Verizon, AT&T, Ericsson expect pre-standard 5G deployments to feed into official standards

LAS VEGAS -- Just as was the case with 4G, expect wireless carriers to market their networks as "5G" even before the industry has standardized such next-generation networks, according to a senior AT&T (NYSE: T) executive.

AT&T, Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ), Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) and other key industry players expect carriers and vendors to work on pre-5G technologies before standards are finalized in 2018 and 2019 ahead of commercial deployments of standardized 5G networks in 2020 and beyond. Executives from the companies said that even if it might be confusing for consumers they think that will be a positive development since the work will flow into the standards-setting process.

Those were some of the key takeaways from FierceWireless' breakfast panel, "Behind the 5G Crusade: How to Define and Deliver the Next Generation of Wireless," held in conjunction with CTIA's Super Mobility conference.

Tom Keathley, AT&T's senior vice president of network and product planning, said "we probably will" when asked if the market would see carriers market different network technologies as 5G and say that their competitors' networks were not 5G. That dynamic played out several years ago when different carriers called HSPA+ "4G," while LTE and WiMAX also competed for the term, before the International Telecommunications Union set a standard for 4G.

Keathley said that "generally, these are marketing items more than technology items," adding that "it is a bit confusing." However, he said that LTE releases expected in 2018 and 2019 will start to incorporate many 5G elements and that the work carriers will do between now and 2020 "can feed into standards."

Earlier this week, Verizon was working with partners Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Ericsson, Cisco, Nokia (NYSE:NOK), Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and Samsung to test 5G in the company's innovation centers in Waltham, Mass., and San Francisco. The technology field trials are expected to begin in 2016. Adam Koeppe, Verizon's vice president of network technology and planning, said Verizon's goal for next year is take the work on some 5G technologies and test them in the field in real-world networks as quickly as possible -- even though there is no clear definition of which technologies 5G will ultimately include. 

Koeppe said Verizon wants to "kick the tires and start understanding different paths our partners [are] going down to develop 5G technology." He said Verizon is going to test different wave forms and air interfaces, and that the carrier wants to "leverage that innovation and really be at the forefront of trying it out in the field."

"We just don't want to wait for 2020 to have an idea of what this should be become, how this should be used and how it can benefit the customers," Koeppe added.

Keathley said that AT&T will continue testing new applications and air interfaces in its foundries, but said it was premature to say when AT&T might conduct 5G testing and trials.

Glenn Laxdal, Ericsson North America's CTO and head of strategy, said it doesn't concern Ericsson that vendors and carriers are marketing technologies as "5G-ready." He said that 5G will represent a "pretty significant transformation" from 4G networks and will have two main components.

One is going to be backward compatibility with LTE networks and billions of LTE devices to allow them to communicate with 5G networks, since Laxdal said Ericsson expects 4 billion LTE connections by 2020. The other component of 5G will be future-looking innovations, and Ericsson sees "the virtualized core network as being a fundamental part of the 5G air interface network," Laxdal said. He said that virtualizing networks through Software-Defined Networking and Network Functions Virtualization will help "plant the seeds for some of the capabilities that are going to emerge in 5G earlier than the 2020 timeframe."  

Verizon's Koeppe said that virtualized Radio Access Networks will be key parts of 5G networks, as will the push to low-power and low-throughput technologies for the Internet of Things, such as LT Cat 1, Cat 0 and Cat M, the last of which is expected to hit the market in 2017.  "You'll have a lot of things that coincide with all of this development that can be building blocks," Koeppe said.

Koeppe added that Verizon is going to be focused on "finding business problems and customer problems to solve" and that Verizon will deploy pre-standardized 5G technologies if it needs to ahead of final standards to solve those problems. 

Ashish Singh, general manager and vice president of products at SK Telecom Americas, said that 5G networks will be based around use-case-centric applications, with some technologies coming online to support those use cases before standards are finished. "The goal is to start solving these use cases by the time these standards catch up," he said, adding that such work will feed into the official 3GPP standards.

Laxdal said that along with virtualization, what Ericsson terms "network slicing," which creates an optimized network environment for each and every service, will be key, as carriers focus on programmable networks.

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