From 3G to 5G: the secret history of the NGMN Alliance

Vodafone CTO
Johan Wibergh, the CTO of the Vodafone Group, has been appointed chairman of the NGMN Alliance
EC pic

The Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance was in celebratory mood last week in Frankfurt am Main as it marked its 10th anniversary. It also appointed a new chairman: Vodafone Group CTO Johan Wibergh took over the reins from Deutsche Telekom CTO Bruno Jacobfeuerborn for the next two years.

The NGMN event lifted the covers a little on what the alliance has been up to since around 2003 -- before its official formation in 2006. Indeed, during a presentation chaired by the alliance’s CEO Peter Meissner, about 60 long-serving mobile industry executives took to the stage to explain their part in what clearly began as a series of clandestine meetings among mobile operators to help take the industry beyond 3G.

Now, of course, the alliance is focused both on the evolution of LTE-Advanced technologies and 5G, and has already published a 5G white paper. What still comes across very strongly is that the industry is intent on not repeating the mistakes of the past: in the words of Wibergh, “We got 2G and 4G right; we got 3G wrong. Is 5G going to be like 2G/4G or like 3G?”

With the 3G lessons clearly in mind, Wibergh and others cautioned industry peers against over-hyping what 5G might become. It was a theme that ran throughout the two days of the NGMN conference, and is clearly a concern. At the same time, there is a growing excitement about the prospects of 5G, tempered by an awareness of the challenges that remain.

Spectrum, for example, is a hugely difficult and complex problem. The next World Radiocommunication Conference in 2019 (WRC-19) is expected to tackle new spectrum requirements for 5G, but comments made by conference participants at the NGMN event also suggested that the WRC-19 agenda is already failing to address the needs of 5G.

For example, Alain Maloberti, SVP at Orange Labs Networks, said that while WRC-19 will focus on frequency bands from 24 GHz to 86 GHz, there is also potential for the bands from 6 GHz to 24 GHz. “This is not currently being addressed by WRC-19, but it could be used for [enhanced mobile broadband],” he said.

Takehiro Nakamura, VP and general director at NTT Docomo, also warned that 2019 is too late for Japan, which intends to make progress with 5G ahead of the Olympic Games in 2020.

Spectrum is the fuel of the industry, and conference attendees were clearly already worried that requirements for 5G will not be met. The next WRC is still three years away; perhaps by the next NGMN event there will be greater clarity about which airwaves will be available.

As things stand, the different regions are already following their own paths in terms of 5G spectrum allocation. One thing is for certain: the ambition of creating a globally harmonised spectrum band seems a distant dream, at least for now.--Anne