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Previous Columns

November 6, 2019
The 4G-5G Connection

October 24, 2019
5G Landscape, Part 2: Spectrum and Devices

October 21, 2019
5G Landscape, Part 1: Infrastructure

















Forbes Columns
TECHnalysis Research president Bob O'Donnell writes a regular column in Forbes and those columns are posted here and archived on this site.


November 12, 2019
The Evolution of 5G

By Bob O'Donnell

So, let’s be clear from the start. 5G is not a fixed standard, nor is 5G service something that will simply replace 4G and then continue to exist in a consistent way for the next decade. In fact, 5G is much like an organic entity that will evolve and change over time. This is important to understand when thinking about 5G. It explains why certain developments are happening now, while others will happen later. More importantly, it should also give you the perspective to recognize that even though there are some challenges in the initial deployments of 5G, a lot more promise is still to come.

By the way, 4G followed a similar evolutionary path. As with 5G, it started with a core baseline of technical standards that were defined by the telecom industry, and then improvements were added to that baseline over time. You can think of it visually as a plateau that may start out flat, but then features a number of uphill climbs and, every now and then, a steep cliff that must be scaled to get to the next level.

In the case of wireless network generation standards, the baselines are defined by an industry organization called the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), which, as its name suggests, was first put together to help define worldwide standards for 3G cellular networks 20 years ago. The 3GPP creates what are called Release Documents every few years that define some of the core capabilities of next generation wireless networks. The current release document is called Release 15, and it came out in June 2019 with many important new advances, including the full definition of the 5G NR (New Radio) standard, which forms the foundation of 5G service. 5G NR is the protocol used to send and receive wireless signals from devices like smartphones to the cellular network infrastructure (i.e., cell towers).

The next 3GPP document, Release 16, is already near completion and is expected to be formally released in June of 2020. Chief among its additions is, essentially, the completion of 5G specifications, as well as enhancements to many early capabilities for 5G standalone mode, including URLLC (Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communication), V2X Phase 3 for automotive applications and more. Note that there can be as much as a year, or even longer, lag between when a Release document comes out and when the technology is available to the public because of the time it takes for companies to build products and services that fully support the new standards. The telecom industry is always looking ahead, however, and there’s already been a great deal of work done for Release 17, which will likely incorporate enhancements for IoT and many of the other more advanced, non-smartphone applications that have been discussed for 5G. It’s tentatively scheduled for formal release sometime in 2021. (If you really want to learn more about where 5G is headed, you can find out more about 3GPP Release documents here.)

While it’s not critical to know the details of the Release documents and what each one includes—though you may occasionally see references to them if you follow the industry at all—what is really important to know is that from Release 15 on, they are all 5G. Now arguably, they could use nomenclature like 5G version 1. 0 and then 5G version 1.1 (or 2.0) to clarify this, but they don’t. Instead, they chose to make things very simple, so it’s all just called 5G. Behind the scenes, however, you’re going to see new capabilities come to the 5G standard and to the devices and infrastructure that support these new “versions” of the standard.

Unfortunately, it’s not always easy for existing devices and infrastructure to support these new versions of the standard. In some cases—particularly with smartphones, devices, and the critical components that power them (such as modems, radio frequency (or RF), front ends, antennas, etc.)—you can’t upgrade them to get the new capabilities. You’ll just have to get new versions of them. (Fortunately, many infrastructure components can be upgraded—as was discussed in The 4G-5G Connection column.) Again, this situation is no different than what happened with 4G. Initial versions of the standard (based on Release 10), for example, didn’t define LTE Advanced Pro, which is the latest iteration of the 4G LTE standard. So, in order to get the large speed benefits LTE Advance enables, chip companies like Qualcomm, Intel, MediaTek, and others had to build new modems that added support for the technology (which was officially introduced in Release 14). Before users could take advantage of it, network infrastructure companies like Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, and Cisco had to add support for it to their equipment, and smartphone vendors, like Samsung, Apple, LG, Motorola, etc., had to integrate those new modems into new generations of their devices. The exact same situation will be happening with 5G as it evolves over the next decade or so.

In addition to evolving and improving standards, another reason 5G is evolving is because of the nature of the infrastructure and how telco carriers like AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint are expected to improve and “densify” their cellular networks. In particular, the usage of millimeter wave (mmWave) technology in 5G (see The 5G Landscape, Part 2: Spectrum and Devices for more on millimeter wave) puts a unique demand on cellular networks. The big plus side of mmWave is that it enables very fast download speeds, but the big downside is that its signals don’t travel very far, can’t go through buildings and other objects, and can even be negatively impacted by atmospheric conditions like rain.

In order to compensate for these challenges, the carriers have to put up a lot more cell sites (many of which are relatively tiny compared to traditional cell towers, hence the term “small cells”) to spread the signal. Of course, that’s expensive to do, so the telcos are doing it on a step-by-step basis. Over time, they all plan to increase the number of small cells (and larger sites) they have installed and, therefore, increase the density of coverage, which in turn, should improve the range of millimeter wave service. In the near term, however, mmWave 5G service is still very spotty and subject to a lot of inconsistency—but it’s great if you can get it. (Don’t forget, you need to have both a phone that supports mmWave and a carrier that offers it to get the signal at all—not all 5G devices nor all 5G data plans currently do.)

In the case of sub-6 5G service, the situation is much better, because much of the existing network equipment already supports the frequencies necessary to carry these signals. Again, however, the cell towers have to be upgraded to support 5G, but not all 5G phones support all types of sub-6 service. In particular, while many 5G phones support the “mid-band” 2.5GHz frequencies, some don’t support the low-band (600 MHz) frequencies that T-Mobile announced it plans to roll out to debut its 5G service in December.

The bottom line is that we’re still in the early days for 5G devices, networks, and service plans, and there are still a number of challenges in making it all work. However, it’s clear that there’s a great deal of evolution and enhancements being made to the 5G standards and 5G networks. Practically speaking, that means some of the best capabilities of 5G are going to require new devices and upgraded networks that support some of the capabilities coming in Releases 16 and 17. Even existing devices, though, should see noticeable improvements in coverage and performance over the course of the next year. As with most technologies, you can always make the argument to wait for something better, but at some point, you just need to jump in.

Here’s a link to the original column: http://www.forbes.com/sites/bobodonnell/2019/11/12/the-evolution-of-5g/

Forbes columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community.