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Mapping the Long, Winding Road to 5G Wireless Technology

The technical specifications have not been set and the first networks are still years away, but the battle for 5G has begun.

Ina Fried

The technical standards haven’t been set and commercial deployment is still several years off, but the battle over the next generation of wireless technology is already heating up.

So-called 5G, or fifth-generation wireless, was the talk of this month’s Mobile World Congress as various companies and countries sought to position themselves at the forefront.

Ericsson showed off the first “handset,” though the device was essentially a server on a motorized scooter rather than anything resembling a phone. Korea Telecom, meanwhile, had all its booth workers decked out in 5G shirts while touting a range of technologies that, while not true 5G, can improve upon today’s networks and help build toward the next generation. Meanwhile officials from the U.S. and Europe spoke about the importance of 5G during speeches at the event.

 Ericsson showed off this “handset” at Mobile World Congress to show the kind of speeds 5G will deliver. Clearly some work is needed to get it to fit in a pocket.
Ericsson showed off this “handset” at Mobile World Congress to show the kind of speeds 5G will deliver. Clearly some work is needed to get it to fit in a pocket.
Ina Fried

While the standards will be set in a variety of technical meetings by various standards groups in the coming years, the broad contours of 5G are starting to take shape. What is needed, most agree, is not just faster speeds and higher capacity, but also support for minimal delay so that things like Internet surgery and remote control of heavy machinery are possible. At the same time, the next generation of networks will also have to be prepared for billions of Internet-connected sensors and devices, including some that connect only rarely and need to use very little power in order to work with a battery that is changed only once a decade.

“This is the same network we are talking about,” Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg said during an interview at Mobile World Congress. “The network will be service-aware. The network has to be so much smarter because we are going to have 50 billion connected devices at least.”

In addition to meeting those needs, 5G should deliver 100 times the speed of 4G networks, Vestberg said.

One of the key challenges for the United States is the fact that it has been a leader in the current fourth generation of networks, known as LTE. Historically, no country has led in the deployment of successive generations, as countries behind in the last generation usually have more motivation to push first with the next one. Japan wants to have a commercial 5G network up and running by the time Tokyo hosts the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. The Olympics are also a motivator for Korea, which hosts the 2018 games. While it will be too early to have a fully 5G-compliant network, the country would like to have a significant testbed in place, while China is also eager to be at the forefront.

“I expect this Asia-Pacific region will be one of the front-runners,” said Peter Merz, head of radio systems for Nokia Networks.

Federal Communications Commission member Jessica Rosenworcel urged the U.S. to move faster, praising the benefits that U.S. consumers and companies have gotten by virtue of being early with LTE. She noted that the U.S. is home to 5 percent of the world’s population, but responsible for half of all LTE deployment globally.

“Laurels, however, are not good resting places,” Rosenworcel told Re/code. “We need to start now on what is next. While the contours of 5G are still being developed, it’s clear that the race to 5G is on. Other nations are taking the early lead, with planning already under way in South Korea, Japan and China — as well as in Europe. The U.S. needs to get in the game and take steps now to build on our 4G success.”

U.S. carriers and officials say that the region should not be counted out as a leader in 5G.

“It’s a little too early to make forecasts of who is going to lead,” said Chris Pearson, head of the 4G Americas trade group. “There’s no reason we couldn’t lead.”

Beyond the question of who leads is also the one of just what technology will make it into the standard. Still unclear is whether the standard will use the same radio technology as LTE, use another in addition to LTE or go down its own path entirely.

In a speech in Barcelona, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler likened the current state of 5G to a Picasso painting.

“I see something different than you see,” he said. “I think that’s where 5G is right now. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

And, that’s before the marketing people start to get their hands on the thing. It’s highly likely that — as was the case last time around with 4G — companies will start to label things as 5G that don’t actually meet the technical specification.

“It’s a matter of time before someone calls something 5G,” said wireless industry consultant Chetan Sharma. “It will become a marketing term, rather than a technical one, which is bad.”

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