5G is real, but it’s also needlessly confusing: white paper

5G confusing
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5G is a commercial reality, but it’s also a confusing one for consumers and enterprises. The 5G ecosystem needs clarity on what 5G can deliver today and what future releases will enable, says a new IHS Markit white paper.

This month’s silly spectacle of Verizon and SK Telecom arguing over who launched the first 5G network in the world obscured a rather important point – 5G is finally, officially, at long last a thing. Which is to say it is something consumers can actually purchase and use with a device that is not a hotspot or a home broadband router.

That’s great. However, while the mobile industry is slapping itself on the back and congratulating itself on having delivered on its long-promised 5G vision, there’s still the small problem that it actually hasn’t delivered that vision – not yet.

Remember that the 5G Vision™ is the one where literally everything on the planet is connected, automated, autonomous and intelligent. It’s the vision where Industry 4.0 is in full swing, the entire network is software-driven and cloud-based, autonomous cars rule the road, we can watch sports events from every angle in virtual reality, holograms will be the new FaceTime, doctors will perform telesurgery, connected homes will be smarter than we are, and municipal services will be automated and efficient. Oh, and we’ll all be getting data speeds of at least 10 Gbps.

That 5G is still some time off. Certainly we’ve seen demos of all of the above, but right now, live 5G is little more than a data-speed boost in certain parts of certain cities, and commercial handset selection is currently limited to a proper 5G phone and a phone that requires a clip-on.

The distinction isn’t just jaded tech-journo snark (well, okay, it is a little) – it’s important because 5G’s success doesn’t depend entirely on the operator that’s rolling it out. It also depends on the vast ecosystem of consumers, enterprises, cities, content developers and other stakeholders who are expected to take advantage of 5G’s growth opportunities.

Consequently, says a new white paper from IHS Markit, it’s crucial for operators and the ecosystem at large that everyone has a clear idea of what 5G is capable of right now, and what it will be capable of in future, and plan accordingly.

5G land of confusion

IHS Markit VP Francis Sideco said that while the marketplace implicitly understands the unprecedented growth opportunity 5G represents, “fewer people understand the iterative nature of major technology rollouts such as the one we are going through now with 5G – a process involving multiple major updates that will add new capabilities in the coming years. With each of these updates having the potential to significantly disrupt the market’s competitive dynamics, it’s critical for companies to clearly understand the implications of each rollout or risk falling behind the competition.”

According to the white paper, the 5G landscape is already a confusing and contradictory one, with “varied and sometimes conflicting interpretations of what 5G is and what to expect from it”. The obvious benchmark for what is 5G now is literally the standard being implemented now: 3GPP Release 15, which is Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G that supports carrier aggregation, carrier bandwidths up to 100 MHz below 6 GHz and up to 400 MHz above 6 GHz, support for both digital and analog beamforming and variable subcarrier spacing, among other things.

The problem, IHS Markit says, is that while there are several use cases being touted for 5G, such as home broadband, enhanced mobile broadband, massive IoT connectivity and mission-critical connectivity (autonomous cars, drones, etc), current Release 15 rollouts are focused primarily on the first two.

Also, the services and experience that operators can deliver with their current 5G offerings varies widely depending on how much spectrum they have – not just 5G-designated bands like 3.5 GHz or 28 GHz (the latter of which presents serious propagation challenges), but other bands that they can pilfer for carrier aggregation. (To be clear, it’s not just about having spectrum in those bands, but how much of it you have, and how much of it you can spare for CA purposes.)

Phased evolution

Meanwhile, the white paper says, while 5G’s initial speed boosts will be welcome, it won’t change very much. Yes, 5G has massive potential as a truly disruptive technology that will transform business models and our daily lives and create new opportunities and innovation – but we’re not there yet. Release 15 is only the first step of a multi-year evolution path – all the really transformative stuff will be gradually enabled by subsequent releases over the next few years, and each release will present new challenges for both the mobile industry and the cross-industrial ecosystem that’s expected to adopt 5G, says Sideco.

“For companies throughout the technology supply chain – from network operators, to smartphone brands, to industrial and automotive device manufacturers and electronics suppliers – it will become increasingly important to understand the changes brought by each phase of the 5G deployment and to be ready to capitalize on the latest capabilities to gain a competitive advantage,” he said.

The key term there is “competitive advantage”. The “winners” in 5G aren’t necessarily going to be the operators who launch it first – it will be the ones who make it clear to current and future customers what its 5G network can do today (not five years from now), launch services matching those capabilities, and then do that with each subsequent standards upgrade.

Or, you know, you could just hype the hell out of it and take your chances.

In any case, the white paper has a lot more detail and can be downloaded here.

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