It's the end of the year. Traditionally, that's the time when folks in the tech media (analysts included) talk about their expectations for the upcoming year. Which technologies and services will gain momentum? Which will fall behind? What new innovations might we see emerge? Sometimes this is actually done within the context of the year we're trying to put behind us. You know, the whole looking back to look forward thing.
I'm going to resist any temptation to follow suit.
Why? In part, I find these analyses largely gratuitous and rarely insightful; most of us have an idea of what's coming up in the year ahead. If the goal, then, is to help operators or vendors with their marketing or product development planning, the entire exercise is a waste of time. At the same time, I have no interest in competing with what looks to be the penultimate 2013/2014 telecom and IT trends review. Pulling together Current Analysis' brightest minds (well, and me), our, "Now and Then: Insights from 2013 and Drivers for 2014" webinar isn't one to miss. No, not every insight will be unexpected or earth-shattering. Some will be. More importantly, tying what our analysts see happening next year to recommendations should yield some actionable insights. Register here--you won't regret it. (Trust me. I've seen all of the slides already)
So, if I'm not going to focus on the near-term, what's left? The long-term, of course. And what's everyone's favorite long-term topic of the moment? 5G! Not "5G" the term used by some to describe LTE-A, but "5G" as in the evolution from LTE-A expected around the 2020 timeframe.
A few weeks back, I was lucky enough to be at Alcatel-Lucent's Tech Symposium out in New Jersey. While the first day of presentations focused on business in the here and now, the last day included a presentation on "Fifth Generation Communications" by Tod Sizer, Access Domain Leader at Bell Labs. It was a good slide deck, in part because of its simple message; 5G isn't about speed, new air interfaces or the Internet of Things--It's about delivering a better end-to-end network performance with enhanced (tailored) support for diverse applications. You can check out the slides here.
I don't mean to single this presentation out because Alcatel-Lucent's positioning around 5G is incredibly unique or an outlier amongst its competitors. Quite the opposite; 5G as a return to the concept of "always best connected" seems to be the de facto view of the technology. Rather than a technology, per se, it's more about optimizing the network to accommodate specific application demands, coverage demands and expectations around network usage and density evolutions. And if this is correct, you'll probably never have an opportunity to buy a "5G" service.
When WiMAX services first started rolling out, a lot was made of what could--or couldn't--be marketed as 4G. More recently, the discussion has been around what could--or couldn't--be called LTE-Advanced. In each case, I've taken a liberal stance. If 4G is a marketing term (and, it is), then marketers should get to use it flexibly. If LTE-Advanced includes multiple components, then deploying one of them should get you some credit, especially if an operator can link this to enhanced service performance…like we've seen out of Korea:
Source: SK Telecom
But, if like 4G, 5G is just a marketing term, a future with "5G services" in it looks unlikely. 5G as it's currently understood will be a tough thing for anyone to wrap their marketing machines around for a handful of reasons.
- Air Interface. The move from GSM/EDGE to WCDMA was easy to position as a generational shift because it came with a new air interface. Same thing is true for the move from WCDMA/HSPA to LTE. Right or wrong, if 5G doesn't come with a new air interface, it might not feel like a next-generation anything.
- Faster Speeds. Generational shifts in mobile technologies have come to be associated with speed bumps. If 5G isn't about faster speeds, explaining to consumers why it's significantly different from 4G and why it's something they want won't be easy.
- Coverage & Density. It's great that 5G will support enhanced coverage models and the added demands that come with high (or variable) user density. How many operators would be willing to play up the fact that their new technology delivers the reliability they should have expected with the old technology?
- IMT-Advanced Advanced. While the ITU didn't define 3G or 4G, their specifications for IMT-2000 and IMT-Advanced, respectively, set out how people thought about them. So, where's the next version of IMT-Advanced? Sure, folks like ETSI and METIS will set out 5G requirements and the technologies that could meet them--but that's far from anointing them.
Yes, I'm making something of a leap here; if you can't market something, it doesn't really exist. Where you're talking about a collection of technologies and no one is making it clear where the threshold for 5G actually is, however, it's not that much of a leap. Of course, there is hope for future wireless marketer. 5G may not be about new data speeds, but it will likely support them. Likewise, 5G may not be about new air interfaces, but it will likely include them.
Ultimately, however, the best scenario may be a future where marketers are forced to look beyond the "G" as a marketing tool. The concept of 5G as a combination of diverse technologies aimed at delivering a seamless, application-specific user experience makes sense. It's a concept that should benefit the end-user. If operators are forced to find a way to sell that concept (vs. selling speed), then the true value of what 5G can deliver will be better understood. After years of selling Gs and Mbps, this won't be easy. Luckily, we've all got a few years before we need to worry about 5G being a commercial reality.
Peter Jarich is the VP of Consumer and Infrastructure at Current Analysis. Follow him on Twitter: @pnjarich.