Industry Voices—Byrne: Another 5G standard approved, but watch out for ‘5G fatigue’

5G (Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns)
Interest in 5G continues in the wireless industry. (Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns)

The 3GPP announced June 14 that it completed its “Release 15” specifications, a significant milestone in the path toward 5G commercialization.

The announcement, following on the 3GPP’s finalization of the 5G New Radio Standard in December 2017, clears the way for 5G deployments in a variety of flavors. The December announcement enabled operators to deploy 5G using existing LTE radios and evolved packet core, while the new specification enables “standalone” 5G using completely new 5G radio and core equipment.

A small handful of U.S. carriers will deploy fixed and mobile wireless deployments this year—the latter without any actual 5G smartphones initially—while a slew of operators are eyeing more aggressive mobile deployments in late 2019 and beyond.

The 3GPP announcement was the product of a tremendous amount of work from 600 delegates representing major telecom operators, network, terminals and chipset vendors, many of which contributed to the press release. And a handful of operators had separate announcements—let’s call them “standalone” standalone announcements:

  • AT&T Labs President and AT&T CTO Andre Feutsche penned a thoughtful blog recommitting his company to deploying standards-compliant mobile 5G in 12 cities beginning later this year. Feutsche also made a strong case for the important role of SDN and orchestration, accurately identifying Release 15 as the “first definition of 5G with a software-based management system at its core.”
  • China Mobile, which has major 2020 deployment plans for 5G, wasted no time, announcing successful standalone 5G New Radio interoperability testing in conjunction with Ericsson and Intel, as well as plans to conduct 5G trials in China later this year.
  • Asha Keddy, Intel’s VP of Technology, Technology, Systems Architecture & Client Group, issued a blog that highlighted Intel’s role in finalizing Release 15. That role included providing proprietary research, reference designs and insights from trials conducted using Intel’s 5G Mobile Trial Platform. 

No doubt, finalizing the standalone 5G specifications clears a significant hurdle on the way to broad 5G adoption. Most notably, it paves the way for a true 5G core network that can support end-to-end quality of service (QoS) and network slicing, both vital 5G ingredients.

And yet, the overall hype around the announcement felt overdone to me.

Maybe it was my lethargy induced by the warming temperatures. Or maybe it was my feeling bad about the prospect of a men’s World Cup without an American team. Or maybe there were more pressing concerns, like the U.S.’s decision to separate children from their families at the U.S.-Mexican border, or the Italian and Maltese governments’ refusal to accept a ship loaded with hundreds of Libyan migrants.

I think the real reason is actually “5G fatigue.” And there are lots of reasons to be fatigued at this point. Here are a few of my favorites, but you probably have your own:

  • Coming just six months after the last big standards announcement on nonstandalone NR, it didn’t seem like there was that much to talk about. Besides, getting excited about finalizing a 3GPP release is like getting excited about ordering a gift online that won’t arrive for another 18 months.
  • In some ways, the news of the standalone announcement does more to muddy the 5G story than to clarify it. Some deployments, including many of the early ones, will be nonstandalone, and a lot of operators are clearly undecided as to their optimal 5G deployment paths.
  • Most of us know the three generic cases by heart (enhanced mobile broadband; high-reliability, low-latency communications; massive machine type communications) but Release 15 doesn’t magically enable all of these use cases, it simply moves the ball down field.
  • Does anyone know what 5G is anymore? Sure, the IMT-2020 standard technically defines what will constitute 5G, but as we saw with LTE, the marketing of 5G has already begun. And by the way, the Wi-Fi folks will tell you that the 802.11ax standard, coming to access points later this year, is also an important part of 5G.
  • The use case conundrum with 5G looms in the background of all the technical forward progress on standards development, tests and trials currently under way. 5G-enabled network slicing carries huge revenue potential for carriers, but they’re still in the earliest stages of figuring out how to monetize thousands of network slices. Figuring out the myriad business models around 5G makes the technical specs look easy by comparison.
  • The 5G hype cycle has gone global, with governments, lobbying associations and interested vendors and operators turning what should be a discussion about ROI into a discussion about “Winning the 5G Race.” And conveniently there are some—let’s call them extremely generous—forecasts to support the notion that 5G is the multi-trillion-dollar, be-all, end-all technology that will determine the fates of mankind as we know it for the next millennium at least.

So what happens next? After the brief self-congratulatory pause, the focus will quickly turn to the industry’s lengthy “to-do” list on the road to Release 16. That daunting list includes projects focused on reducing device power consumption, network interference management, using CoMP (coordinated multipoint transmission) to enhance reliability in IIoT use cases, and furthering the move to integrate licensed, unlicensed and shared spectrum into 5G deployments.

Release 16 is slated for completion in December 2019. So that means the hype is likely to continue for at least another 18 months before the bulk of operators committed to 5G even start to deploy in volume.

Somebody wake me on New Year’s Day 2020.

John Byrne is 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.