At the 2020 Vision Executive Summit in Prague we were warned that there is still a lot of work to do before we can live the 5G dream.
In his 5G state of the industry report Gabriel Brown, Analyst at Heavy Reading, reflected on the fact that operator CEOs are very much in the expectation management phase for 5G. Brown’s assessment tallied with the downbeat tone from operators at a recent Huawei 5G event, which signifies a desire by the industry try to put the hype genie back in the bottle.
Brown noted this is the fourth year in a row he has spoken about 5G at this Summit. In 2014 it was all about the kind of utopian use-cases that the industry was still banging on about at MWC this year, and a year later it was flashy new enabling technologies such as SDN. Last year things started to get real, regarding standardization, and Brown reckons this year has been the most productive yet, culminating in the freezing of the first ‘early-drop’ standard for non-standalone new radio (NSA NR) next week. It even has a new logo!
But the move from the theoretical phase to the practical one has also resulted in some harsh truths hitting home. Now that we have a clearer vision of the technologies that will comprise early 5G it has become clear that, despite the very diverse performance requirements we have for 5G, at the end of the day its will be much more about boring old efficiencies than the utopian stuff everyone has been getting so excited about.
Early illustrations of this are the initial 5G implementations such as the recent Verizon announcement that it’s thinking of doing something ill-defined in the area of fixed wireless access next year that it is branding 5G. The market seemed to be somewhat underwhelmed by this, which history may view as the first of many 5G anti-climaxes.
The serious mid-term 5G action will be all about New Radio, but Brown expressed concern about the decision to launch a non-standalone version, i.e. still using some 4G infrastructure, first. The big issue will be when standalone becomes a reality; how will we then integrate the NSA bit? There remains a lot of uncertainty around this, which is likely to cause a lot of future pain and most probably cause significant hesitation in taking the plunge with NSA.
One of Brown’s slides (above) nicely illustrated how intimidatingly complex full-fat 5G will be to implement. A member of the audience asked which components of 5G need to be put in place first and Brown said operators are unlikely to make big 5G investments until there are a significant number of devices with 5G modems in circulation. Brown noted that both Qualcomm and Intel have been talking up their 5G modems, which makes it likely we will see them in devices in a year or so.
While it’s laudable that the industry is undergoing a somewhat belated reality check on 5G it does beg a somewhat ominous question. An illustration of the telecoms industry’s current existential crisis is the absence of big kit vendors from this event, with previous multiple-sponsor Cisco’s non-appearance especially notable. If 5G is no longer the light at the end of the cyclical tunnel that many has hoped it would be then what else is there to cling to?