

Catalyst to collaborate

“5G isn’t one technology, but a complex collection of technologies, many of which have not been sorted out by the standards bodies,” wrote tech journalist Mike Elgan in a Computerworld article titled “Why 5G will disappoint everyone.”

Elgan wrote that “it’s helpful to oversimplify the explanation about how 5G works. The technologies behind 5G enable the use of very high frequencies, and the higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength. Shorter wavelengths enable faster speeds and lower latency.”

That sounds good, and it’s in line with the promises of 5G we’ve been hearing for years. But, as usual with all things tech, there’s a tradeoff.

“With shorter wavelengths, the distance between the device and the “tower” has to be much shorter,” wrote Elgan, “and the signal has a harder time penetrating through materials such as walls and trees. To get around those obstacles, companies need to deploy vastly more towers’s time-consuming and expensive to place these devices everywhere, so the rollout will be slow and uneven.”

Power drain

“Because 5G connections suck more power,” wrote Elgan, “the chips that power 5G will be designed to favor 4G and kick into 5G mode only when the application demands high bandwidth. Because of the need to save battery, because of limited distribution of antennas and towers and because of interference issues, our 5G-enabled smartphones will face huge barriers to actually making 5G connections.”

Elgan is emphatic: “Let me be very clear: Five years from now your smartphone will be using 4G almost all the time, even when you’ve got a 5G phone in a 5G city.”

Telco operators I’ve interviewed point to their existing investments in 4G technology, and say they will consider 5G rollouts according to consumer demand. Phil Marshall, chief research officer for Tolaga Research, says: “Skeptics question whether 5G is needed, particularly given the advancements in 4G and the lack of obvious revenue upside opportunities that can be specifically associated with 5G.

Consider the ecosystem

While smartphone connection speeds are used as a prime metric for 5G, they’re only part of the picture. 5G is an ecosystem which includes a wide variety of consumer and enterprise technologies.

Networks of M2M sensors already exist, and these will proliferate. Autonomous sensors are an unsung hero— they may do nothing except monitor the operating temperature of an industrial device or process and never communicate with a human. But these sensors serve a vital purpose by, for example, monitoring a facility 24/7.

Marshall argues that it’s “time for 5G pragmatism.” Marshall says it’s “a familiar story: a new technology—in this case, 5G—emerges with a vision for industry transformation, sporting numerous use- cases that have yet to prove their market worth.”

Protracted timelines

“Mobile data traffic grows at a cumulative annual rate of between 40% and 50%,” says Marshall. “IoT connections increase annually by 25% to 30% and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”

On 5G, Marshall says: “We believe there are several key factors that will determine its fate, at least in the short term, and provide a pragmatic perspective for 5G positioning. These factors include radio spectrum availability, the maturity of cloud and virtual network architectures, and competitive market dynamics.”

In particular:

  • 5G will be delayed in markets that lack radio spectrum. Only network operators with sufficient greenfield spectrum will have reason to deploy 5G for its marginal performance gains.
  • Many 5G use-cases rely on network virtualization. Although operators are virtualizing their networks, progress is slow and hindered by legacy operational models.
  • Operators that pioneer 5G will initially focus on ultra-broadband services. These services align with existing offerings, are not encumbered by ecosystem complexities, and do not necessarily require network virtualization. When one operator in a market deploys 5G, it is inevitable that its competitors will follow suit with similar market offers.

Marshall echoes Elgan’s thoughts on 4G versus 5G. “We believe that local- and campus-based 5G networks will be relatively common and rely on 4G for wide area coverage,” he says.

“It’s time for 5G pragmatism to come to the fore, the protracted timelines for fully fledged 5G solutions recognized, and early market opportunities clearly identified,” says Marshall.

China’s edge

The Tolaga CRO outlines a geopolitical edge to 5G: competition among nations for technological dominance. “Countries including China and the United States vie for 5G leadership,” he says. “These countries believe in the strategic importance of 5G: for national pride, internet dominance, and to foster domestic technology companies and their intellectual property. We believe that this skews the market perception for 5G and to an extent undermines the market forces that will ultimately determine its fate.”

According to David Abecassis, partner at research firm Analysys Mason, China has a narrow lead over South Korea, the US and Japan when it comes to readiness. However, Abecassis says that the situation is fluid and country-positions may shift.

In October, the research firm published their view on how major players in the global 5G race stack up:

  • China: The country—top for 5G readiness due to proactive government policies and industry momentum, according to Analysys Mason— started trials in 13 major cities this
  • South Korea: It seeks to be the world’s first nation to offer commercial 5G services, with a targeted start date of March 2019. South Korea tested its 5G technology during the Winter Olympics in February with self-driving cars, virtual reality games and a motion-detection system to ward off menacing wild boars.
  • US: Operators in the US are also vying to be among the first to turn 5G tests into commercial offerings, with the four major operators all planning to start services between late 2018 and mid-2019.
  • Japan: NTT Docomo, the wireless carrier unit of Japan’s former telephone monopoly, expects to introduce commercial 5G in 2020. NTT Docomo’s largest rival KDDI also plans to launch in 2020.
  • India: The country plans to roll out commercial 5G services by 2022 with some pilot projects starting as early as 2020. India’s telecom regulator last month suggested floor prices for auctioning airwaves dedicated for 5G and hasn’t set a timeline for a sale.

5G will have many more uses beyond fending off wild boars, but pragmatism is a virtue when it comes to new technologies.

First published in Computerworld Hong Kong

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