At the turn of the millennium, a number of consultants and analysts grew rich by advising telcos that investing billions of dollars in 3G spectrum licenses, and the networks to support an exciting new range of mobile Internet services, would pay off handsomely. The 3G boom never materialized, and the debt-ridden industry spent years knocking its nascent data business into shape.
Today's 4G mobile networks are slick, high-performance vehicles that transport huge volumes of Internet traffic on a daily basis. But the payoff has remained elusive: Data revenues have merely replaced those from the dying voice business, and sales are under constant threat from Internet companies, regulators and plain old-fashioned competition.
Never really held to account for their misplaced optimism, those consultants and analysts have grown more circumspect in the interim. But the industry is once again being swept along on a wave of enthusiasm for next-generation network technology. 5G mobile, which could see initial launches as soon as 2019, has been heralded as the latest revenue-growth opportunity for both operators and the vendors that serve them. Yet investment concerns mean its deployment is likely to be drawn-out and painful.
From a technological standpoint, 5G is ticking along nicely. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) specifications body, which presides over standardization activities in the mobile industry, last week approved a plan to finalize the 5G new radio (NR) specifications by the end of 2017, six months sooner than originally intended. That augurs well for operators that want to launch 5G services in 2019, rather than 2020, by running the 5G NR over their existing 4G networks in a so-called "non-standalone" 5G deployment. (See 3GPP Approves Plans to Fast Track 5G NR.)
In the meantime, a "standalone" variant, including a next-generation core as well as the NR, is due for completion in mid-2018. Some operators have previously complained that fast-tracking the NR specifications could hold up work on standalone 5G, which they consider the more important version. But Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with the Heavy Reading market research group, thinks it poses little threat to overall standardization efforts. (See 3GPP Likely to Fast Track 5G NR Specs This Week.)
Both the non-standalone and standalone technologies will form a part of "5G Phase 1," which in turn will feature in the 3GPP's Release 15 standards update. That will still leave a lot of work to do on "5G Phase 2," which is supposed to be frozen at the end of 2019 for inclusion in Release 16. "You will find more support in that for IoT [the Internet of Things] as well as for mission-critical and ultra-reliable low-latency communications," says Brown. Yet for all the effort that lies ahead, and the squabbling over NR "acceleration," the industry has displayed remarkable togetherness on 5G so far.
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