What the heck is 5G? The mobile world is just as unsure as we are

The world’s biggest mobile industry group, the GSM Association, released a new report on Monday that takes a crack at defining the next big generational shift in mobile networking technologies, which we’ve come to know as 5G. There’s only one problem: there’s more than one definition of 5G out there.

As the GSMA Intelligence paper (pdf) pointed out, there are two competing views of what 5G should be (no definition or standard has officially been set). The first is a narrow definition that focuses on the creation of a new faster, lower-latency network; i.e. finding 5G’s equivalent of the 4G’s LTE.

The second definition, which the GSMA calls the “hyper-connected vision,” is much more broad. It looks far beyond the specs of the radio network to outline a mobile networking world where old and new wireless technologies blend together, networks and devices become greener and cellular coverage is expanded to cover the globe’s population and the internet of things. Oh, and that’s all in addition to the big bandwidth gains and latency drops core to the first 5G definition.

While both approaches have value, they also both have some inherent limitations, according to Dan Warren, technology director for the GSMA. Under a very narrow definition, 5G doesn’t really address the majority of the world’s needs for mobile data and connectivity. Hitting multigigabit speeds and sub-millisecond latency would not only be difficult, but that would really only be useful for a limited set of applications; for instance, virtual and augmented reality or say a communications intermediary between driverless cars.

SimX CEORyan Ribeira checks on a virtual patient. Photo by Signe Brewster
An example of a possible 5G application: SimX CEORyan Ribeira checks on a virtual patient. Photo by Signe Brewster

As you might expect those types of networks would be available in the big cities of developed countries, pretty much the same places where 4G has taken off. “5G would be about giving people who already have the most even more,” Warren said.

While the narrow definition of 5G may not go far enough, the hyper-connected vision may be overreaching. Many of the technologies researchers are weighing including in the 5G definition are already being deployed today, for instance heterogeneous networking and virtualizing elements of the network in a data center. In addition, some of these requirements, like global coverage and low-power networks, aren’t technology goals, they’re economic ones.

Those goals go beyond what a technical definition or networking standard can feasibly address, but accomplishing all of those things with a single technology will be impossible, Warren said. You can have a 5G network that produces enormous speeds at impeccable timing for smartphones, tablets and laptops. Or you can have a 5G network that delivers low bandwidth at sluggish latency to billions of low-power devices spread over vast coverage areas. What you can’t have is both scenarios on the same network, Warren said.

So what’s wrong with having multiple types of 5G, each addressing a different goal? There could be a high-speed 5G network focused on Silicon Valley power users; a low-speed, inexpensive 5G network targeted at rural areas in emerging markets and even a low-latency, low-power 5G network addressing the internet of things.

The problem is the whole reason for creating terminology like the various “G”s is to provide a simple explanation of complex technology to the public at large. If you make the definition of 5G too broad and varied it doesn’t have any meaning at all to the average person, Warren said. The 5G icon popping up on the connection bar on a smartphone in New York City would mean something entirely different than the same 5G icon popping up on a feature phone in rural India.

networking globe

The GSMA isn’t offering a solution to this problem, just its analysis. What’s very clear, though, is that mobile industry has a lot of soul searching to do before it settles on what the goals for our mobile networks should be.

Sadly, I think the mobile industry is less interested in contemplating 5G than it is in politicking and marketing it. We’ve already had numerous vendors unveil their supposed 5G technologies, and governments have gotten in the game as well: The EU has promised to become the global leader in whatever 5G happens to be. Huawei and Russia’s MegaFon have teamed up to promise 5G networks right in time for the 2018 World Cup, despite the fact that neither company can definitely say what 5G actually is.

The history of 3G and 4G is riddled with examples of carriers and infrastructure vendors inflating their technological prowess, and I expect the same will happen with 5G. Basically 5G will be whatever networks these companies have deployed when the timelines they’ve set expire.