5G Faces a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Telecom bosses love to associate technology innovation with the glitz of major sports events. Operators in South Korea plan to showcase 5G at next year's Winter Olympics, while Japan's will do the same at Tokyo's Summer Games in 2020. Asked at the recent Mobile World Congress if Europe needed a similar event to demonstrate its own 5G prowess, Timotheus Höttges, the CEO of Germany's Deutsche Telekom, could barely keep his long-limbed enthusiasm for the idea in check.

Even in the absence of a sports fixture, industry stakeholders cannot resist reaching for a sports metaphor. Italy is going to be the "Champions League" of 5G, said Antonello Giacomelli, Italy's secretary for communications, in announcing 5G rollout plans this week, according to press reports. (See Eurobites: Italy First Pasta the Post for 5G.)

Other individuals must hope that some of the prestige and popularity of high-profile sports contests rubs off on 5G. A recent industry push means the first standardized 5G services could be introduced as soon as 2019. (US telco giant AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) is even aiming for a 2018 launch). Service providers want them to arrive like a trophy-winning team. (See 3GPP Approves Plans to Fast Track 5G NR and AT&T Expects Mobile 5G Services in 'Late 2018'.)

Yet despite the inevitable hype that will surround the launch of 5G, the initial experience seems bound to underwhelm. As Light Reading's special report on 5G points out, the next-generation network technology is facing an uphill marathon rather than a downhill sprint. Given scant evidence of any need for a much higher-speed technology, and doubts over the business case for new types of service, 5G is unlikely to be any different from its predecessors in failing to buoy telco sales. (See The Growing Pains of 5G.)

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What's more, the bill for network rollout, especially if operators make use of much higher frequencies, could well be astronomical. Relying heavily on low-band spectrum might help to reduce deployment costs, but it could also weaken the 5G service (signals travel further in lower bands, meaning less equipment is needed, but there is also less spectrum in these ranges, making it harder to provide high-speed connectivity).

Through innovation on the equipment side, including the introduction of new software and virtualization technologies, operators should be able to improve the economics of 5G deployment to some extent, without undermining performance. Yet the rollout of 5G networks will probably be a drawn-out and painful experience, with operators taking advantage of 4G improvements to address most consumer and enterprise demands for the foreseeable future.

A hard and sweaty slog, long-distance running lacks the excitement and glamor of Champions League soccer, or an Usain Bolt sprint. It is probably not what Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT)'s Höttges had in mind when he agreed that a sports event would help European operators to showcase 5G. But it would certainly look apt.

Read the full report, The Growing Pains of 5G, on the Prime Reading section of Light Reading.

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

Joe Stanganelli 4/6/2017 | 9:47:45 AM
Re: What happened? @Iain: I think part of it is what 5G optimization demands in terms of more advanced technology overall -- including analytics, AI, other automation techs, and virtualized cloud.  It's not direct, but the compulsion at scale is real.

I just had a Telco Transformation Q&A w/ the Linux Foundation's Arpit Joshipura on this very subject.  (link)
danielcawrey 3/21/2017 | 3:19:27 PM
Re: What happened? Using sporting events as context makes a lot of sense. 

Look, selling 5G and these other wireless technologies is not easy. They are services - not exactly tangible goods. Smartphones do help this, but I totally get why sports is used to help people understand more speed is better. 
mendyk 3/17/2017 | 1:41:45 PM
Re: What happened? To use a term that's become all too familiar in political discourse, the idea that 5G is all about data rates has been normalized by marketers and industry watchers (i.e., us). If true 5G involves an overhaul of network infrastructure, then there's no way that any sort of 5G is going to show up in commercial networks in the next year or two. Or three for that matter.
iainmorris 3/17/2017 | 12:31:23 PM
Re: What happened? There is definitely supposed to be more to it than speed. A lot of the focus is on latency, rather than gigabit-speed services, and it's the latency improvements that operators say will open up a lot of new opportunities (robotics, connected cars etc.). it's also easy to see why the "network slicing" that will come with new 5G architecture would hold appeal from an efficiency perspective. I just think it's very doubtful whether things like "massive IoT" become a big deal in revenue terms -- unless operators are doing more than just providing connectivity, that is. And I don't see why 5G will help telcos to move beyond connectivity.
Joe Stanganelli 3/17/2017 | 12:10:37 PM
Re: What happened? @mendyk: I was under the impression this was always the case -- albeit with loads of hype about how great all that speed will be.
mendyk 3/17/2017 | 11:07:38 AM
What happened? 5G was supposed to deliver a completely new environment for mobile and wireless communications. It has now turned into a speed issue, as in nothing more than an improvement in data rates.
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