Surprise! Turns out 5G is not as far as away as it looks

5G now
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If it feels like 5G is coming faster than you thought it would, that’s because it is, according to Ericsson’s 5G Readiness Survey 2017 report.

According to the report, 78% of operators surveyed said they are already trialing 5G technologies (vs 32% in 2016), and 28% expect to deploy 5G next year. Meanwhile, 36% say they have a clear strategy in place for addressing industry segments, (double from last year) and the same percentage say they have a clear strategy in place for 5G business models (compared to 21% in 2016).

Now, the press release from Ericsson about the report is one of those things you have to read very, very carefully, because what the headline and lead paragraphs don’t say – and you have to scroll all the way down to the next-to-last paragraph to find this out – is that the above figures represent the percentage of operators surveyed for the report, not the percentage of operators globally.

More specifically, the survey covered “50 executives in business and technical areas” representing “37 operators globally that have announced publicly they are working on 5G.”

Considering that there are 644 operators currently running LTE or LTE-A networks in the world (according to fresh stats released by the Global mobile Suppliers Association [GSA]), a survey covering just 37 cellcos (all of which are already working on 5G) doesn’t exactly indicate a massive acceleration of activity.

But that’s not to say there hasn’t been an acceleration. Certainly the Ericsson report makes clear that even within its sample base, the numbers for 2017 are significantly higher than last year.

Over in the GSA stats universe, 103 cellcos are investing in 5G in some for or other (demos, tests and trials of one or more technologies), while 32 cellcos in 23 countries have committed publicly to deploying at least pre-standard 5G. All those numbers are higher than a year ago as well.

Stats aside, there does seem to be a big push by operators to get moving on the next “G” now. Cellcos in developed markets who were looking at 2020-2021 as a realistic timeframe are now looking at 2019-2020. Two years ago, operators in developing markets were saying they saw no need for 5G until at least 2022 or later. Now some – like India – are keen to get cracking now to be at least “5G-ready” in time for 2020.

What’s going on here? As near as I can tell – and based on official comments and informal off-the-record chitchat at TechXLR8’s 5G Asia event in Singapore – the reason is pretty straightforward.

Put simply, mobile data usage is getting heavier every day, and with AR/VR and 4K/8K video coming down the road, some cellcos are realizing that eventually (meaning the next few years) LTE is going to run out of room faster than they thought.

We saw a similar phenomenon with 4G, you may recall. In the mid to late 2000s, when work was ongoing in the 3GPP to standardize LTE, the original target year to complete the standard was around 2011. Thanks largely to the emergence of the iPhone and the sudden surge of mobile data usage that followed, operators discovered their puny 3G networks (whether W-CDMA or cdma2000 1x) wouldn’t hold for long, and the industry scrambled to develop LTE sooner. The 3GPP froze the first LTE standard (Release 8) in December 2008 and signed off on it in March 2009 – two years ahead of schedule.

The same thing appears to be now happening with 5G. We’ve already seen the 3GPP pressured to speed up work on 5G NR, which is why they have agreed to release the Non-Standalone (NSA) version – that is, the version that relies on existing LTE infrastructure to work – in March 2018. That will enable LTE operators to get started on 5G sooner.

It’s also worth noting that LTE itself is being upgraded to the max – so much so that SK Telecom and Nokia recently announced they reduced device-to-base station round-trip latency on an LTE network to 2ms – just a tad short of the ITU’s benchmark of 1ms for 5G.

So perhaps we will indeed see 5G arrive sooner than expected – even if it’s mainly a few hotspots backed by souped-up LTE. Or in some cases, cellcos will be more “5G ready” than literally 5G. But close enough for marketing purposes.

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