Schoolar: 5G – how much longer until we get there?

Daryl Schoolar ovum

Daryl Schoolar

Recently I participated in the annual Arizonan westward migration to the California beaches. As child abandonment is still frowned upon in my state, I brought my two preteen sons with me. I know it is a travel cliché, but driving across the dead zone that is eastern California (technically Blythe to Palm Springs) I was regularly harassed with questions like "are we there yet," "how much longer," "what are we going to do when we get there," and "how long are we staying?"

Now I am not sure if it was the onset of driving dementia or just a need to mentally escape from my relentlessly inquisitive sons, but their travel questions started to sound a lot like 5G questions. What is 5G? When will we get to 5G? What will happen to 4G when we get to 5G?  All of those 5G questions are interesting, but ultimately none of them currently have a satisfactory answer and it will take time before those answers become known.

All the major RAN vendors are starting to build pretty PowerPoint presentations around 5G, because how else do you describe something that doesn't exist? This isn't Big Foot here, so grainy black-and-white photos won't do. No 5G deserves the full artistry that only PowerPoint can provide. What I have seen so far has been somewhat consistent among the different RAN vendors.  5G is some combination of 3G, 4G, and Wi-Fi working together in a more intelligent and end-user specific manner than what currently exists. It could also include a new air interface. 5G could make use of current mobile spectrum, 600MHz to 3GHz, or be in other spectrum bands. And of course 5G will be faster than 4G…unless it isn't. The fact is, 5G is actually undefined and everything discussed so far are really only discussion starting points.

Recently the South Korean government and European Commission agreed to work together on defining what 5G actually is. Universities in the United States like New York University are getting into the 5G-development game as well.  For the most part it has been vendors talking about what 5G could be, but I suspect operators will make their voices heard.  I do find it interesting that NTT DoCoMo has already named some of its 5G vendors, despite not knowing what it is. That is what I call a leap of faith. 

Another leap of faith is NTT DoCoMo's plan to have a commercial 5G network by 2020. I am not saying 2020 is an unreachable goal. Generally 2020 appears to be the safe estimate for 5G's arrival. 2020 is far enough in the future to not scare off current LTE investments, but near enough to start creating a sense of urgency. The reason I call NTT DoCoMo's commercial 5G goal a leap of faith is because again, neither NTT DoCoMo, nor could anyone they are discussing it with, even know what it is, much less what the business case for it is yet. Come 2020 NTT DoCoMo could still be in the process of fine-tuning its LTE-Advanced network and maximizing the network's revenue potential. 5G might not actually be as pressing a need then as it seems now. If not NTT DoCoMo certainly other mobile operators will still be in the middle of building out their LTE-Advanced networks at that date.

One thing I am relatively certain about with regards to 5G is that because we are still just in the early stages of LTE network deployments,  the vendor party line will be one of 5G co-existing with LTE, not replacing it. Despite the fact that I know as little about what 5G is or will become as any author of pretty 5G PowerPoint decks, it seems much more likely that LTE and LTE-Advanced will be the driving force in the next five plus years when it comes to mobile network investments. Remember vendors call mobile operators "partner" not "client." Vendors aren't going to jeopardize booming LTE deployments with any talk about network replacements, especially while the ink on those LTE network contracts is still drying. 

Daryl Schoolar is Principal Analyst of Wireless Infrastructure for Ovum. Daryl's research includes not only what infrastructure vendors are developing in those areas, but how mobile operators are deploying and using those wireless networking solutions. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him at @DHSchoolar.