Experts at the sharp edge of 5G development have identified a surprising problem: there's too much agreement.
Five years away from its expected commercial debut, a broad industry consensus has emerged about 5G's key features, in contrast to the dissension that surrounded 3G and 4G.
But NTT DoCoMo Inc. (NYSE: DCM), perhaps the world's most ambitious 5G operator, worries that the absence of a rival technology could cause its timetable to slip. The Japanese cellco is at the center of a national effort to offer the first commercial service in time for the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2020.
NTT DoCoMo has signed up eight vendor partners to expedite development and is already running trials, including a successful 4.5Gbit/s test with Ericsson.
Takehiro Nakamura, managing director of DoCoMo's 5G Laboratory, admits he has "concerns" about the timetable. "Competitiveness is important to promote systems development," he says. "We had a good competitor in 3G -- 3GPP versus 3GPP2. In the LTE case we had WiMax."
"Thanks to those competitors, we developed the new systems quickly," he adds. "Everybody could focus. But now, there's no competitor and many players have many directions."
He adds that while 2020 is important for Japan, other regions "have a very relaxed schedule -- not 2020, maybe 2023 or 2025."
Erik Dahlman, senior expert in radio access technologies at Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), who took part in the 3G and 4G standards development, admits there is "some truth" in Nakamura's views.
He says while the issue of operator requirements, such as the 125-page NGMN white paper, has been helpful, the industry needs "some kind of push" to stimulate the process.
Korean operator SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM) is also anxious about meeting an Olympics deadline. The Korean government aims to launch a demonstration version of 5G at the 2018 Winter Olympics, much as China launched a pre-commercial version of TD-SCDMA in 2008.
Choi Chang-soon, senior manager at SK Telecom's 5G Tech Lab, says the timetable will be "the tricky part." His small team -- comprising just eight staff -- is hoping to set up a 5G test bed by year-end.
Despite the anxiety over the timing, the Asian cellcos are benefiting from the agreement about the likely shape of 5G, namely: LTE at the core; massive MIMO to take advantage of very high frequencies; latency as low as 1-2mms; and much greater energy efficiency.
As Dahlman puts it, 5G is a different beast. "3G was very much about new radio and 4G was a new radio technology, but 5G is much more than about radio," he says. "5G is about the networked society -- cars, traffic safety, washing machines, industrial robots, everything."
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