We all expect 5G to be one of the major themes at Mobile World Congress 2016 next week. Even though 'actual' 5G is still years away (and less than half the world isn't yet on 4G), we are in a period where discussions are intensifying, R&D dollars are being directed, operators are starting to announce trials, and the standards bodies are starting to do some serious work on the issue. So far, much of the discussion is industry-centric, as in, us talking to ourselves.
One element that I believe has been lacking in these early innings of 5G is a discussion of the consumer. What are they looking for in a next-generation wireless network? The trite answer, of course, is the wireless equivalent of citius, altius, fortius. But since we're starting to lay the foundation for what the mobile network experience will look like for the better part of the 2020s, what are the big picture elements here? And how does this relate to fixed broadband, for which the vast majority of mobile subscribers still have a separate subscription?
Here are a few thoughts on what the consumer wants from 5G – and it's not all about gigabit speeds and killer latency.
A More Consistent, Predictable Experience. At its best, and with the LTE-A roadmap, today's 4G networks rival fixed broadband speeds and performance. But that experience is far from ubiquitous, and is both unpredictable and uneven. Stand on a street corner today, and your data speeds might be very different than they were at the same location yesterday. There are many variables and conditions that cause this inconsistency. But I'd bet that most consumers would trade off some level of performance for a more dependable experience.
Accommodation of Multiple Devices and Things. On the industry's side, a lot of work is going into how to accommodate "billions of things," with their varying connectivity and power requirements. We need to start thinking about what this will look like from the perspective of the user. How easy will it be to simply add a device to the network (or networks)? How will security be handled? How will we track all these devices and their varying connectivity requirements?
A very different price structure. Today's usage-centric pricing structure will become outmoded as we start connecting a lot more 'things,' with varying requirements, to the network. Since wireless data will remain capacity limited and relatively expensive to provide, it's hard to envision the flat-fee type structure of today's fixed network. But we also can't maintain a structure where it's $5-$10 for each additional 'device,' with expensive usage fees for data on top of that. The industry is starting to figure this out in the current 4G environment, particularly for machine-to-machine type communications and some industrial IoT sectors. But for cars, connected homes and multiple connected consumer devices, we will have to move to a different model.
More Favorable Economics. In some of the initial discussions of 5G, I don't think we have spent enough time thinking about the economics of wireless data. It's great to promise 1 GB or even 10 GB connectivity, and to look at the Cisco and Ericsson forecasts for 100x greater data consumption trends by early next decade. But at the same time, we know that our wages, wallets, and budgets aren't going to experience that sort of growth. So…does the 5G (or even the 4G) roadmap promise a significant reduction in the cost to deliver data, so users can afford the significant increases in consumption that are forecast?
Much Greater Intelligence About Networks and Connectivity. There might be a new RAN for 5G built in the higher GB bands, but the vision for 5G also incorporates today's 4G networks, as well as LTE and Wi-Fi in the unlicensed bands. The 5 Gbps and 1 millisecond latency of 5G will be available in certain locations or contexts, but will certainly not be ubiquitous. Users and devices will be constantly moving between multiple network and connectivity requirements and scenarios – licensed and unlicensed, fixed and mobile, macro cells and small cells. From the perspective of the user, the most important aspect of a next generation wireless network will the ability to seamlessly deliver an always-best-connected experience, for the most favorable economics, for a particular context.
A Contextual Network. Building on the point above, users will want less of a one-size-fits-all network. Sometimes, they'll need a very low-latency experience to accommodate an AR/VR application. In other cases, they'll want a speed burst so they can watch that ultra HD film. And in other cases they'll want some low-speed, low power WAN redundancy for devices that are connected on home or office Wi-Fi. They'll have different requirements when they're in a fixed location compared to when they're mobile. There will be networks that can deliver a great experience for each of these different contexts. The challenge will be how to adjust for these contexts, how to move between them, and what business models makes sense for the service provider and the user.
- What About Fixed Broadband? Most LTE subscribers, particularly in developed economies, still maintain a separate fixed broadband subscription. With average household consumption easily exceeding 100 GB per month, and growing to at least 5x that by 2020, it's hard to envision fixed networks going away. And with DOCSIS 3.1, more fiber, and G.fast, there's a 'next generation' for fixed broadband networks too. But given the promises of 5G, particularly in denser urban areas, there might be a re-think of today's separate, and pricey, fixed and mobile data subscriptions. Will mobile replaced fixed altogether? Probably not. Will there be more substitution? Yes. The most likely scenario, over the next 10 years, is that the relationship between mobile and fixed becomes more intertwined. Growth in small cells, which is a foundation of next generation wireless networks, is certainly predicated upon that.
Now, I anticipate some pushback from readers that a lot of the above points have little to do specifically with 5G and can be accommodated within the 4G roadmap. My response to this is that 5G will not exist in isolation. 5G is as much about the relationship with other networks as it is about performance metrics in the high GHz bands. So it's important to get these issues out in a 'network of the future' discussion that incorporates 5G.
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.