The coming world of 5G promises much: Badly needed new spectrum, increased capacity, huge advances in throughput and ultra-low latency for mission critical services. Many operators are in an advanced phase of trials with pre-standard service launches likely in 2018 from carriers such as Verizon and South Korea’s KT.
But despite the 5G promise, 4G still has much to offer. Investment in LTE remains substantial as operators seek to maximize existing network investments and deliver capacity and performance gains.
Perhaps rightly, many are asking why the industry is becoming so obsessed with 5G. This is understandable given the capital investment involved and that use cases like autonomous cars and remote patient surgery seem some distance over the horizon.
5G is much less urgently needed than 4G was
I’d argue we need to avoid taking an overly arbitrary view on how we get to 5G. The situation is very different from the 3G to 4G transition. The industry desperately needed LTE to address issues of capacity, spectral efficiency and throughput. The rapid growth of app usage and the early demands of video on mobile networks meant carriers had to invest in 4G to address near term customer usage.
In 2016 it’s different. The LTE roadmap still has plenty of headroom to accommodate demands over the next few years, be it for low-power, wide-area use cases or bandwidth-intensive applications such as video.
This doesn’t mean that 5G isn’t important, but the dynamics that characterized previous generation transitions aren’t applicable in 2016. It’s clear that 5G is a critical step forward. It opens up much-needed spectrum to support growing data demands and deliver speeds in excess of 5GHz while simultaneously offering improved spectral efficiency and cost per bit.
LTE can fill the gap
All this will take time – for standards to be developed, for globally harmonized spectrum to be embraced, for spectrum to become available and for networks to be deployed with sufficient coverage. LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro play a central role in laying the foundations for 5G.
This is important given that many initial implementations of 5G, at least outside of Europe, will focus on mmWave spectrum with propagation limitations. We can already see this taking shape with Qualcomm’s recent launch of the first 5G modem (Snapdragon X50) for the 28GHz band.
LTE’s characteristics will also heavily define 5G as part of the standardization process. These include OFDMA, carrier aggregation, full dimension MIMO, 256 QAM, LAA / eLAA and MulteFIRE. It’s reassuring to see LTE Advanced Pro gaining momentum and the industry avoiding the pitfalls of a preoccupation with 5G in isolation from its predecessor.
An example is NB-IoT. The advent of Cat-M1 and Cat-NB1 means LTE now has the means to address low-power, wide-area use cases with the advantages of cost, scale and quality of service relative to proprietary alternatives. Not only will NB-IoT heavily define narrowband in 5G, it will be responsible for the growth of IoT over the next five to eight years given that narrowband 5G won’t be standardized until 3GPP Release 16.
Similarly, the launch of Gigabit LTE in 2017 is critical to providing the speed, performance and coverage required for LTE to support 5G. We expect operators to rapidly deploy LTE Advanced Pro in 2017, using three- and even four-carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO and 256 QAM to achieve downlink speeds approaching 1 Gbps.
Telstra’s launch of a mobile hotspot device in partnership with Netgear and Qualcomm is the first of such moves and we can expect near gigabit speeds in flagship smartphones in 2H17.
The coming world of 5G promises huge advances in of speed, capacity and low latency. Of course, inevitable and sizeable challenges come along with this transition relating to cost, spectrum and technology. However, LTE is laying a foundation and is an integral part of what the next generation network becomes. The development of 5G is well underway and those that are defining 4G stand to play a central role in the next phase.
Geoff Blaber is Vice President of Research for the Americas at CCS Insight. Based in California, Blaber heads CCS Insight’s Americas business and supports the range of clients located in this territory. Blaber's research focus spans a broad spectrum of mobility and technology, including the lead role in semiconductors. He is a well-known member of the analyst community and provides regular commentary to leading news organizations such as Reuters, the Financial Times and The Economist. You can follow him on Twitter @geoffblaber.