5G will be everywhere—and everyone is looking for good use cases

5g (Pixabay)

When the wireless industry convenes in Barcelona for Mobile World Congress 2017 Feb. 27-March 2, the hype around 5G will be in full tilt, with plenty of talk about products, demos and trials. And while use cases have been somewhat elusive, analysts are hopeful that some good examples will be on display—but not everyone is holding their breath.

A lot is still emerging on use cases as operators and their partners continue tests and trials of the technology in millimeter wave and other spectrum bands. The actual standards are still being written, with the 3GPP’s official 5G work item kick-off scheduled for a 5G RAN meeting in March. The final 5G specifications aren’t expected to be ready until 2020.  

Of course, the industry isn’t waiting for the standards to be finalized, and a lot of work already has been done toward making 5G a reality. “I think the dominant theme for this year on 5G is ‘it gets real,’” said 451 Research principal analyst Ken Rehbehn. “By that, I am referring to real 5G NR prototype systems entering the hands of operators for early experience as the specification details get honed. So it is about products, but not products for live, standard 5G networks.”

Verizon released its 5G radio specification in July, intending to provide guidelines for testing and validating crucial 5G technical components. That specification, which was the result of collaboration within Verizon's 5G Technology Forum, describes the physical layer characteristics of a 5G signal. The basic mode of operation is TDD, and the proprietary signal is a multicarrier OFDM signal.

During its 4G/5G Summit in Hong Kong last fall, Qualcomm unveiled the Snapdragon X50 5G modem, making Qualcomm the first company to announce a commercial 5G modem chipset solution. The Snapdragon X50 5G modem is designed to initially support early 5G deployments based on the Verizon 5G Technical Forum spec and on the KT 5G-SIG specification in Korea.

While Verizon has talked a lot about fixed wireless as the first use case, with ongoing trials involving 10 markets in the U.S., other use cases include augmented reality and virtual reality, automotive, smart city, drone and industrial Internet of Things, IoT, applications. But for the most part, these are in early stages as many more industries need to be included in 5G discussions if the full vision is to meet reality.

“I’d love to hear more about ‘real world’ use cases for 5G, and not just things like remote surgery (which aren’t necessarily realistic),” said Peter Jarich, chief analyst at GlobalData Technology, previously known as Current Analysis. “However, there’s a catch-22 there. Much of what we could imagine in terms of use cases today can be accomplished with LTE or LTE upgrades, so they’re not really good from a PR perspective. That leaves a big focus on the technology or demonstrations of how the industry is reaching out to industry.”

While American operators are pushing fixed broadband apps, operators from other countries are more interested in mobile 5G, so their focus will be on lower bands and a smartphone-based applications, said Joe Madden, principal analyst at Mobile Experts. The IoT applications will be discussed in wide variety—but his advice is to be skeptical about the business case since the 5G IoT business is not well understood.

As for where the industry is headed, that’s pretty clear. “We’re at the first stages of commercialization,” Jarich said. “With initial pre-standard services planned this year, the rubber is hitting the road.  The nice thing is, that doesn’t mean the death of LTE. We’ll be seeing initial ‘5G’ services that include LTE whether than means integration with things like LAA or Gigabit LTE.”

5G will be everywhere—and everyone is looking for good use cases