Schoolar: Listening to the 5G jazz

Daryl Schoolar ovum

Daryl Schoolar

Here is a thought: are 5G presentations becoming some sort of mobile tech jazz performance? With a song there are certain notes musicians have to play. In classical there is very little room for improvisation. The notes and timing of those notes are to be played exactly as written. Jazz on the other hand provides much more room for improv; the musicians are free to play around with the notes and timing so long as they don't stray too far from the rest of the band. Extending this metaphor to 5G, the mobile ecosystem is the band while the technologies and innovations vendors and operators hope to deliver 5G are the notes.

Anybody who has sat through a few 5G presentations should have a general idea of what needs to be included in a real 5G discussion; higher speeds and lower latency, IoT, network densification, spectrum (both high and low), massive MIMO, aggregation and coexistence of different air interfaces, SDN/NFV, and network slicing. And, I am sure I left a few 5G notes out of that list.  What becomes really apparent is that while everybody touches on those key 5G notes, what the speaker emphasizes is really the telling part.

A traditional IT company naturally will play up IoT and SDN/NFV, areas where they have assets. RAN vendors with broad existing 4G and 3G footprints will focus on how existing investments will evolve into 5G. Smaller vendors will push for newer more disruptive technologies that break from existing technologies making current network investments less valuable.

To be perfectly cynical about 5G vendor presentations, what a vendor highlights is most likely what will make the vendor the most money, not necessarily what is most needed to make 5G successful. Shocking!  On a less cynical note it is good to see natural competitors also working together as frenemies.   Think John Coltrane deferring to Miles Davis on Davis' "Kind of Blue" album.

When it comes to 5G I still wonder how will all of this play out?  Network densification plays a big part in this, especially when it comes to using small cells with higher frequency bands. Smalls cells, especially in the metro area, continue to struggle to gain traction. Deployment scenarios remain challenging and the higher the spectrum bands being used the more small cells will be needed. I assume some of those challenges will be better managed in five years, but even still it is hard to believe that we will see mass deployments of small cells supporting bands above 6GHz.  Just getting coverage in the lower 2.5GHz and 2.6GHz bands remains tough today.

Another concern is the promises of higher speeds and lower latency. Those promises are based on orchestrating all sorts of different technologies such as massive MIMO, higher orders of carrier aggregation, and aggregation among different air interfaces. When you look at how all of these things come together you realize the actual availability of these network performance levels very likely is going to be limited to very specific applications. As such, will those applications be enough to generate revenues to make 5G profitable? Let's face it, as a much as people talk about the rise of IoT, the ability to monetize IoT as a service remains a work in progress. If IoT and other applications and services of promise aren't properly monetized, 5G faces the real possibility of being a money pit.  

Right now 5G presentations are fascinating, inspiring, scary, and depressing.  I continue to think, however, moving forward there will be clarity. Overpromising will give way to realistic goals and operators won't over reach trying to be the first to reach 5G. And like how jazz actually includes many different styles – bebop, hard bop, ragtime, swing, - I have a feeling given all the different technologies being proposed for 5G one operator's 5G may look very different from another's 5G network.

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.