5G — In Addition to, Not Instead of?

Everyone is anticipating the advent of 5G, looking forward to ever-faster data speeds and the ability to transmit enormous amounts of data in a matter of milliseconds.

The anticipation is partly because operators’ networks are being stressed by users’ demand for more video content, which uses a lot of bandwidth, and partly because the industry has changed so fast and so much, it’s helped drive sales up and down the supply chain – from new smartphones (for mobile network operators – MNOs, for short) to more fiber into homes (for multisystem operators, or MSOs) .

From the carriers’ perspectives, whether they’re an MNO or MSO, 5G has the potential to save tremendous costs, since it means fiber doesn’t have to be deployed to every site, small cell, or home. Or at least that’s the assumption; figuring out this business case justification is the Holy Grail for 5G.

But 5G is not a replacement for today’s technologies (4G LTE, LTE-U, WiFi, etc.). I believe that today’s technologies actually will continue to link directly to users and disperse data to many, many different end points, and 5G will become a critical component for the success of today technology. This, too, will result in cost savings, as operators will be able to keep using technologies they have in place today.

It’s important to recognize that 5G is not an evolutionary step, following 2G, 3G, and 4G. It’s very different, expected to run at millimeter wavelength. As such, there are no conclusive, set technology standards in place. Different OEMs are doing their own versions of trials for 5G, many of which may or may not become part of the final standard.

Discussions are going on now, and will continue for the next couple of years, about what’s needed and what operators would like to see included in 5G. The plans are being laid, but certain factors bear consideration.

Geographical complications are one area of concern. For example, what China wants is likely to be different than Europe’s needs, and both may be different than what North America wants.

And networks will almost certainly behave very differently than they do today, since 5G will be operating at such high frequencies. At those speeds, antennas will be nearly unrecognizable from today’s equipment, because the signal will have to be so narrowly focused. I would anticipate that 5G provides fronthaul for providers; they can use the frequencies to transmit those vast quantities of data to a single specific location (perhaps an enterprise?).

For operators considering how to get ready for 5G, they should be accelerating their deployment of software-defined networks (SDNs) and network functions virtualization (NFV). They should also step up their modeling and simulation capabilities; 5G narrowband transmissions will be more affected by weather, for instance, so operators need to figure out what those effects might be. Having these kinds of solutions in place as 5G actually begins to penetrate the market will be a great help.

For all the talk about the Internet of Things (IoT), I believe it will not be a big driver of 5G. While forecasts are that the market will be gigantic – 7 billion Internet-connected devices by 2020, a market value of $7 trillion that year, growing to $25 trillion by 2025 – almost all of these devices will be sending very small amounts of data.

For example, smart electric or gas meters only need to send a few thousand bits of data at a time; environmental sensors tracking soil moisture in forests, to help predict the likelihood and severity of wildfires, may only need to send data a few times a year, connected cars need ultra-low latencies to better human reaction time, not larger bandwidth. Many, maybe most, of the sensors that will comprise IoT actually need low-power consumption, long-life batteries and ultra-low latencies more than lots of bandwidth. Only time will tell if LPWAN technologies like LoRa & SIGFOX will prevail, or once Narrow Band LTE (NB-LTE) comes into play if it will result in a WiMax-like fate for other standards.

There’s a bright future for 5G, one with a lot of promise. Operators should start planning for that future today, so they can be prepared for the technological changes – and cost savings – that will inevitably be coming their way.