Huawei says it will have 5G by 2020. Maybe it will sell jetpacks and invent cold fusion too

Huawei conference booth

This week Huawei CEO Ken Hu claimed in a contributed column in Forbes and in other interviews that his company would develop commercial “5G” networks by 2020. That’s a pretty amazing claim considering 5G only exists as a mere concept today.

Sure, you’ve probably heard the term 5G tossed around here and there, including on GigaOM, but there’s a lot of misinformation out there. 5G isn’t LTE-Advanced (and what most people are calling LTE-Advanced isn’t even LTE-Advanced). It’s not a standard. It’s not a benchmark. It’s just a vague idea gradually taking concrete shape. It’s an idea being pursued by thousands of extremely smart engineers and researchers around the world, but certainly nothing Huawei can define and place production goals on. Hu is aiming at a non-existent target.

Huawei CEO Ken HuHu is simply grubbing for headlines, and he’s doing a horrible disservice to the mobile industry in which Huawei is a leader (Samsung’s not much better). According to Hu, 5G is defined as a network that achieves data rates of 10 Gbps, one hundred times faster than any 4G network deployed today. That may sound impressive,  but Hu has reduced 5G to a mere speed equation. He’s saying the greatest advancement we’re going to make in mobile networking technology is one of pure throughput.

The people trying to define what 5G actually means couldn’t disagree more.

What 5G could — and should — be

Earlier this year I talked to Tod Sizer, a vice president of Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs, which — along with Huawei — is engaged in global wireless research efforts that could eventually produce an official definition for 5G. When I asked what Sizer to name promising research areas, he said many researchers are looking into ways to make networks slower, not faster.

regional mobile carrierSpeed is certainly nice, and we’ll definitely experience big gains in raw throughput as networks evolve, Sizer said, but the fast-at-all-costs mentality is counterproductive to the types of networks we’ll actually need in the future. As we build the internet of things, billions upon billions of devices will start sporting radio connectivity, outnumbering our smartphones and tablets by a factor of 50 to one. The most efficient way to connect all of those devices is with networks engineered to deliver minutes amount of bandwidth over millions of links, Sizer said.

As we build those different subsets of networks, we’ll be able to optimize not just devices but apps for different connections. When we’re downloading that HD video to our futuristic tablet’s wall projector we’ll tap into Huawei’s über-fast network, but when we’re simply sending messages over a chat app, we can hook into a slower, higher-latency network that can deliver that data far more efficiently.

Different types of connections will come with different price tags (Wi-Fi is the ultimate example of that), and by building networks that don’t just focus on raw speed, we’ll be able to deliver different types of content more cheaply, ensuring that more people have access to basic mobile internet services. We’ll be exploring these new network architectures in greater detail at GigaOM’s Mobilize conference conference in October.

Those ideas are what Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg seemed to key in on when he launched Internet.org last week — to make the mobile internet better we need to make it much more efficient. In fact, whenever the Silicon Valley heavyweights chime in on future mobile networking technologies they aren’t talking about fat pipes. Google’s Project Loon isn’t about blistering speeds, it’s about supplying 3G-type connectivity to the must underserved regions on Earth.

Project Loon

Say what you will about their motives, but Google and Facebook have their priorities straight when it comes to the direction of our mobile technologies should take, and I believe the rest of the mobile industry shares the same goals.

5G shouldn’t be about mere speed. 5G should be about building more resilient, more consistent, more available networks that not only support tremendous amounts of capacity but delivers connectivity at a fraction of its cost today.

Deep down, Huawei probably shares those exact same goals. But Hu’s misappropriation of the term 5G  just clouds the issues. It sets the wrong priorities and minimizes the actual innovation the mobile industry is trying to accomplish.

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