Following the underwhelming, as-expected deep freeze of the 5G new radio specification at the end of 2017, and the chasing chorus of me-too 5G announcements, there is a genuine danger that MWC 2018 will go down as one of the most stultifying events in the trade show's history. (See 5G Is Official: First 3GPP Specs Approved.)
If MWC 2017 served up 5G as a concept in search of an application, the theme of MWC 2018 threatens to be the disappointing radio reality swaddled in layers of shopworn marketing. US mobile operators have given us a foretaste of this in the last few days with their yawn-inducing rhetoric about "mobile" 5G. AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) even dredged up its derided "5G evolution" label, which turns out to mean 4G evolution. (See AT&T Joins 5G Marketing War, Promising 'Mobile' Launch in 2018.)
Not all 5G announcements make telcos look as devoid of originality as the Hollywood producers who approve another Spiderman remake every two years. But anything involving new radio does. And just as Hollywood clings to its trusted formula of superhero costumes and big-screen explosions, the cellular industry will always plump for the drab familiarity of mobile broadband over anything more daringly revolutionary.
New radio is boring for two reasons. The first is that is that it tells exactly the same more-bandwidth-for-your-buck story as 3G and 4G did previously -- only with less purpose. Customers shouldn't care about megabits per second as long as they can use the mobile Internet without interruption or delay, and today there is no mobile application that cannot cruise comfortably along an advanced 4G superhighway. 5G new radio is a no-limits autobahn for a mid-range sedan.
The second, related point is that "4G evolution" technologies such as LTE-Advanced Pro are already ratcheting up the connection speed to gigabit levels. Customers won't get this in a real-world setting, of course, but they won't get what 5G promises either. What they will see before "mobile 5G" arrives is a technology that makes 5G new radio look needless for several years. (See 4.5G Sets High Bar for 5G.)
The sad thing is that many consumers will race to buy 5G phones so they can feel more advanced and technologically "with it" than friends and colleagues. Service providers are keenly aware of this urge, and will cynically capitalize on it whenever possible.
Where 5G new radio does start to get a little bit interesting, as the technology people inside operators have noted, is on the efficiency side. Used with massive MIMO technology, which adds a load of antennas into the mix, 5G new radio is about ten times more "cost efficient" than 4G, according to Johan Wibergh, the chief technology officer of Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD). (See Vodafone CTO: 5G Is Overhyped & It's Mainly About Cost.)
But operators could arguably realize even greater efficiencies, and a host of other benefits, from a 5G overhaul that addresses the non-radio side of the network. "Cloudification," network slicing and fixed-mobile convergence are three 5G-related topics that are far more important than new radio, according to Antje Williams, a 5G executive program manager with Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT). (See DT Is Not Going Radio Gaga About 5G.)
Telefónica CTO Enrique Blanco made a similar point at MWC 2017. "The radio is not the key topic," he told Light Reading. "There is a lot of noise about the radio but we need to make noise about the whole architecture -- for me, much more relevant is the issue of network slicing." (See Telefónica's Blanco: 5G NR 'Acceleration' Is 'Big Mistake'.)
What the industry should be talking about at MWC 2018 is this potentially game-changing network transformation. And if marketers think efficiency won't sound very exciting to attendees, they are probably mistaken. MWC is an industry event, for one thing, not a consumer show. Sensible investors have long since ditched their rose-tinted spectacles and understand that telcos can prosper in the next few years only by redesigning their networks and operations to be more efficient.
Behind closed doors, the likes of Williams and Blanco may well have "cloudification," network slicing and the 5G core uppermost on the agenda. But such issues desperately need greater attention. Ten months ago, Blanco sounded worried that "noise" about new radio would drown out any other 5G discussion. Amid signs of this happening, the risk now is that all the new radio blather becomes a damaging distraction. (See Telecom Industry Falling Short on 5G Architecture Challenges – HR Analyst.)
— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading