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
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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

kq4ym 8/27/2016 | 2:06:05 PM
Re: The term become more confusing when add IoT to it Yes, it would seem that the standard having not been set yet, are going to be an important part of getting everyone on the same page and not constributing to confusion or a slowing of the process for telcos.
aazizk 8/20/2016 | 3:05:55 AM
Re: The term become more confusing when add IoT to it Hi Dan, But we can see vendors claiming trials of IoT with operators and some Korean and other operators offering these services to therecustomers. It looks we are going back to pre-GSM era with everyone with his own technology and no global standard.
DanJones 8/19/2016 | 9:28:36 PM
Re: The term become more confusing when add IoT to it Well there isn't even full agreement on the 5G radio spec yet, til you've got your new RAT you haven't got much.
aazizk 8/19/2016 | 5:23:03 PM
The term become more confusing when add IoT to it I can not agree more to it, in fact this all becomes more confusing when we add IoT to it. The relation between IoT and 5G is more confusing but the idea is more easy to sell as no one really knows what this all really is.
Gabriel Brown 8/17/2016 | 5:34:00 AM
Re: Up for grabs... I wouldn't worry too much Iain. Neither the ITU nor the 3GPP use the term 5G in formal development largely for the reasons you discuss (marketing hype, generous interpretation, etc.).

I used to be concerned about misuse of the term, but I've come to the view that it is inevitable and not to worry about it. Marketeers need something to market. Writers need something to write. Investors need a story.

Think of it another way, what industry would be content to wait ten years before it could market something new?

Yes, 5G is probably being over-sold, and yes people are stretching the definition, but also, it seems clear it will be genuine and material advance on 4G in several dimensions. 

R Clark 8/17/2016 | 3:22:27 AM
Re: Up for grabs... Good point by Ray about 'open'. At least 5G will one day have a specific meaning. Understandable that it's open to mutliple interpretations while it's being standardised, especially as it's more complex than 4G or 3G.

'Open' has been abused so much I suspect it will fall out of use.
KBode 8/16/2016 | 5:26:50 PM
Hah... "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."

And wasn't it "3G" where we (or the ITU) effectively washed its hands of it and just basically said everything short of carrier pigeon could now be called 3G? 5G hype has pretty clearly taken all of this to an entirely new level. 
Mitch Wagner 8/16/2016 | 4:47:10 PM
Re: Up for grabs... "5G" and "open" both pretty much mean whatever the marketing guys want it to mean. 

5G will presumably come to have a standardized meaning when the standards bodies get around to fixing the standards. "Open" will always be, um, open to obfuscation. 
[email protected] 8/16/2016 | 12:26:36 PM
Up for grabs... There's certainly a 'land grab' currently amongst operators and vendors.... some of that could come back to bite them where it hurts, of course.

What's also clear, I think, is that some companies are much clearer than others about what they are referencing -- some are not so good are clarifying how their developments are '5G'.

The same can be said for 'open' of course...
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