Industry Voices—Schoolar: My realistic 5G predictions for 2018

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A range of carriers are planning to make 5G advancements in 2018. (Image: Olivier Le Moal / iStock / Getty Images Plus)

With 3GPP ratifying the first part of the 5G standard in late 2017 we will see our first commercial (standardized and nonstandardized) 5G networks in 2018. Those first commercial networks, of course, will bring all sorts of news coverage, hype and misinformation—all of which are standard these days when it comes to mobile broadband.  With that in mind, I thought I would share my three realistic predictions for 5G in 2018.

Commercial launch will overshadow coverage

Just because an operator says it has a commercial network doesn’t guarantee any kind of widespread coverage. In fact, I am certain more people will read about 5G launches in 2018 then will be actually covered by 5G. Network rollouts take a long time. Going back to LTE, it took U.S. operators several years before they had near-nationwide coverage. 5G for many operators could take even longer to build a nationwide footprint than it did for LTE. And, let’s remember all that has been promised for 2018 are commercial networks.

All a commercial network needs is one base station the public can connect to. The threshold for commercial is very low. Even the threshold for a public launch is low. When an operator says, it will have a commercial network before the end of Q4 2018 that gives it all the way to 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 31. So yes, we will have commercial 5G networks in 2018, but the vast majority of people in the U.S. will live nowhere near those networks.

Breathless races for an almost meaningless first

Being first has a very tangible benefit when it comes to sporting events and standing in line to ride rollercoasters. When it comes to the wireless industry it is an often-overused modifier. Take for example the early days of 3G when NEC claimed to have deployed the first UMTS network in Europe. How did that work out for NEC’s macro base station market share?

2018 will bring us a long list of 5G firsts.  Some of them can be significant, but many more will just be the product of a marketing specialist. Operators and vendors are much better served focusing on building quality networks, services, and solutions than they are by focusing on some almost meaningless first. Remember, a wireless generation should last a decade. Being successful isn’t how you start that generation, but how you end it.

5G will bring hyper-unrealistic expectations

It is well known that mobile networks and services go hand-in-hand with hype. The hype around 5G is very strong right now and 2018 will only make it stronger. With initial 5G launches there will be all sorts of stories about 10 Gbps handsets with 1 ms latency, self-driving cars, and everything in the world connected. I am confident 2018 won’t bring any of those things.

Sure, 5G will be faster than LTE, but subscribers aren’t going to have multi-gigabit connections with the flip of a switch. For one thing, base station capacity is shared, so when people talk about 10 Gbps 5G, that is per base station, not user. Secondly, spectrum plays a big role in speed of 5G as well. 5G at 600 MHz will behave significantly different than 5G at 28 GHz. Furthermore, the more advance 5G services we have been promised will take years to be delivered. 4G came with the promise of 1 Gbps and we only have that in a few networks. 5G IoT isn’t even addressed in the first two phases of standardization. This of course means 2018 will be followed by the inevitable 5G failure stories in 2019. At least one of those stories will be about poor battery life.

5G is exciting because of all of its possibilities. Reaching those possibilities however will be a long process. LTE is far from reaching a decade and we still haven’t reached its full commercial or technical possibilities. Hopefully as 5G becomes commercial realistic expectations will come with it.

Daryl Schoolar is principal analyst of wireless infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas, but how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him at @DHSchoolar.