While U.S. operators remain focused on 4G and using the spectrum bought in the auction that ended earlier this year and whatever spectrum becomes available via next year's incentive auction, they're working with network equipment providers on a path to 5G before the 5G standards are written.
Verizon (NYSE: VZ), for one, announced earlier this week that it is working with partners Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC), Cisco, Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and Samsung to test 5G in the company's innovation centers in Waltham, Mass., and San Francisco. The technology field trials are expected to begin in 2016.
Does that mean the U.S. still has a chance to lead in 5G even though trials and demonstrations are being planned for stages around the world, particularly for upcoming Olympics? Yes, according to Miguel Myher, managing director in Accenture's Communications, Media and Technology Group.
"My view is right now, the U.S. is leading the globe," from 4G adoption of the latest smartphones to the actual development of them, like the iconic iPhone, in Silicon Valley. AT&T (NYSE: T) is an early adopter of software-defined networking (SDN), a technology that also has its foundation in Silicon Valley. "Who will be the leader in 5G? That's still open," Myher said. "But given where we are right now, I think the U.S. is well positioned to be the leader at 5G."
That was the message from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler at CTIA Super Mobility 2015 this week. In a keynote fireside chat with Jon Healey of the Los Angeles Times, Wheeler was adamant that the U.S. can lead in 5G. The U.S. is a world leader in 4G, and "we're going to maintain that" in 5G, he said. "There is nothing in our rules" that would prevent 600 MHz from being used for 5G, he said, vowing to move with speed to make sure spectrum is available to maintain leadership in 5G.
Myher says service providers, equipment suppliers and software providers are all looking to develop specific objectives around what 5G will bring, both from a cost and user experience perspective. That aligns well with major carriers' work around SDN, he said.
With carriers' emphasis on small cells -- all the major carriers are expected to deploy them -- they also need to know where to locate them and do so more surgically than in the past. That's where analytics come in -- tools that will tell carriers where best to locate the small cells will be important as well, and those may come from niche analytics providers or more traditional vendors that have to pivot away from hardware toward software.
Security is an area that often is left for the end of a network deployment, and there's a lack of skill set in security in the U.S. and the world at large. Getting people and plans ahead of time -- before 5G rolls out -- is key in order to get the proper levels of security. "It is an issue because a lot of people don't have as much depth there," he said. "It's an area that needs to be thought through from the beginning of the process to the end. It will continue to be a challenge until the industry is able to get more security experts."
While the move to SDN and network functions virtualization (NFV) often revolves around the nation's largest carriers, it's likely that regional and smaller wireless operators will follow. However, it also takes quite a bit of R&D to implement and some of the top operators are more vocal about it. Eventually, SDN and NFV are expected to play a role in 5G as well.
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