European Union vice president and digital chief Neelie Kroes is in an unenviable position. She’s trying to convince all of Europe to invest in 5G, saying it will be a big creator of jobs, an innovation driver in other sectors like automotive and eHealth and a key component of her plan to unify European carriers under a single regulatory framework.
The problem is neither she nor anyone else can really say what 5G actually is.
At what was perhaps the oddest press conference at Mobile World Congress this year, the technology and research heads of Ericsson, Alcatel-Lucent, Orange and Nokia’s network group all took turns on stage Monday explaining how they couldn’t define 5G. It’s still a network without an identity, and what technologies would eventually come to be known as 5G was anyone’s guess.
Then Kroes took the podium and proceeded to say how crucial 5G was to Europe’s technological future. She promised Europe would not only spearhead development of 5G but would also lead the world in rolling the technology out to the public.
It might sound like I’m making fun of Kroes here, but I’m not. In fact, I’m sympathetic. That seemingly contradictory press conference pretty much sums up what the entire mobile industry is forced to wrestle with as it decides its eventual technology future. This how we make standards. The mobile industry sets goals for what it wants its future networks to accomplish, then it researches the technologies and network architectures that can make those goals reality.
It’s a long, messy, and often very political process, but it’s a necessary one. The problem is when you hold press conferences, where no one has the time the nor inclination to explain that process, they tend to come off farcical. At least all of the participants, which have formed a group called the 5th Generation Public-Private Partnership Association, are being honest. The worst thing they could do is come up with an arbitrary definition for 5G solely for the sake of marketing.
Figuring out what 5G will actually mean as actually turning out to be quite an overarching theme in MWC. The headlines might focus on Samsung’s anticipated Galaxy S 5 or Nokia’s new Android phone, but in the auditoriums and booths a lot of the chatter centers on 5G.
All of the major infrastructure vendors offered up their own ideas for what 5G could look like, and frankly there was some awfully cool technology discussed, from ultra-dense networks to networks that harvest their power from surrounding radio waves. The carrier organization Next Generation Mobile Network Alliance (NGMN) unveiled its own 5G project, joining a growing list of groups tackling the 5G quandary. I even took part, helping moderate a 5G panel on the future carrier network architectures.
As for Kroes, her appearance at MWC seemed more photo opp than policy event. But I don’t doubt her core logic. It’s entirely possible to commit to 5G leadership even without fully know where that commitment might take you. We know for certain that our current mobile network technologies have a limited shelf life and that there are still key issues to tackle.
The price we pay today to consume a gigabyte of data is just too expensive. After four generations, our mobile networks still drop calls, demonstrate incredible inconsistency in speed and our mobile broadband connections often disappear once we reach a city’s limits. There are plenty of problems a new generation of networking technology can fix, so I say let the wonderful farce begin.