AT&T's Kafka: 5G 'being designed to standardize flexibility'

AT&T's Hank Kafka, second from left, speaks during a FierceWireless event Thursday. Photo credit: Parallel Wireless

LAS VEAS -- The term “5G” doesn’t refer to a monolithic technology meant to replace LTE networks, according to Hank Kafka, AT&T’s vice president of access architecture and analytics. So the rollout of 5G networks won’t happen suddenly.

LTE was an easily definable stepping stone in the evolution of wireless networks, Kafka suggested here during the FierceWireless event “An inside look at building and deploying 5G.” The industry adopted relatively comprehensive standards for the technology, built out networks and migrated users from 3G technologies.

“5G isn’t going that way,” Kafka said. “The difference is that the 5G standard is being designed to standardize flexibility…. Even as you’re headed toward Release-15 (the first release of 5G specifications), you (focus on) the key items that are going to have the biggest impact” and standardize those components.

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So while fundamental things like chipset designs are likely to be clearly defined specifications, carriers and their partners will have some flexibility to innovate and develop their own technologies and services on top of those standards. “That lowers the cost and increases flexibility at the same time,” Kafka said. “5G is not a singularity.”

That flexibility will be necessary because 5G encompasses so many variables, other speakers agreed. Carriers must consider a wide range of factors as they develop strategies and experiment with technologies, including which spectrum bands to use and what kind of transmitters to deploy.

Increasing adoption of network virtualization will play a major role in the emergence of 5G as well. Networks will be able to automatically optimize themselves as new technologies come online, choosing between LTE and 5G based on data needs, network congestion and other factors. And that will help carriers meet the needs of users as quickly, efficiently and cheaply as possible.

“Sure, there’s a lot of changes as we move into new propagation bands,” said John Smee, Qualcomm’s vice president of engineering. “But the network itself is becoming more self-optimizing…. So even as those data rates are getting higher, the latency rates are getting shorter.”

And just as the networks evolve, the devices that access those networks will continue to evolve, Smee noted.

It’s still far from clear just which standards will be in place as operators begin to deploy 5G, though, and concerns of fragmentation remain. Verizon, for instance, plans to launch 5G as a fixed service commercially by the end of 2017, said Adam Koeppe, the carrier’s vice president of technology planning. But the vast number of players involved in the development of standards is a mixed blessing, he said, and Verizon won’t wait a few years for standards to be adopted if the carrier is ready to launch 5G commercially.

“That’s both good and bad; that’s a lot of cats to herd” to develop standards, Koeppe said. “That’s just not acceptable for us to wait that long to bring 5G” to market.

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