5G Still More Like Rocket Fuel Than a Mission to Mars
"Mind the gap" is an automated, verbal warning issued to customers disembarking London's crowded tube trains, lest travelers half disappear into the darkness between the door and the platform edge. The warning could easily be repurposed for today's burgeoning 5G industry, where the chasm between expectation and reality looks just as murky.
Broadly speaking, there are two types of 5G. Because we're talking about technology here, and everyone prefers space analogies to ones about London transport, we'll call the first "rocket fuel" and the second "mission to Mars." As the names imply, the first is a pick-me-up for today's mobile broadband services. The second is the game changer.
"Rocket fuel," in fairness, is actually zooming ahead of expectation. With it, operators would probably use the "non-standalone" (NSA) version of 5G, which means slapping a 5G New Radio (NR) on top of an existing 4G network. This would give them a capacity boost in cities where the voracious appetite for data is hard to sate. After standards bodies went into overdrive on the development of 5G NR specs, numerous operators have talked about launching services next year. Some are even aiming for late 2018. (See 5G Is Official: First 3GPP Specs Approved and 3GPP Approves Plans to Fast Track 5G NR.)
As several operators made abundantly clear at the recent 5G World Summit in London, there is nothing "rocket fuel" can do that 4G can't. It's just better, and that's enough to spur investment in 5G equipment. After all, if you're changing network hardware, you're going to buy the shiniest new stuff, and not something that's spent several years in the warehouse and is occasionally used as a makeshift poker table by Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC)'s contractors. Leading operators now think 5G is about four times as "spectrally efficient" as 4G. For spectrally efficient, read "lower costs."
So far, so good. But this is 5G in its most underwhelming form. Nobody seriously expects customers to spend more on "rocket fuel" services than on today's 4G connections. And while not to be sniffed at, lower operating costs will hardly set the investor pulse racing.
But a "mission to Mars" could. In this scenario, 5G powers entirely new types of service for businesses and consumers. One of the most hackneyed examples concerns the automotive sector, with 5G apparently needed to prevent self-driving cars from slamming into one another at traffic lights. Another relates to health care: Using 5G connections, doctors could supposedly operate surgical robots and carry out liver transplants from thousands of miles away. (See Does Ericsson's 5G-for-Healthcare Biz Case Need Surgery?)
And this is where it starts to get murky. For starters, to make 5G this versatile in a cost-effective way, operators will need more than just a radio boost. Orange's Emmanuel Lugagne Delpon, who opts for the more prosaic "step two" label over "mission to Mars," is under no illusion about how challenging this will be.
"Step one is pure capacity, while step two is to change the architecture of the core, put computing power at the edge of the network and virtualize," he told Light Reading last week. "That is where the transformation will provide the platform for new use cases, but it is a huge transformation." (See Standalone or Non-Standalone? 5G Trials Will Help Orange Decide.)
The just-finished "standalone" (SA) version of 5G will certainly help, bringing a 5G core to go with the 5G NR. But Orange (NYSE: FTE) frets that moving from NSA to SA might not be easy. In a general sense, virtualization most definitely isn't, many operators would agree, and has thrown up all sorts of problems. What's more, putting computing power at the edge of the network could demand huge investments. (See 3GPP Done With 5G SA Specs. Now the Hard Work Begins and NFV Is Down but Not Out.)
So if operators are going to pull off this transformation, they will need considerable resources and the full backing of senior management. The trouble is, that support won't materialize quickly unless the business case around new services looks convincing. And right now, it doesn't.
Next page: Crash landing?
The examples of new automotive and health care services, cited earlier in this story, have already attracted skepticism. The question is not so much about interest in self-driving cars and remote surgery, but whether 5G is really needed in those scenarios. In their absence, there is not much else.
Howard Watson, the chief technology officer of the UK's BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA), sums up the dilemma: "We have established the enhanced mobile broadband use case and built a business case to invest in 5G based on that, but I am still waiting for us to concretely land the business cases that truly exploit low latency and massive connectivity," he told attendees at the 5G World Summit. "We need to work to convince our CFOs of the next wave of investment."
Watson is certainly not out on a limb. Orange's Lugagne Delpon, who works as a senior vice president at the French operator's Orange Labs Networks research division, says the industry is in a "chicken-and-egg situation" in this area.
"Operators are waiting for industries to provide them with use cases, industries are waiting for operators to provide them with the enablers and performance they need, and the regulator is trying to figure out the business model before it awards spectrum," he said. "Everyone is waiting for everyone."
Orange, at least, is trying to get things moving. In partnership with Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK), the Finnish equipment supplier, it has set up a facility in Paris where companies can test new use cases. Orange is also trying to educate these companies about network slicing -- whereby virtualization would support different types of service on the same 5G network -- and what this means for service level agreements.
But Scott Petty, the Vodafone UK chief technology officer, is not expecting a "mission to Mars" anytime soon. Applications that demand 5G connectivity will probably not arrive in the next three to five years, he told an audience at the 5G World Summit. As a result, Vodafone is focused on using 5G as "rocket fuel" for the time being. (See Petty's Grievances: The 5G Hopes & Fears of Vodafone UK's CTO.)
Watson's remarks about CFO buy-in are troubling. The clear implication is that a network overhaul will take much longer if commercially attractive use cases do not show up fairly soon. One danger then is that more proactive and less risk-averse technology companies can seize the initiative in areas like edge computing, as they have done elsewhere. Ultimately, that would put additional pressure on operators to realize efficiency benefits through network transformation and take the focus off service innovation.
As far as many policymakers are concerned, 5G remains a revolutionary new technology that will spur economic growth. Everyone hopes it will eventually live up to that promise. Right now, though, 5G looks far more like rocket fuel than a mission to Mars.
— Iain Morris, International Editor, Light Reading