5G/5G NR is Coming but Most People Will Hardly Notice


The newest Next Generation of wireless, 5G and 5G NR, New Radio, networks are starting to be deployed in early stages of 5G NR ready base stations, smallcell and mmWave backhaul/fronthaul relays. Within a year the majority of new deployments will be of 5G-ready equipment.  One year from now it is projected that a couple dozen SmartPhone devices will be available in US retail markets. The expectations for adoption of 5G look impressive: it is shaping up to occur far more rapidly than 2G to 3G or 3G to 4G.  All US MNOs are shifting to 5G equipment as a precursor for full-fledged deployments or as future proofing of their infrastructure investments and competitive position.

The rapid nature of deployments and device availability may turn out to be deceptively overstated.  That is because 5G data rates and low latency will not have much impact on the mainstream mobile phone market as many think due to a more gradual impact on the average consumer experience.

Some Back Peddling:

An underlying trend of 2G, 3G, 4G, and 5G has been the unifying of wireless applications and services.  While the use of MIMO-OFDMA/FDMA in 4G increased bandwidth over WCDMA, a much less public reason for the shift of waveforms, a costly change for operators and vendors, was the greater flexibility in the use of spectrum.  5G is part of the LTE evolutions. After all, it was given the name, Long Term Evolution because much thought was given to providing a technology framework that could evolve with less ‘rip and replace’ of equipment and use of spectrum.

When is a New Radio More Like the Old Radio?

The 5G NR, New Radio, version, despite its name, provides more ease of upgrades and far less disruption in the use of spectrum than the shift from 3G/WCDMA/TD-SCMDA because it has a base in OFDMA/frequency domain technologies and has adaptive modulation capabilities.  While taking full advantage of 5G NR will require the handset side of connections to use 5 NR enabled devices, 4G LTE will continue to work, in some cases using the same bands or sub-bands.  The shift to 4G was made either by using new spectrum, such as Verizon and AT&T’s use of 700 MHz, or refarming of existing CDMA/WCDMA spectra.

It’s Just The Start of Something Big

Adaptive modulation will be a prominent aspect of future generations of wireless.  This has required the enabling evolution of multi-radio chipsets to take advantage of multiple modes of operation across multiple bands/sub-bands of spectra.  Advances in mobile chipsets have also been required to reduce the power budget while harnessing the wider aggregate bandwidths.

Another aspect of 5G is the ability to scale: 5G NR can be used in narrow bands at low duty-cycle for IoT and similar requirements or using multiple 100 MHz channels to deliver Gigabit wireless performance.  Many of these applications are already possible using WiFi, 3G, 4G and proprietary mmWave wireless.  5G NR unifies the applications platform more completely.  That changes the feasibility analysis due to the ability to plan, deploy and market networks to meet a broader range of applications from a common network.

While that changes up the ease and cost of supporting more applications, it does not mean that all applications will quickly shift to the use of 4G-5G/5G NR.  Take, for example, Iot, a field of applications that is often in the news: many IoT applications have been around for decades.  Industrial, utility, environmental and other measurement and control networks have traditionally used a combination of proprietary, WiFi, and 2G-4G.  These applications often fit into a category called ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’, ie. are reluctant to change because they are installed, paid for, and are cheap or cost nothing for wireless use.  Even when it comes to new IoT applications many customers will evaluate prior alternatives.

The Big Bucks are Still in the Wallets of Retail Consumers

The benefits of 5G must boil down to consumers being able to do things with their devices that require either higher bandwidth or lower latency than 4G-Advanced LTE  can deliver.  However, data rates needed for viewing of video at resolution that is useful on popular screen sizes of mobile devices are already being exceeded in the majority of situations.

5G impact over the next few years will be in these areas:

  • Edge of network performance improvement
  • Higher RAN performance and cost efficiency by being capable of a wider breath of applications
  • Ability to use higher frequency spectra within the standard
  • Better applicability for low-bandwidth use needed for IoT
  • Higher bandwidth capacity for cable replacement and other “higher than high” (higher than current market demand) bandwidth use cases

Even though the mainstream market will take a few years to be fully impacted by 5G, early deployments will have a major impact on segments of the market that can be served as network slices of conventional mainstream markets. You can call this service or applicational level virtualization if you wish. Since it has been a goal of the standards development for several years, it hardly needs to be pinned with popular names to earn its distinction.

Among the early uses will be in fixed-to-mobile conversions of cable customers and extended use cases.  Verizon has modified the explanation of their plans for early 5G deployments from calling it ‘fixed wireless broadband’ to saying it will be a layer used in mobile networks that starts out, due to the lack of devices, as a fixed service to homes in some metro markets.  Verizon does not plan 5G as a nationwide deployment as was the case with the early IMT-2000 version of LTE.  Instead, the focus is more market directed towards high density metro locations where the cost of the required high density of the RAN deployment can make sense.

With the current announcement that merger talks are back on between T-Mobile and Sprint, a topic for discussion to follow, the US mobile sector may be about to more rapidly pursue an attack on the $120+ home cable market.

Even so, the majority of mobile users may ‘hardly knew what hit them’ when it comes to their experience of using 5G during the first 2-4 years of coming out.  That is because higher resolutions on small devices will not be as much of a game changer as the limits of human activity are already close to being reached and it will likely take several years for immersive game play, conferencing and other apps take special circumstances to be used.

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Mr. Fellah, is a Senior Analyst and founder of Maravedis with 20-year experience in the wireless industry. He authored various landmark reports on Wi-Fi, LTE, 4G and technology trends in various industries including retail, restaurant and hospitality. He is regularly asked to speak at leading wireless and marketing events and to contribute to various influential portals and magazines such as RCR Wireless, 4G 360, Rethink Wireless, The Mobile Network, Telecom Reseller to name a few. He is a Certified Wireless Network Administrator (CWNA) and Certified Wireless Technology Specialist (CWTS).


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