Lowenstein’s View: Key questions for Next Gen Wireless Networks Summit

in-building wireless
The FierceWireless Next Gen Wireless Network Summit will be held in Dallas Nov. 28-29.

Next week I’ll be heading to Dallas to participate in The Next Gen Wireless Networks Summit, hosted by FierceWireless. The event starts with the Telecom Innovation Awards on Nov. 28, then a full day of sessions on Nov. 29, concluding with an “Analyst Predictions Dinner” where three other colleagues and I will share some thoughts on 2018.

This is a pivotal moment for wireless networks: the hypo-meter on 5G continues to rise, but so does the concerno-meter, given the challenges of small cell siting and some key questions on what can be done in the mmWave spectrum. We are also entering 2018 with a host of spectrum initiatives, using new and innovative approaches: LAA, CBRS, FirstNet. There are big questions on the FCC’s priorities related to spectrum and the timing/order of auctions. And with the Sprint/T-Mobile deal falling apart, there are a lot of potential moving parts in the industry structure picture.

To me, one of the gauges of a successful conference is if you gain insight on the key questions/topics on your mind coming in. So, here are my top 10 questions about Next Gen Wireless Networks:

  1. What have we learned about fixed wireless? We’re a year into some of the commercial pilots of fixed wireless services, using mmWave spectrum. What have been some of the key learnings? And for all the fixed wireless “business cases” that have been prepared for 5G, what might need to be adjusted? Put another way, in 2020 will Verizon be offering a competitive broadband service in the Atlantas and Dallases of the world?
  2. What are the real advantages of 5G when you can get Gigabit LTE? When you get LTE with all cylinders firing—40 MHz+ of spectrum, 4x4 MIMO, 256 QAM, 3CA and throw in LAA for good measure, the speeds and latency look a lot like … 5G. The standard answer has been “well, it’s all a continuum, and LTE is an important foundation for 5G.” If that’s really the case, will operators bring their billions to the 5G spectrum auctions?
  3. Will we solve the small cell deployment problem? Small cell deployments have been growing nicely, but we need a great leap forward to meet the requirements of Next Gen. After the recent setback in California, what’s going to break the logjam?
  4. How real is CBRS, and when will we see service? I’ve been involved in this area and am feeling mixed right now. On the one hand, operators who were skeptical a year ago have come around. This is a good chunk of spectrum with the potential for real business model innovation. But it has become politicized in the debate around serving areas and license time frame, among other issues, and I’m fearing K Street is taking over. Yes, we need the incumbent operators to participate, but we also want some new, innovative entrants as well.
  5. What will be the go-to-market on LAA? It looks like we will see some LAA deployments in 2018, and it could be a key part of delivering the Gigabit LTE experience. But I’m a little confused as to what the user experience will look like. Will LAA just sort of operate in the background, delivering more capacity and speed boosts in certain contexts? Will the user know when they’re using LAA?
  6. Is the unlimited model forever? Well, we all know that all the UNL plans come with an asterisk anyway. But with Gigabit LTE, LAA and other coming attractions, there’s the opportunity for some greater service differentiation, such as “premium speed” offerings, “speed boost” options and so on. The operators need to find a way to squeeze more revenue out of some of their base, and I’d argue that there need to be some alternatives to the one-size-fits-all plan that prevails today.
  7. Can we do mobility in mmWave? Not gonna name names, but I’ve spent some time recently with some senior executives at major infra suppliers and operators, and I have heard quite opposite things about the ability to deliver mobility in the higher (>25 GHz) spectrum bands. It still might be too early to tell, as I’ll maintain that there’s still a raft of to-be-developed technology for mmWave. But the answer to this question is a huge governor of what spectrum is used for 5G and the “standalone vs. nonstandalone” question.
  8. What technology still needs to be developed for 5G? If you’ve attended some other meetings or conferences about 5G, you’d think that all the technology has been developed for 5G, the radios are ready to deploy, and that we’re just waiting for the ol’ 3GPP to have a few more meetings and check some boxes. That’s actually not the case. There’s actually some pretty important work going on in the labs, especially related to advanced antennas, sizing, beam-forming capabilities and some of the other tricks that are going to make 5G different than 4G. This is a good lunchtime conversation topic.
  9. Will the economics of delivering data change dramatically? Way more important than faster speeds or lower latency, the ability for operators to deliver all that video and VR at a much lower cost per GB (to them) will be the governor of what we can do with wireless going forward. There is no imminent relief to capex requirements and little likelihood of subs paying much more for service than they do now. If you can claim several orders of magnitude on spectral efficiency, you’ve sold me on 5G.
  10. Please help me sort out the IoT network soup. So pretty much all the operators have launched their own LTE-based IoT networks. Plus we’ve got a panoply of unlicensed IoT networks with the hardest to remember acronyms since HSDPA/HSUPA. How do I, as an enterprise, make a decision? Which of these LPWAN networks will be around in a year? How widely available ARE these operator IoT networks, and are they really getting the range we’ve seen in all the PowerPoints and press releases?

See y’all next week in Dallas. And Happy Thanksgiving.

Mark Lowenstein, a leading industry analyst, consultant, and commentator, is Managing Director of Mobile Ecosystem. Click here to subscribe to his free Lens on Wireless monthly newsletter, or follow him on Twitter at @marklowenstein.