We may be at least six years away from a 5G world, according to industry consensus, but that doesn't mean it isn't a hot topic.
Just this week we've had ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763) propose "a new 5G access network architecture based on dynamic mesh networking … For base station collaboration technology, ZTE has developed its Cloud Radio solution, and has tested and implemented it for commercial use in 4G networks, laying a solid foundation for partially-dynamic 5G mesh networks," the company said. (See ZTE Proposes 5G Architecture .)
We've also seen Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) make an interesting acquisition that hooks into the evolution towards 5G, while Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) has been talking about its 5G vision. (See Sprint's Saw: '5G' Opp Is Moving Signal Closer to Customers and Google's '5G' Buy: Eyeing IPR Ahead?.)
In addition, Agilent Technologies Inc. (NYSE: A) announced a collaboration with China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL)'s Research Institute (CMRI), whereby Agilent will "actively support the research and development programs on 5G, led by CMRI, and provide test and measurement solutions for next-generation 5G wireless communication systems." (See Agilent, China Mobile Collaborate on 5G.)
Is this all a bit too much, too soon? After all, 5G is currently little more than just a preferred industry term at the moment -- a set of (increasingly shared) ideas about what the next wave of mobile broadband will deliver, and what network operators and service providers will need to do to enable ubiquitous, very high-speed wireless connectivity. (See Ready or Not, Here Comes 5G.)
As there are no standards, and the industry is very much embroiled in the deep thinking stage, there is plenty of debate already about whether 5G is worth discussing in any depth, given that the almost universal timeframe for anything worth labeling with the next "G" is going to be 2020. Even then, any 5G "launches" are likely to be happening in small pockets in Japan and South Korea, where the operators are largely ahead of the rest of the world with their 4G LTE-Advanced deployments and service launches.
So is 5G as yet just a gimmick? No, and that's because many of the major mobile operators are having to factor in the use of new spectrum and advanced technologies such as Massive MIMO as they consider how to roll out public access small cells and put SDN and NFV capabilities to good use. They know they need to prepare right now for the impact of services such as 8K video and the potential data deluge that the Internet of Things (IoT) might deliver. (See EE Makes the Case for 5G .)
Call it what you like, but operators have reached a stage where they need to seriously consider what sort of network functionality and service delivery/support capabilities they will need in 20 years' time, otherwise the next few years of investment might be completely wasted. And they can't afford that -- the business/competitive pressures are now too great.
In addition, the introduction/arrival of this next generation of mobile is likely to be different to the previous steps (2G to 3G to 4G), each of which involved the introduction of a new set of standards and a fresh upgrade of network infrastructure. What we currently call "5G" is set to be more akin to 4G on steroids -- a gradual evolution than a hard gear change. Whereas mobile operators now can "turn on" 4G, because it involves a defined set of standards to be deployed in a commercial/production network, it's likely that service providers won't actually know when they're offering 5G services. You might want to call it 4G Super-Advanced, but the marketing folks won't let that happen, of course. A new G is good for business.
That's not to say that 5G won't be much different from what we have today in 4G markets. It certainly will. But the journey looks like it will be different than before, and once that journey begins it will be gradual, incremental.
Because operators are (rightly) expending technical and strategic research resources into this unknown terrain, you can expect to hear a lot about 5G from the supplier community. And while there were rumbles in 2013, with the occasional reference to 5G, the term is starting to appear on an almost daily basis -- everyone needs a 5G strategy, to be 5G-ready, even if their version of what 5G might be is (albeit only slightly) different to everyone else's.
So gird your loins, because while 5G is a long way off in one sense, in another it's most definitely with us already.
— Ray Le Maistre, , Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading