Marek’s Take: Beware of the return of the half-G

Marek's take

With 5G networks in the U.S. still in their infancy, there’s already some early rumblings of another G. And I’m not talking about 6G (which is in development). I’m talking about the dreaded half-G. 

During Huawei’s annual global analyst conference this past week, the company once again floated its view that the industry needs a half-G, or 5.5G, as an interim step between the 5G networks that we have today and 6G, which won’t be available until 2030. The company first announced its 5.5G initiative last November and it elaborated on that 5.5G strategy during its analyst confab. Basically, Huawei says that it believes the industry needs to create more value for 5G than there is today and that’s why the half-G standard is necessary.  

And what exactly will 5.5G provide that 5G won’t? According to Huawei, it will deliver 10x faster uplink speeds, which the company says is necessary for uploading videos in industrial applications like machine vision. It will also provide a 10x increase in bandwidth and lower latency so that users can have truly immersive experiences such as virtual and augmented reality. And it will use technologies such as harmonized communications and sensing (HCS) to enable autonomous cars and connected drones.  

If this half-G push sounds familiar to you, that’s because it isn’t the first time Huawei, or others in the industry have introduced other Gs. Huawei made a similar move back in 2015 with 4.5G. At the time, the company said that 4.5G was necessary for lower latency and higher download speeds and so networks could support hundreds of thousands of connections within a single square kilometer.  

Bill Ho, principal analyst with 556 Ventures, remembers the 4.5G scuttlebutt and said that when it occurred the industry didn’t abandon 4G, but instead continued with its plans to move to LTE-Advanced, which some claimed was the same as 4.5G. And he also said that because Huawei lacks prominence in the U.S. market, he sees the company’s 5.5G push as being more of a regional marketing message for the firm, one that is unlikely to gain traction globally.

But some are in favor of Huawei’s 5.5G move. Ed Gubbins, principal analyst with GlobalData, wrote in a blog post that he thinks there are some good reasons for a 5.5G standard, noting that the first wave of 5G networks have focused primarily on mobile broadband and there are many aspects of 5G that need more attention, such as the enterprise use cases. And he noted that as 5G evolves into more of an enterprise technology, the mobile industry is going to have to address the fact that enterprises are accustomed to shorter technology lifecycles, much shorter than the current 10-year trajectory of wireless technology lifecycles.

5G is already fragmented

It’s also important to point out that the 5G standard is already fragmented and adding a half-G is probably just a continuation of that. There are two flavors of 5G — non-standalone 5G (NSA) and standalone 5G (SA). NSA was an early adaptation of the 5G standard developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). This early adaptation enabled many operators to deploy 5G quickly because it incorporated a 4G core.

However, most operators will migrate to SA, which has a 5G core. T-Mobile was the first U.S. operator to deploy 5G SA back in August 2020. Verizon and AT&T have both said they are moving that direction but haven’t given firm dates for the transition to SA.

Because 5G has this fragmentation already, some analysts believe that Huawei’s creation of a 5.5G standard will only add to the confusion. “They are trying to differentiate themselves with the most half-baked idea,” said Roger Entner, founder and lead analyst at Recon Analytics.

Most operators in the U.S. have initially focused on the mobile broadband use case for 5G and some, like Verizon and AT&T, haven’t even implemented SA, which means they really don’t have the full capabilities of 5G. Entner said that while T-Mobile has deployed SA, it primarily did it to get better in-building coverage and hasn’t really explored the other capabilities yet.

So far, no other vendors have followed Huawei on its 5.5G trajectory. But if you look at the wireless industry archives, you will find that there’s a history of half-Gs and even other Gs (Remember Nokia’s 4.9G?).

I don’t think the industry benefits from these different Gs and neither does Entner. “Before we look at 5.5G, why don’t we just do 5G right.” I agree.