5G will be everywhere—show floor, demos, keynotes: MWC Preview

SK Telecom oksusu
SK Telecom promises to bring a 5G blueprint where VR, media content and communications functions are merged. (Image: SK Telecom)

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With so many countries vying to be first with 5G, Mobile World Congress 2018 provides the perfect setting for operators and vendors to talk about their 5G aspirations. The show will host attendees from more than 200 countries, giving ample opportunity for everyone to stake their claims.

South Korea’s SK Telecom plans an ambitious 5G diplomacy effort during the gathering, showing off real-time streaming of the 5G Non-Standalone (NSA) standard as defined by 3GPP and its autonomous car technology. SK's leadership is pledging to seek cooperation with the world’s leading 5G companies during the event.

Besides the show floor, 5G will be the subject of myriad keynotes and sessions during MWC18. Of course, there will be no shortage of Korean operators talking about their 5G deployments for the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang.

There are future Olympics to consider as well. NTT DoCoMo is set to launch a nationwide 5G service in time for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a topic that DoCoMo President and CEO Kazuhiro Yoshizawa could broach in his keynote on Monday. 

U.S. carriers will have plenty of opportunities to talk about 5G. Nicola Palmer, chief network engineer and head of Wireless Networks at Verizon, will deliver a Tuesday keynote as part of a FierceWireless event about 5G and the network transformation. T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray will present T-Mobile’s vision and path to 5G later Tuesday on the Deutsche Telekom stage.

But with everyone from the U.S. to China claiming that they’re going to be first with 5G, it’s little wonder that confusion would reign. How can everyone be “first?”

One doesn’t have to go far to find an answer. The GSMA, host of MWC 2018, covers seven regions. Ana Tavares, head of the North American market at GSMA, said when she gets together with her six counterparts, they practically all expect to be first in 5G. Europe, ironically, is the one area that doesn’t appear to be gung-ho for the title of first.

In fact, CCS Insight analysts say there’s growing concern that Europe will be left behind in 5G. “We expect a major talking point at the show to be a lack of ambition from European operators to roll out 5G beyond early proof-of-concept implementations,” CCS said in a show preview. “This comes as little surprise considering some of the hurdles they need to overcome, from a regulatory and technology perspective, and given that spectrum availability is an ongoing challenge.”

The biggest obstacle, according to CCS, is arguably the cost associated with deployment. “A recent estimate from Deutsche Telekom indicates that deploying a 5G network to cover Europe would require an investment of between €300 billion and €500 billion, so it's no wonder that there's some nervousness, particularly given regulatory pressures. New service revenue opportunities for operators will also be a prominent topic,” CCS said.

Much of the industry does seem to agree that the big 5G players are in the U.S., Japan, Korea and China.

In the U.S., AT&T has vowed to be first with mobile 5G, while its rival Verizon promises to be first with 5G, period. But T-Mobile has said it will be first with a nationwide 5G offering, and Sprint has since upped that ante, saying it has no doubt that it’s going to be first.

“There’s no doubt those are the countries—Japan, Korea, China, U.S.—that are going to drive 5G,” said Mike Murphy, Nokia’s North American CTO, who just so happens to have lived in each of these countries.

Part of the 5G story is related to regulatory and part of it is related to what operators are doing, he said. Especially in Japan, Korea and China, the governments are very supportive of industry and wireless in particular, and the operators are very determined.

In the U.S., the FCC started off well by commencing millimeter wave activities, which was very aggressive at the time. “I think the FCC did well in allocating the high band,” and the next step would be good to accelerate the allocation of the midband, he said.

Interestingly, Korea, Japan and China have been eyeing midband spectrum for a while, and the U.S. regulators are just looking at that now. The Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) 3.5 GHz band in the U.S. could be used for 5G, and it’s in the same range that’s being considered by the rest of the world, but it has power limitations and unique sharing schemes which are still in flux at the FCC.

Terrestrial mobile operators and others are seriously eyeing the 3.7 to 4.2 GHz band, which is sparking controversy because it’s already used by satellite companies. But millimeter wave bands tend to lend themselves to smaller cells and hotspot deployments while the 3.7-4.2 GHz spectrum could be leveraged for coverage, along with the spectrum that operators already hold.

As for boots on the ground and what customers are doing, Murphy said his U.S. customers are particularly aggressive. He is aware of his colleagues’ dates for deliverable equipment to their customers around the world, and “I don’t think there’s anybody ahead of the U.S.” So despite the spectrum situation, “the action on the ground is very fast moving.” Nokia is working with all four nationwide operators in the U.S. in some 5G capacity or other.

For years, operators around the globe have vowed to be first. So, who’s going to actually deliver commercial 5G NR before everyone else? “To be frank, all of them are running like crazy,” said Woojune Kim, SVP of product and strategy for the Samsung Networks division at Samsung Electronics. And that’s reason enough to keep an eye on the finish line.