Gillott: Why are we still asking what 5G is?

5G (Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns)
Image: Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns

As 2016 rolls to a close, we tend to look back and reflect on what has happened and look forward to the new year. One thought struck me this year as I reflected on all the industry shows and conferences we have attended—and in 2016, it seems we attended a LOT of shows!  Aside from the need to repeatedly go to Dallas and Las Vegas, the overarching commonality was the debate about what 5G is.

Every show, conference, client presentation or discussion we had this year started with the question “what is 5G?” or “how do you define 5G?” Given that the industry is pushing ahead with 5G developments, trials, technology standards and the other efforts needed to actually get networks launched, it seems odd that we are still asking what 5G is and what we are going to do with it.

Contrast this situation with the implementation of 3G and 4G LTE. When we moved from 2G (IS-136 TDMA, GSM, IS-95 CDMA, etc) to 3G (WCDMA, EV-DO et al), there was a clear definition – higher speed mobile data; IP. Since there was also a defined set of standards that had been designated ‘3G’, there was little question about what it was or how we would use it.

The move to 4G was similar. While there was some debate upfront (and some considerable investment in technologies such as WiMAX) about which 4G standard would be used, the world quickly centered on LTE and deployments started moving forward. The name ‘4G’ quickly became synonymous with ‘broadband data’ and ‘mobile broadband’. And of course, the increased capabilities and availability of smartphones quickly drove the consumer and business use of LTE.  But think back to when someone asked you “what is 4G?” – it was likely many years ago and the discussion was relatively brief.

But with 5G, it seems that each conference askes the “what is…” question and then spends hours or days trying to answer it. A few weeks later, the process starts again. And all of this is while Verizon, AT&T, T Mobile, Vodafone, Telefonica, DoCoMo, SK Telecom and co are pushing ahead with defining their networks and starting to build.

So why is there still confusion about what 5G is and what we are going to do with it? I believe the answer is simply because 5G is defined by use cases and not by a specific network technology. Whereas 4G has become synonymous with LTE (although there was much debate early on about the requirements for IMT-2000), 5G has been tied to terms such as ‘mobile video’, IoT, connected car, densification, millimeter wave, fixed wireless, etc. There is not a single network technology or standard that defines 5G but rather a set of architecture principles coupled with a collection of use cases. Certainly, 3GPP Release 15 will be labelled ‘5G’ but it is not clear that this will include the mmWave networks being discussed or some other ‘5G’ solutions.

As I see it, there are two dangers with this approach:

1.There is opportunity for ‘everything and nothing’ to be defined as 5G. If there is no specific network standard that encompasses all of the use cases, then anyone (operator or vendor) can defined that their solution is ‘5G’. This leads to confusion in the consumer marketplace and ultimately that is bad for the entire industry.

2.The failure of a use case to materialize could negatively impact 5G. For example, if the autonomous car opportunity does not develop until 2025 or so, then that could lead to ‘5G has failed’ discussions. This would be inaccurate (since 5G supports many use cases) and also damaging to potential investors. 

Confusion is not good when defining a new generation of technology. Clear lines, definitions, standards and use cases are needed so that everyone moves forward in the same direction. With 5G, it seems we have some of this, but not all. And that is why the industry is continually asking “what is 5G?”

Iain Gillott, the founder and president of iGR, is an acknowledged wireless and mobile industry authority and an accomplished presenter. Mr. Gillott has been involved in the wireless industry, as both a vendor and analyst, for more than 22 years. iGR was founded in 2000 in order to provide in-depth market analysis and data focused exclusively on the wireless and mobile industry. In recent years, research has expanded to cover broadband telecom services to the home, as homes and businesses have become more connected.