Real 5G Years Away Even as Wireless Industry Prepares for Its Arrival
Carriers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, China Mobile, NTT DoCoMo and SK Telecom are taking steps toward 5G, such as running lab tests and working with standards bodies and industry consortiums to prepare for the advent of 5G. Verizon and AT&T are running trials in cities in the United States as part of larger strategies to accelerate the development of 5G technologies. AT&T's Kafka noted that the carrier is also testing such technologies as fixed and mobile applications both indoors and outdoors as well as such capabilities as beam forming, beam tracking and multi- and single-user MIMO (multiple input, multiple output), all of which will be important in 5G networks. Engineers also are testing how 5G technologies run in different spectrums. A broad array of tech vendors, from Intel and Qualcomm to Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung, Google and Cisco Systems, also are building out their portfolios to offer products that will be ready for 5G infrastructures. Recently, Ericsson announced the addition of a 5G NR radio for massive MIMO support that officials said will combine with other 5G technologies the company has released to give it all the components necessary to enable carriers to build 5G networks in 2017.In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in July approved opening new, higher-frequency spectrum for wireless technology in anticipation of the expected increase in traffic and to bolster innovation around 5G. Existing 3G and 4G networks currently operate in the crowded sub-6GHz spectrum, which is used by radio and television broadcasters, satellite operators and others. The higher-frequency bands are less crowded, but come with their own challenges. They would enable the use of millimeter waves (mmWaves), but they can't travel as far as lower-frequency signals and can be obstructed by walls, leaves and other obstacles. That will force the development of new antenna designs for mobile devices and the wider use of small cells that will relay traffic from one to another and ensure coverage over long distances. The FCC is dealing with these issues by loosening rules as to where building owners and wireless providers can put small cells. However, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in a keynote at the CTIA 2016 show, said carriers and the federal government may get pushback from state and local officials about the number of small cells that will be needed to support 5G connectivity. There are about 200,000 cell towers in the United States, but millions of small cell sites will be required for the deployment of 5G. Telcos may run into "NIMBY" situations and the FCC is hoping to address that issue, Wheeler said. "If siting for a small cell takes as long and costs as much as siting for a cell tower, few communities will ever have the benefits of 5G," he said. "We recognize that this is a major concern and are committed to working to lessen these burdens and costs to ensure that 5G is available nationwide, while respecting the vital role that the communities themselves play in the siting process." What Is 5G? The talk by carriers and network equipment vendors of 5G and 5G-ready products is raising the question about how many of the promised benefits are real and how many are marketing hype. The tech industry only has to look back at when "virtualization" and "cloud" were just coming into the vernacular to see how terms can be co-opted by marketers to describe their products. Stephane Teral, senior research director of mobile infrastructure and carrier economics for IHS Markit, said in a recent report that much of what is being referred to now as 5G is really advanced 4G LTE technologies. Talk about 5G began in 2012, and ramped up a year later when NTT DoCoMo officials said they expected to have 5G capabilities in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Teral said. Verizon in 2015 then said it planned to have first commercial deployments of 5G in 2017.
Governments are taking steps to help fuel the innovation around 5G. South Korean officials have promised $1.5 billion to help drive 5G development, while the Obama administration earlier this year rolled out a $400 million program. In addition, regulatory agencies in the United States, the European Union and in the Asia/Pacific region have all looked to ease the path toward the new wireless technology.