The generation game

After years in development, it seems like the mobile industry is finally ready to make the leap into 5G. Tim Maytom explores what the industry should expect from the 5G revolution, and what work still needs to be done to unleash the future we’ve been promised.

If you’ve got your finger anywhere near the pulse of the mobile and digital industries, it’s easy to read the swells and gullies as topics attract a surge in interest and then, more often than not, fade away. QR codes. Beacons. Wearables. The Internet of Things. Cryptocurrencies. All have surfed the zeitgeist, promising transformative change, and most have dipped quietly below again, becoming just another part of the vast digital ecosystem that makes up our daily life.

When it comes to these tides of interest, 5G appears to be cresting a wave right now. Following years of debate over spectrum ranges, infrastructure requirements and more, the mobile industry seems to finally be approaching its next great leap forward in carrier technology. Networks are bidding on spectrum bands, test zones are cropping up across the globe, and hints at hardware manufacturers working on 5G prototypes abound.

But for all the chatter that 5G is actually here, how close are we to meaningful change? When can consumers expect to see an actual rollout? And what kind of new services can 5G actually offer, in an age when mobile devices appear to be reaching the limits of their capabilities?

Breaking down 5G
For all the excitement surrounding it, definitions of 5G have focused on nebulous claims of faster speed, lower latency and more connections with little in terms of concrete details, at least until recently. In December 2017, the 3GPP, the international organisation that governs cellular standards, released its first formal standard for the ‘fifth generation’ of mobile connection. That’s providing us with a clearer picture of exactly what 5G will offer.

It’s helpful to talk about 5G in the context of the technology it’s replacing. 2G, which arrived in the early ‘90s, transformed wireless phone technology by adding support for text messages. With 3G, the ability to transmit data alongside text messages and calls arrived, while 4G meant that those transmissions could happen with greater speed and improved reliability. Like 4G, 5G will bring improvements to existing services, but like 3G, it will also comprise a new suite of technologies that will once again transform what cellular communication means.

Exactly what technologies will be bundled as part of ‘standard 5G’ and what will be separate is still being agreed among vendors, but the most common choices focus on enabling devices to send and receive data simultaneously, making more efficient use of frequencies, and increasing the bandwidth of mobile networks.

In terms of user experience, this means two main improvements. To start with, 5G will be fast – while the initial specifications called for by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) govern mobile base stations rather than the speed on individual devices, tests by AT&T achieved speeds of up to 6Gbps at their test site in Austin, Texas. That’s enough to download a 100Gb movie in 4K quality in less than three minutes.

In addition, 5G will also have much lower latency – the time it takes for data to be stored or retrieved. The ITU defines 5G as having transfers with a maximum latency of 5ms, down from 4G LTE’s 20ms, which will provide a smoother experience for activities like video chatting and playing online games. So far, so good.

However, 5G also has limits. The high frequencies involved in 5G will have trouble penetrating solid objects like walls, windows and even foliage, so rather than the blanket coverage of 4G, we should expect to see ‘pockets’ of 5G deployed in busy areas – airports, shopping malls, commercial centres, etc. Retailers and other businesses will be able to buy 5G ‘pucks’ to provide coverage. All in all, the technology will feel closer to wi-fi, both in terms of speed and coverage.

“The GSMA doesn’t expect 5G globally to reach double digits in terms of coverage until 2025, which reflects the cautious nature of networks,” says James Rosewell, founder and CEO of device detection firm, 51Degrees. “The business case isn’t strong for them to jump on it in the way that they did with 4G LTE technology. 4G’s just not that broken – they’ve invested heavily in it, whereas 3G never really lived up to the expectations, it didn’t really deliver, and of course 2G was a stopgap technology to move from analogue back in the 1990s.

“Where it will make sense is in large population centres where there’s high population density, and an opportunity to get the devices with 5G radios into people’s hands, and those two things have to work together. What we’ll start to see in places like London in the UK is 5G starting to appear in 2020, as far as consumers are concerned, so we’re still 18 months away from it appearing in any meaningful way.”

Even the networks who are trumpeting the advancements of 5G are also happy to admit they’re not giving up on 4G LTE. T-Mobile has already said that it expects portions of its existing 4G network to reach gigabit speeds soon, thanks to innovations in network efficiency, while Sprint is collaborating with Ericsson on speeding up its 4G LTE connectivity alongside its 5G infrastructure.

The journey to convergence
That limited coverage will also impact some of the other deployments where 5G has been heralded as a key component. 5G’s low latency has been held up as a crucial element when it comes to self-driving car technology, enabling vehicles to receive updates and instructions far faster, and ensuring they drive safely and efficiently. However, if that coverage only exists in dense urban areas where self-driving tech struggles, the improvements will be limited.

The Internet of Things has also been pointed to as a big winner when it comes to 5G. A 5G network will be able to support far more connections, and therefore enable far more connected devices to operate in a given area without slowing down data-intense tasks like streaming video or cloud-based computing. But given that most IoT devices will be running on fixed line wi-fi networks, will that make any difference?

“There’s been a lot of talk about smart metering and 5G – 5G isn’t a smart meter-enabling technology,” says Rosewell. “Smart meters require very, very low bandwidth, and they can tolerate extremely poor latency. A firmware update on a smart meter, it doesn’t matter if it takes two days, so there’s very different network conditions. 5G can be used for that, but it’s certainly not a design goal.”

However, some industry experts are claiming that 5G’s speed and low latency will enable a far more important advance – true convergence between wired and wireless internet connections. The scope of 5G may be limited to start with, but where it exists, it could open up a whole new world of services.

“It isn’t the first time that we’ve look at the whole area of convergence and interworking,” says Robin Mersh, CEO of the Broadband Forum. “We actually did this around four to five years ago, there was an effort to do this with 3GPP, with a lot of effort put into that work, but it was too early in the cycle. The difference this time is that the technologies have obviously moved on, in terms of virtualisation and network slicing, and these new efforts are making the ideas around network convergence much more real.”

Convergence could allow for truly network agnostic services, with VoIP calls that pass between broadband and wireless connections without interruption, for example. The practical applications of this idea have barely been explored because of the differences between various cellular connections and what fixed-line broadband could provide, but 5G could bridge that gap.

“It’s a bit of a loaded term, but the whole idea of ‘build it and they’ll come’, to a certain extent, applies to network convergence,” says Mersh. “Once you really can deliver services that can roam between fixed line and wireless, once the network is irrelevant and people just have capabilities, then who knows what you can develop?”

Demanding expectations
Given the limited scope that 5G will have, at least for the foreseeable future, this kind of network convergence may end up a more practical goal than IoT in every household device and self-driving cars with perfect manoeuvrability. But we still haven’t really addressed what that means for marketers, and how they should be preparing for the advent of 5G, whenever it eventually turns up.

With the expected limited rollout and focus on dense urban areas, 5G-capable mobile devices are likely to remain at the premium end of the market for a while. And while that will mean only a few consumers are likely to be accessing 5G at the beginning, their expectations will be higher than ever, and marketers will need to make sure they are delivering a flawless customer experience.

“5G will shine a light on poor performing operations,” says 51 Degrees’ Rosewell. “The people who are going to invest in 5G handsets, just like 4G, are going to be affluent consumers who are happy to pay a little more for the latest technology. They’re going to have very demanding expectations. What (marketers) should be doing in 2018 and 2019 is making their infrastructure and their operation is efficient and lean, so that it’s ready for 5G, not trying to overlay 5G on something that’s already broken.”

5G will remove any excuses that publishers, marketers and ad tech firms have for offering a secondary experience on mobile. Consumer expectations will be high, with both network operators and device manufacturers pushing 5G in order to make their investment worthwhile. The time for clunky ad tech that slows down page load times is coming to an end. It’s the kind of progress that many in the industry have been calling for, but when the wave of 5G progress finally hits the shore, anyone unprepared could very quickly find themselves all at sea.