5G: The Most Nebulous Telco Term Ever?

Born of the identity crisis that afflicts telcos, the haziness surrounding 5G is not helping anyone.

Iain Morris, International Editor

August 16, 2016

4 Min Read
5G: The Most Nebulous Telco Term Ever?

Which word or phrase springs to mind when you think of 5G? I suspect the radio brigade will choose descriptors such as "superfast" or "low latency," while those with an interest in software and virtualization will plump for "agile" or even "network slicing," which -- until recently -- sounded like something copper thieves would do.

For me, though, it's "nebulous." In fact, I'm struggling to think of a telecom term that has ever been hazier in its meaning. We came fairly close to this with 4.5G, which seemed to describe different things to different players, and has now been more or less dropped from the telco lexicon. With 5G, though, we have an assortment of technologies -- massive MIMO, an OFDM-based air interface, elements of SDN and NFV -- that are fostering confusion. Companies have proudly advertised their 5G R&D efforts when they might have carried out tests in only one of these areas.

As a term with a clear definition, then, 5G is being enfeebled through imprecision. Like George Foreman in Kinshasa, its promoters have been futilely punching off-target for so long they're almost spent. Indeed, so vague has the 5G term become that it must seem to encompass just about anything to do with telecom to some market watchers.

No doubt, involving all parts of the telecom "community" in 5G development is a good thing. Heavy Reading's own analysts have called for more joined-up thinking on 5G. It makes no sense to have turbo-charged radio networks if there is no fiber backhaul to cope with all that traffic, for instance.

The trouble is that all the haziness surrounding 5G has given operators sufficient leeway to publicize almost any network move as a 5G one. And several players in Asia and North America have been guilty of such 5G gimmickry. (See 5G Needs More Joined-Up Thinking – Heavy Reading.)

Want to know more about 5G? Check out our dedicated 5G content channel
here on Light Reading.

The danger is that imprecision leads to further confusion -- if not among executives then certainly among consumers. Not everyone in the industry is a technology boffin, after all, and even some engineers seem nonplussed. One former radio communications executive -- who has long worked in a far less technical consulting role in telecom -- recently confessed to me his bafflement that a new air interface could begin to address the diversity of services being discussed in a 5G context.

The point is not that it can't, but that all the fuzziness around 5G -- outside the parameters of the standardization process -- has obscured some of the important details to the interested observer. It is not hard to see how this kind of thing could upset business planning in telecom and adjacent industries that might expect to benefit from 5G.

Which brings us on to the consumer. As far as I'm aware, no operator has yet started to market any of its various offerings as 5G services, but it cannot be long before that happens. I seem to recall T-Mobile US Inc. promoting HSPA as a 4G technology when it was patently no such thing. So it's probably unavoidable that a lot of high-speed, low-latency services trialed with or sold to consumers in the next couple of years will carry a 5G label. By the time we get real 5G -- whatever that turns out to be -- the term may have lost any cachet.

All of this is perhaps symptomatic of the malaise that grips the industry. As web-scale players march deeper into telco territory, operators are suffering an identity crisis. They're largely averse to being seen as "dumb pipes" that merely prop up more exciting service companies. Yet they've failed to convincingly demonstrate how investments in software, virtualization and higher-speed access networks will make them anything but very efficient infrastructure players.

Instead of explanation and detail, we now have obfuscation and generality. Technologies are being glossed over as agents of organizational change that will -- in some deliberately unspecified way -- counter the challenge from Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and others. And 5G is the most sumptuously garbed of them all. When the outfit drops away, and the bare truths are revealed, operators may have to give up their equivocation once and for all.

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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