5G reflects the wireless industry's increasingly rapid pace of change

Tammy Parker, FierceWirelessTech

Time is speeding up in the wireless industry. Though advanced markets have rolled out significant LTE and LTE Advanced footprints, many markets worldwide are just now dipping their toes into the LTE pool. Nonetheless, the collective industry already has 5G on its mind, with most pundits calling for requirements and specs to be laid out over the next couple of years so as to enable commercial rollouts in little more than five years.

It is stunning how dramatically this industry has evolved. I remember attending an event during September 1997 in Nicosia, Cyprus, commemorating the 10th anniversary of GSM. There were no smartphones, and even global roaming was just a fantasy at that time, as the Bosch World Phone wouldn't even be introduced for another nine months, finally enabling GSM roaming on the 900 MHz and 1900 MHz bands. Seventeen years later, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has just unveiled the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus smartphones with support for LTE on 20 bands plus support for VoLTE and VoWiFi as well.

The ongoing innovation in the wireless industry is stunning. Just compare it to the automotive industry. True, you can get a hybrid or no-emission vehicle now, or even a connected car. But I have a 17-year-old pickup truck that I use for grunge work and driving in deep Colorado snow, and the differences between that aging vehicle and the sporty three-year-old car I have are quite negligible. Even the gas mileage isn't that dramatically different.

I'm not the only one astonished by the pace of change in the wireless industry. I spoke to Kris Rinne, senior vice president, network technologies, AT&T Labs (NYSE: T), on the sidelines of CTIA's Super Mobility Week in Las Vegas. She is retiring at the end of 2014 after 38 years in the telecom industry, so I asked what advancements captivated her most during her long career.

Rinne replied that the rapid slew of innovations since the Samsung Blackjack and the original iPhone were introduced in 2006-2007 has been most impressive. "We've gone through almost three air interfaces since then. We've introduced the application store. We've introduced all of those capabilities. It's a phenomenal change in the way that you run your business and live your life. And that's happened in the last seven or eight years," she said.

There is no reason to think that the pace will slow anytime soon. The next generation of technology, called 5G, really is just around the corner and promises to bring near-zero latency, 10 Gbps peak rates, increased network reliability and energy efficiency. During last week's FierceWireless breakfast panel on "The 5G Roadmap: How do we plan for tomorrow's wireless networks?," Sue Marek, editor in chief of FierceWireless, asked panelists whether they think 5G will be ready for prime time in 2020, a date many in the industry are targeting. (Here is a link to a video of the breakfast panel.)

Arun Bhikshevaran, Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) CMO, replied that 2020 is realistic. Standardization within the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) is in progress, he said, and 5G requirements should be laid out during the fourth quarter of 2017, leading to technology specifications that should be ready by the end of 2019.

At the end of the breakfast panel, Mike Murphy, Nokia Networks' (NYSE:NOK) head of technology, North America, addressed the audience and noted that 3GPP Release 15 and WRC-19 spectrum-allocation decisions should be issued in 2019, which points to 5G products coming out in 2020-2021.

However, he suggested that upcoming Olympics Games--specifically the 2018 winter event in South Korea and 2020 summer event in Japan--will drive those Asian nations, whose wireless networks are already among the world's most advanced, to shine the spotlight on their respective 5G prowess while they hold the world's attention. Because those nations will want to prove they are still on the cutting edge, Murphy predicted we will actually see early 5G trials during 2018 in South Korea, followed by broader commercialization starting in 2020.

Perhaps what is really amazing is not how far the global wireless industry has come, but how far it is poised to go during the next five years.--Tammy