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Wired’s 5G hype and cleaning up the mess

(7 min read – segue italiano)    The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas attracts visitors from across the globe, some of technology’s finest minds and many dozens of thousands of potential early adopters and marketers of weird and innovative technologies.

It came thus as no surprise that the companies leading the research and rollout of the next generation of wireless networks were out there in force touting 5G‘s potential to change the world as we know it.

Wired magazine’s take? “‘Ignore 5G, for now. (…) ‘Real’ 5G—that is, a network of antennas that can transmit a high-speed data signal to handsets and devices designed to receive them—won’t become a reality for at least a year.”

This is, however, just one part of what 5G is. According to industry experts, with its higher bandwidth, greater capacity, native security and extreme low latency, 5G is closer to what Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg called it in his “prophecy-shaded” keynote: an engine for the fourth industrial revolution.

One first key reason is that 5G introduces a new technology paradigm: unlike today’s networks, which basically deliver the same service to everyone everywhere, 5G will deliver tailored capabilities and performance for a specific use case at a given point in time and location.

“We are exploring many of more advanced use cases showing how we can digitalize complete factories using 5G’s low latency, all with a flexible installation in new sites,” the Chief Technology Officer of Ericsson, Erik Ekudden, told Hdd in an interview.

By enabling services-on-demand and being scalable, 5G is being built to address an extreme variation of requirements in many industries, from mines to warehouses, oil rigs, ports and manufacturing.

While the next-generation of cellular standard holds the promise of blazing-fast speeds for consumers and businesses alike, early real-world demonstrations of 5G’s capabilities have been rare.

One could reckon the around 134 operators in 62 countries that are reported to be engaged in demonstrations, tests, trials and early commercial deployments “rare”—but they have also been mostly very successful, operating, e.g., heavy and small manufacturing machinery remotely over hundreds of miles.

Take the IoT, the Internet of Things. “This technology [5G] has wide-area and global reach, so the massive IoT where you can connect sensorsfleets and things for tracking and tracing, all of that is actually happening now,” Mr. Ekkuden, the tech mind of the company with a 50% share of the global IoT market, said.

5G promises speeds “more than 600 times faster than the typical 4G speeds on today’s mobile phones,” the Wired article reads. Correct, but partial if the reporting does not specify that those speeds owe, as said, to extreme high bandwidth, ultra-low latency, and high density connections, all of which will enable use cases—and not just fastest speed—that were impossible via the older networks.

As a case in point, the £1 billion the UK committed to its Digital Strategy is funding programs like 5G RuralFirst and 5G Rural Integrated Testbed. China is another good example of 5G being tested for connectivity and automation in its huge factories in parallel with the 5G demonstrations in 17 cities.

But 5G relies on millimeter-wave signals, which can’t travel as far as those we use for today’s 4G networks, so a 5G network requires a greater number of access points.” Again, this is correct, but not accurate.

Mobile data traffic is projected to increase by eight times over the next six years. To support this demand, 5G service providers will need sufficient spectrum bandwidth, and since radio wave propagation differs by spectrum band, it will need to use three spectrum bands: the low bands, which provide coverage in remote areas and into buildings; the mid bands offering a good balance between coverage and capacity, and the high bands or millimeter waves that are central to supporting a wide range of new industry applications.

Wireless carriers would need to invest in an entirely new infrastructure in order to roll out true 5G to their customers with any degree of consistency.” Yes, new infrastructure will be needed to cover areas such as harbors, smart manufacturing or agricultural sites, but the bulk of the infrastructure will be built on 4G footprints.

“Since you build 5G by upgrading your 4G LTE base, today we are already providing the NR compatibility with existing products in the field, so that they can be upgraded to 5G NR with software or hardware. This is a commitment about migrating from the current 4G LTE base to being fully 5G NR compliant with the latest standards. Our new hardware is future-proof in terms of changes and completion of the standards,” the CTO of one of the two main global 5G infrastructure suppliers said.

Qualcomm explains that 5G NR network coverage will not be everywhere on Day 1, therefore Gigabit LTE advancements will ensure consumers do not suffer from a significant falloff as they move in and out of 5G coverage.

As each wireless carrier boasts about how it’s going to be the first to offer a 5G network, some are developing those networks using technology that sidesteps the agreed-upon standards.” That should not happen, of course, but to an extent, that is how a standardization process works. Academia, suppliers and networks built prototypes, test them, patent them, submit research and hope to get their investment back if their tech is approved.

The first official global standards for 5G were established in December of 2017.” Actually, the date of Stage 1 freeze of Release 15 was June 2017. The last two stages of Release 16 are coming in June and December 2019. This key dates might explain partly the “muddled messaging” of the carries “about how their new ‘5G’ offerings will take shape“.

Things are also very different from region to region. In Asia, China, Korea and even Vietnam and other countries are soldiering ahead. In Europe, the carriers are paying big money for the spectrum, which means fewer funds for infrastructure. And competition is fierce: the first operator rolling out a 5G network could well be showing the one arriving next the missteps to avoid.

As never before, mobile networks “will go through a tremendous transformation. It is a change to the very nature of the infrastructure itself,” the ETSI January magazine issue reads.

Furthermore, the carriers also have several technical options for migrating their infrastructure from LTE to 5G, as a GSMA Migration paper explains (GSMA is the trade body of mobile network operators worldwide producing industry events like MWC Barcelona).

On top of this complexity, which Wired calls a “messto be sooner or later cleaned up, Artificial Intelligence profoundly changed the way networks function, and is moving them towards full automation. This should lead to revenue-producing business cases that will make the evolution to 5G worth the investment.

The sheer dimension of the infrastructure and enterprise challenges of 5G might help understand why mobile heavyweights are not rushing to put out on the market 5G only smartphones—and why creative startups, enterprises and developers should not “ignore” 5G, but rather learn why 5G is a technology worth waiting for.