You say tomato, I say 5G

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

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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.

12 Responses to “What the heck is 5G? The mobile world is just as unsure as we are”

  1. 5G is mushy right now because it lacks the technology element that defined 3G and 4G. 3G was about using something like CDMA or OFDM to increase throughput, and 4G was about using OFDMA or MIMO and small cells to increase it even more. There’s no killer technology on the horizon to use as a base for 5G, so the industry is trying to figure out what the next crucial need might be.

    Because mobile networks use shared spectrum, there’s not really conflict between features that increase signaling rates and those that make cheap networking available to narrowband devices except power efficiency. If IoT devices are going to be plugged in or are going to use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, 5G’s power efficiency doesn’t matter all that much.

    LTE and LTE Advanced are so sophisticated that they won’t run their course for many years, so it’s appropriate to take the time to reflect on what the user needs really are. The US allocates spectrum so inefficiently – too much in government hands – that we may see a divergence between the US and the rest of the world if we don’t get our act together on clearing government bands and transferring more spectrum to the private sector.

  2. Lindsay Scott

    The phrase that strikes me the most in this article is Warren mentioning that “5G would be about giving people who already have the most even more.” Innovation is necessary, no doubt. It will open new doors for everyone, and in that sense, we should encourage the advancement of developing 5G. But Warren’s point shouldn’t be taken lightly either. While we race ahead with new innovations, we need to remember that there are billions of people still not even connected to the internet…at all! This is why it’s important that Google (with Project Loon) and Facebook (with are focusing on getting the rest of the world connected. We need to imagine a world with more equality, more opportunity, and more people able to contribute. This can only happen if we ALSO concentrate on innovations for the populations that don’t already “have the most.”

    You mention that the vision for 5G will be a “hyper-connected vision” where old and new technologies blend together. I would like to mention here that at present, Be-Bound offers a hybrid technology that allows people to access the internet in places where there is no WiFi or 3G. This is an example that is making a difference to populations today, and has used the concept of blending old and new technologies.

    Take a look!

    • Derek Kerton

      I shudder to use the term “trickle down”, so I won’t.

      But to your “This can only happen if we ALSO concentrate on innovations for the populations that don’t already “have the most.” I disagree.

      Specific innovations for those parts of the world will most likely COME from those parts of the world, because necessity is the mother of invention. To say it can “only” happen if we provide it is mistakenly arrogant.

      Meanwhile, the biggest gains the developing world has ever seen from technology have been as the secondary market for products originally designed for the wealthiest parts of the world. In the context of the “G” telecom discussion, the developing world is now becoming blanketed in 2G technology. This is very 1998 to you or I, but the delay gap is significantly lower than other historic and important tech, like steel forging, rail, telephone, automobile, medicine, clean water, etc. Sewer technology, for example, is hardly new, and still hardly ubiquitous around the world.

      Frankly, telecom tech is exported to the bottom of the pyramid MUCH faster than just about everything else. The sooner we get to 5G, the sooner low-income nations get 4G.

      Good work with Be-bound!

  3. john q public

    To fraudulent companies like tmobile, 5g equals unlimited data. When you have an unlimited plan, they lie through their teeth and throttle it down to an unusable speed after 5gigs are used. Just more lies, fraud and malfeasance from the ecperts: tmobile.

  4. scotteslater

    5 GEE WHIZ

    The exhausted capacity of physical networks in major markets, the physics and limited licensed spectrum controlled by a few carriers coupled with a lack of regulatory oversight seem like the 5,000 lb gorillas in this room. Wireless networks are dependent on the effective throughput of physical networks . It is not hard to obfuscate the real issues. Technology vision is not the issue. Future wireless development and decisions are not simple. Traffic is outstripping infrastructure – The world has been turned upside down by the internet, yet Institutions like the FCC have not adopted rule making to reflect this reality as it acts and reacts like it is in the pocket of the same 4 unrelated Titles that argued to deregulate broadband and then classify wireless as “broadband”, as well.

    When broadband was deregulated, there was no iPhone, no social media, no Netflix, No Amazon and no 3 billion mobile devices. The voice of the market is no longer effectively represented and the arguments for deregulation fail in the economic daylight of the real world today. WIreless development is fundamentally tied to physical broadband deployment. Connectivity is a function of both fixed and wireless inter-related connectivity and dimensions.

    Do you know anyone (other than Google fiber customers) that is not experiencing limited bandwidth access from both their fixed and wireless service providers?

    Re-regulate, re-think and re-imagine first. Otherwise, all 5G will deliver is 5X the cost.

  5. i would actually like to see the technology evolution slow down a bit to give time for carrier ARPU to drop as current equipment gets paid for and the focus shifts to price competition. that would actually allow for new and creative uses for mobile broadband and more affordable service for everyone.

  6. Steve Dallas

    Suggest an edit here:

    “We’ve already had numerous vendors unveil they’re supposed 5G technologies, and governments have gotten in the game as well:”

  7. It should be about cost, speed is irrelevant if you can’t afford to use it and nobody actually can at this point. Doesn’t matter if it’s 100$ for 10GB in the US for LTE or 3$ for 5GB in some developing nation for 3G, it’s just very little data that people can afford.
    We need , just for the start, 1TB at 100$ even if the speed is just enough to stream 4k video.
    We don’t need an electric Ferrari with a 5 mile range (that’s what LTE is), we need at least a BMW i3 for now. Current technology might have been enough for the times before the smartphone boom but it’s utterly unfit for today.
    Bundling everything together is how some players want to create revenue not about what is needed. Qualcomm, the carriers are interested in something like that only because they would make a lot more money, has nothing to do with what we need. What we really need is to get rid of teh carriers but almost nobody has the courage to openly work towards that.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hey JJJ,

      Thanks for commenting. How do your propose getting rid of the carriers? Wouldn’t the people running the networks replacing them, just become carriers with the same services and economic motivations? Or are you proposing that we have a completely different kind of carrier? I agree that a company like a Google might approach the mobile access market much differently than say Verizon, but would it would still be selling megabytes and megabits per second right?