During mid-September the 3GPP spent a week in my current hometown Phoenix. The week's events were two fold. The first couple of days were used to discuss matters related to Rel. 13, in particular to make a decision around how 3GPP will proceed in regard to low-power M2M. The second half of the week was a 5G RAN workshop. Fortunately for me I was able to attend the workshop to see the 3GPP in action.
The 5G discussions weren't exactly what I was expecting. There were no great debates on the road forward. Instead the purpose of the event was for vendors and operators to share their wish list for 5G. What proceeded was a series of 85 presentations, with each presentation followed immediately by a question and answer session. While I didn't sit through all 85, I am pretty sure I sat through the majority of them.
As you can imagine with so many presentations spread out over two days, each speaker was rushed. This was both bad and good. The bad being there was no time for in-depth discussions. The good part being if they weren't hurried I can't imagine they would have ever gotten through all of them. Seriously how does one go through 85 presentations in two days?
My big take away from the event, other than sitting through 85 presentations can lead to serious health problems, is that as the mobile community starts the long process of deciding what technologies will provide the underpinnings of 5G there is general alignment over what 5G should do. Anybody who has sat through a 5G presentation over the last 12-months is sure to have seen what I call the "spider graph of 5G aspirations." It is made up of a large circle with several smaller ones inside and intersected by a series of lines that meet at the center of the circle. At the end of each line are different desired 5G attributes like greater area capacity, higher peak through puts, higher rates of mobility, and greater density of connections. In fact one presentation had this graph sourced to 18 separate vendors. Talk about unity of thought.
So while the technologies going into the next generation of mobile networks still need to be worked on, after the 3GPP event I am pretty sure what 5G will look like. Not considering the actual technologies, I am also pretty sure what some of the major hurdles 5G will need to overcome to be successful.
1. 5G needs to be more than about IoT. Too many use cases rely on IoT as a major driver. I think that resonates in markets where smartphone penetration is nearly saturated, but in more developed markets I am not sure that is a compelling factor for 5G. The 5G story needs to be more expansive and spend more time talking about other benefits like greater spectrum and energy efficiency.
2. Spectrum is going to be a mess, especially the higher bands. For a community that has relied so long on coverage and mobility as two key components of its value proposition, 5G in many ways is going in the opposite direction. It also tells me that LTE-Advanced "evolved" will be needed to play a big role in anchoring 5G and that what many people experience as 5G will actually be just a continuation of the current generation of mobile broadband.
3. The small cell challenge, thanks to proposed 5G-spectrum, will only get bigger. Some vendors have been talking about a need for a10-fold increase in small cells to support 5G. Given that the market is still stuck on how to roll out the first wave of small cells, getting to a 10-fold increase in five or so years will require a major maturation in small cell deployment techniques.
4. The mobile core will be just as important if not more important than the radio, and that core will be virtualized. Virtualization will be especially needed as operators slice the network so that one physical network can provide different levels performance. So even if the radio challenges are overcome, 5G won't be successful if changes at the core aren't overcome as well.
Of course we all know that as the technical folks at different network and equipment vendors work to overcome these challenges some marketing person is just going to take the short cut and label a 4.5G network as 5G. It happened previously when HSPA+ all of a sudden became 4G, and I am pretty sure we will see the same thing again with the next generation.
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.