Industry Voices—Byrne: 5G and the never-ending search for bandwidth

U.S. operators expect to launch 5G technology in the coming months. (Pixabay)

Mobile operators—and the vendors that support them—have been in a never-ending game of catchup, trying to generate enough bandwidth to keep pace with demand, seemingly since the beginning of cellular time.

When analog cellular became too inefficient, the first generation of digital technologies arrived. When TDMA technology demonstrated that it didn’t have the scale to support massive increases in voice traffic following the introduction of national “one rate” plans in 1998, more efficient technologies like CDMA and GSM were brought in. When networks proved woefully unprepared for the onslaught of smartphones, especially the iPhone in 2007, it was “3G” to the rescue; and likewise for the introduction of LTE to support insatiable demand for streaming video over the past few years.

And don’t forget the emergence of Wi-Fi to provide a pressure valve for operators needing to offload backhaul traffic from the cellular networks.

As we embark on the 5G era, then, consider a question: What if, instead of being the technology that enables new innovative use cases and empowers operators to achieve the “holy grail” of moving up the value chain beyond connectivity, 5G becomes the moment in the cellular industry at which network demand finally outpaces operators’ ability to keep up?

5G, which promises exciting new use cases, will require—no surprise—massive bandwidth. Between 4K video, massive mobile multiplayer online games, connected factories, AR and VR—choose your favorite 5G-related phrase—all have a common requirement: high bandwidth. As a result, operators looking to the promise of being able to monetize new 5G capabilities and use cases are facing the all-too-familiar challenge of how to ensure sufficient bandwidth to support all those use cases.

The entire history of the cellular industry has taught us the same lesson over and over again: with apologies to Kevin Costner, “if you build it they will come.” Expand voice service ubiquitously, and customers will find it indispensable. Offer national service at an affordable rate, and customers will start displacing fixed lines with wireless (okay, AT&T Wireless’ original price of $89.99 for 600 national voice minutes wasn’t affordable, but hypercompetition quickly brought the going rate down). Provide mobile broadband at decent speeds and really cool smartphones to take advantage of those speeds, and customers will send terabytes of drunken selfie videos from the Super Bowl.

Now consider adding in new 5G capabilities, and guess what will happen? Customers will adopt in droves, and operators will once again be scrambling for new bandwidth to stay one step ahead of demand.

The good news, so far, is that with certain notable exceptions, operators have generally done a solid job keeping up, or at least identifying and resolving network choke points quickly. Wi-Fi became a significant part of the solution for most operators post-iPhone introduction, and while it still remains somewhat clunky and vexingly difficult to seamlessly integrate with cellular networks, it will continue to improve and should help alleviate some of the emerging 5G demand. (It’s no coincidence that Reliance Jio’s massive LTE deployment was accompanied by a nearly-as-massive Wi-Fi deployment).

In addition, regulators are (slowly) identifying and freeing up spectrum bands to support 5G, so the ability to coordinate licensed and unlicensed bands will provide part of the solution. 

Also, it should be noted that 5G itself provides part of the capacity challenge, since upgrading to 5G brings with it significant efficiencies that will enable operators to squeeze significantly more capacity compared to the prior generations they will replace. 5G enables multiple ways to help—weaving licensed and unlicensed bands, adding in millimeter wave “mmWave” spectrum capabilities, increasing levels of massive MIMO and the like. But all of those capabilities remain largely undeveloped and untested in the field.

Which leads me to the following deep thought: What if—as has so often been seen in the past—usage exceeds expectations, but this time capacity improvements don’t pan out as planned? While we’re not there yet, I could certainly foresee a scenario five years down the road that looks more dire given the scary growth expectations.

All of which makes it an interesting time for technologies like Li-Fi (“light fidelity”), which has been the focus of considerable R&D over the past few years and now appears to be getting much closer to commercial reality. Li-Fi represents a truly disruptive technology that could change the game when it comes to capacity and performance.

Unlike cellular and Wi-Fi, Li-Fi uses light spectrum instead of radio spectrum, enabling bandwidth to be transmitted through LED lightbulbs. Given the adoption of LED lightbulbs in homes, businesses, and, perhaps most intriguingly, hundreds of thousands of street lights, there are a number of early Li-Fi use cases that just happen to align nicely with 5G: smart cities, stadiums, retail applications and remote surgery, just to name a few.

A number of recognizable telecom equipment names are investing in Li-Fi R&D, including Nokia and Samsung. And earlier this year, Phillips Lighting (now known as Signify), one of the world’s largest commercial LED lighting vendors, announced its first trial.

Li-Fi appears to be on a track that would have widespread commercial availability achieved in roughly three years. If so, and if my 5G spectrum “doomsday” scenario were to come about, Li-Fi could be emerging just in time.

But once 6G technology emerges, including all of the vexing requirements that teleporting will require, all bets are off.

John Byrne is the service director of global telecom technology & software at GlobalData. Follow him on Twitter: @Byrneingman.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of our editorial staff.