5G vision grows clearer as 2020 deadline gets closer

Sue Marek

LAS VEGAS -- The 5G buzz is escalating as U.S. operators like Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) are announcing 5G trials and vendors like Nokia Networks (NYSE:NOK) are promising commercial 5G-ready hotspot equipment in 2017.

In fact at this year's CTIA Super Mobility show here, nearly every discussion I had with vendors and operators seemed to gravitate toward 5G. Of course, once a Tier 1 operator makes an announcement regarding 5G, it's clear that the tide has turned and the 5G momentum will likely only increase in the months ahead.

Although Verizon's 5G trial announcement was purposefully vague, it was significant as it shows that U.S. operators are intent upon being leaders in 5G, much in the way they were with 4G LTE. To recap, Verizon said it plans to work with partners such as Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC), Cisco, Nokia, 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.  

Verizon's timeline for its first 5G trial is aggressive. Adam Koeppe, Verizon's vice president of network technology and planning, said during the FierceWireless breakfast panel, "Behind the 5G Crusade: How to Define and Deliver the Next Generation of Wireless," held in conjunction with the conference, that the company's primary goal for the trial is to test some 5G technologies in the field and try to figure out how partners and potential customers might use 5G technology. Specifically, Koeppe said the company would test different wave forms and air interfaces.

The fact that Verizon is talking about potential new air interfaces for 5G is notable. A year ago, many industry insiders were reluctant to say that they thought 5G would include a new air interface -- many thought it would just be future iterations of LTE -- which many assert still has a long lifespan.

However, many experts that I spoke with at CTIA this week also said that 5G will likely be made up of multiple networks. There may be the new air interface network that will be able to deliver huge chunks of bandwidth at very high speeds. Plus there may be a future iteration of LTE, which is backwards compatible to the existing 4G and even 3G networks. And finally, there may be a third network that has lower battery consumption and lower speeds but geared toward all the machine-to-machine communications that will be handled by the wireless network.

The ultimate goal is a 5G network (or networks) that can handle all different types of wireless traffic and many different "use cases" -- a term that we are going to probably hear much more of in the years ahead. In fact, some experts have hypothesized that there may be different types of network functions for nearly every type of vertical industry that meets the specific needs of that industry, whether that be transportation, public safety or healthcare.

Although 5G is still at least a few years away from standardization -- most point to 2018 and 2019 for 5G standards -- and commercial deployments are still set at 2020 and beyond, the industry is clearly starting to crystalize its 5G vision and it's a very compelling view.--Sue