Industry Voices—Mun: 5G disruption—Will a boiling frog jump?

5G phones (pixabay)
Using millimeter wave spectrum for 5G seemed far-fetched just five years ago. (Pixabay)
Kyung Mun

5G focus was front and center at MWC this year. (Here is a link to Mobile Experts’ highlights of this year’s MWC.) Every major vendor showcased massive MIMO antennas, upgradeable radios, and remote radio heads operating at sub-6GHz to the millimeter wave bands at their booths. 

Seeing these products and hearing major operators announcing timelines for their 5G deployments reminded me how much the industry has progressed since five years ago when I first read an IEEE article describing the use of millimeter wave spectrum for 5G, which seemed like a far-fetched idea at the time. 

As I reflect on the progress of 5G as the industry is about to embark on the next-generation shift, I wonder if Jio’s disruption in India with 4G LTE will be repeated elsewhere with 5G.

Jio’s singular focus on LTE network build-out without the cost of maintaining a legacy network allowed it to leapfrog competition. As a result, it has created a huge disruption in the Indian telecom market. Many operators there have already folded, and more will consolidate, as Jio leverages its lower cost-per-bit network to offer lower-cost plans to drive competitors to follow or fold.

Could a new entrant in developed markets look to (standalone) 5G as that disrupting force? And would existing players be unable or unwilling to react to potential threats and die like the classic fable of a “boiling frog” which does not perceive the danger of slowly heating water in a pot?

Based on major industry news lately, including the quashed Qualcomm-Broadcom merger, AT&T-Time Warner merger, cable MVNO ventures, and many smaller-size semiconductor mergers roiling in the industry, it seems that the frog in the slowly heating pot is looking to jump out, or seems very agitated. 

The old industry norms may evolve as we embark on 5G commercialization. The use of narrow spectrum in the sub-3 GHz is expanding to wider channels in the 3-4 GHz and the millimeter wave bands. Also, a strict use of licensed spectrum for mobile services is expanding to include licensed, shared, and even unlicensed spectrum bands. 

As the industry looks to expand beyond mobile broadband to other use cases and applications, including industrial IoT and critical communications, a traditional royalty rate paradigm based on wholesale device pricing may need to change as well. Based on market changes that we see, it looks like the frog is ready to jump, but where to?

Kyung Mun is a senior analyst at Mobile Experts LLC, a network of market and technology experts that provides market analysis on the mobile infrastructure and mobile handset markets. Over the course of his 20+ years in the wireless and cable industries in a dynamic range of roles from engineer to product manager and technology strategist, Mun has contributed to the advancement of mobile communication while working at leading companies in the mobile value chain including Motorola, Texas Instruments, Alcatel-Lucent and a few startups in between. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and Georgia Tech, and studied finance and strategy at Southern Methodist University.