Industry Voices—Nicoll: The race to 5G doesn’t matter, it’s the results that matter

Verizon 5G bus for fixed wireless (Verizon)
Verizon is among the companies claiming to be first in 5G. (Verizon)

One of the main reasons the race to lead 5G doesn’t matter is that 5G itself is not one thing. Firsts in one area do not automatically lead to firsts in others, and what happens in one region does not necessarily directly impact any other region. What matters is how 5G is brought to market.

If Etisalat, for the sake of argument, is first with 5G Fixed Wireless Access in the UAE (in May), but Verizon is first with 5G FWA in the U.S. (September/October), what does that mean? Nothing other than that 5G FWA is coming to market. And if T-Mobile is first with 5G mobile in 600 MHz, but AT&T is first with mobile 5G using pucks and Sprint is first with midband 5G, who wins the brownie? (Vague "Notting Hill" movie reference.)  And what about Elisa of Finland’s first standards-based 5G network in late June 2018 or South Africa’s Vodacom 5G fixed wireless with actual subscribers signed up in August? Let’s not forget, we are still lacking in a wide variety of 5G devices that are necessary to bring 5G to market in a big way.

Figure 1: Announced 5G "firsts" this year. Apologies to any firsts I’ve missed, and this does exclude the "prestandard 5G" firsts that were announced around the South Korea Olympic games.


"2018 5G First"

Date announced


World’s first 5G 28 GHz wireless data transmission, ultrahigh mobility exceeding 300 km/h; 1.1 Gbps 293 km/h

9 May 2018

STC/Saudi Arabia

First live 5G network MENA

15 May 2018


First commercial 3.5 GHz 5G network

14 May 2018


Live 5G FWA

14 May 2018

VIVA Bahrain

Live 5G

10 June 2018


First bidirectional standards-compliant 5G call—28 GHz

13 June 2018

Elisa/Finland & Estonia

First commercial use of 5G network

28 June 2018


First 5G-enabled Wi-Fi hotspot, world's first E2E data call on commercial network

15 Aug. 2018

China Mobile/China

First 5G single-user downlink at 1.4 Gbps with 3rd-party device

16 Aug. 2018


Industry first 5G transmission to a moving car

22 Aug. 2018

Vodacom/South Africa

Africa’s first 5G NR FWA service in 3.5 GHz band

27 Aug. 2018


First multivendor 5G NR data call

4 Sept. 2018


First 5G standard antenna; first 3GPP 5G site

4 Sept. 2018

AT&T and Verizon/USA

First to transfer data over live 5G NR networks to purpose-built devices (separately, both claim). Verizon = 39 GHz

8-9 Sept. 2018


First 3.5 Gbps service using 120 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum with MMIMO

11 Sept. 2018


First commercial 5G broadband internet service

12 Sept. 2018


First European 5G trials with 26 GHz

End of September

Best to market

My point is that first to market is not nearly as important as best to market. First to market with LTE was TeliaSonera (globally, it was MetroPCS in the U.S. but nobody cares about that), but the devices were dongles and the original network application was expected to be photo sharing. It wasn’t until smartphones came along that LTE subscriptions really took off. Sound familiar? Verizon was best to market when it launched LTE with a wide range of devices in the Tier 1 cities, as opposed to Sprint/Clearwire launching 2.5 GHz WiMax in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities (with one smartphone and a couple of personal Wi-Fi devices). That was a major mistake that they are now reversing using MMIMO on that same 2.5 GHz spectrum and getting ready for 5G deployments as well, finally making the most out of that valuable spectrum holding.

It is worthwhile to mention that the concept of 5G leadership overall doesn’t make any sense. Despite announcements from various government bodies and organizations, it is not like each country has its own suppliers of 5G infrastructure and that is generating the push for first-to-market leadership. The battle is between Ericsson and Nokia, Huawei and ZTE in some parts of the world, with Samsung and others taking a piece of the pie.  Regardless of whether China rolls out 100 million 5G subscriptions, that has literally no impact on the U.S., U.K., EU, or Middle East other than that these regions benefit from the vendors’ experience from the early deployments and that later deployments benefit from the reduction in the cost curve, especially with devices.

What is 5G?

On my panels at MWC Barcelona and MWC Americas this year, I attempted to get my panelists to define what 5G is. So far, the clearest definition of 5G, and the one that I agree with, came from Samsung’s Dan Warren, who defines 5G as a "radio that uses the 5G NR specs." Other definitions which involve a 5G core or end-to-end slicing and URLLC connections are harder to adhere to, at least in the short term, and ignore the deployment of 5G NSA service this year and into 2019. None of the early 5G deployments announced by any of the operators are running StandAlone, so with an LTE core, is it really 5G? I think it is.

The old 5G use-case triangle of eMBB, MTC and URLLC needs to have a fourth leg added: Fixed Wireless Access (FWA). Inasmuch as the other three legs are all connection types of 5G, adding FWA makes a lot of sense. That and it is one of the first implementations of 5G to be deployed and has a business case and thus revenue associated with it. You can argue whether or not the business case works, but it is already being deployed by Verizon in the U.S.

5G timelines

5G is many different things—MBB, URLLC, MTC (and FWA)—but not all are available now or at the same time: 5G will roll out over a number of years, like LTE has, so patience is needed. Definitely a lesson learned from 4G that seems to be missing is that by rolling out LTE over a number of releases, multiple use cases were able to build on the base success of LTE: low-speed IoT LTE (Cat-M and N-IoT) as well as gig LTE using carrier aggregation and LAA to achieve speeds in the gigabit range.

It is important to remember that the base features of 5G for MTC, URLLC and gigabit speeds are not all in the first release. Release 15—identified as 5G Phase 1—came out in June this year with partial support for MTC and URLLC and introduced nonstandalone eMBB support. Release 16, which is 5G Phase 2, comes out in 2019 with standalone support and high-speed UE for eMBB, LTE interworking with MTC and URLLC support for 0.5 msec and autonomous driving support. Release 17 (Phase 3?) will come in 2021, and while people are starting to talk about 6G to make up for the shortcomings of 5G, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Source: Ericsson

Rather than be in a hurry for 5G, following the 4G/LTE timeline of rolling out features over time via a planned series of releases helps the industry (vendors, operators and service providers) plan for the adoption of a wide variety of services. As has been said: 5G is not a sprint, it’s a marathon and we are barely past the start line.

Chris Nicoll, principal analyst for Wireless and Mobile at ACG Research, works with mobile, security, IoT and infrastructure vendors and operators on their markets and messaging strategies, with a focus on 4G, 5G, IoT and noncellular wireless technology development and deployment. Nicoll’s target for over 35 years has been to pull from global experiences, best practices, trials and tests and apply them to local-market needs.

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributorsoften industry experts or analystswho are invited to the conversation by FierceWireless staff. They do not represent the opinions of FierceWireless.