Roger Nichols

The myth and reality of 5G wireless: What will really be commercialized in 2020?

Blog Post created by Roger Nichols Employee on Jul 20, 2016

Late seventeenth century Europe saw the publication of Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, perhaps the penultimate document of the Enlightenment. While this and Newton’s other key works place him on the highest dais in the Pantheon of the scientific revolution, he was also devoted to experimentation with the transformation of base metals into gold. With our twenty-first century perspective, it is difficult to reconcile Newton’s unparalleled understanding of nature with the relative absurdity of this faux science. During his lifetime, however, it was inappropriate to call this dichotomy into question.


As risky as it once was to challenge Newton’s work with alchemy, I have found it equally perilous to take a stance on separating myth (or hype) from reality in 5G technology. Because I am a self-taught industry analyst from the test and measurement business, you may question what I can surmise about what the giants of communications can and will do. But since we no longer burn witches, I will explore at least one facet of this topic in suggesting which parts of the 5G vision we can expect to be commercialized in 2020.



Now completed, the METIS 2020 Project envisioned 5G as “Amazingly Fast, Great Service in a Crowd, Best Service Follows You, Super Real-Time and Reliable Communications, and Ubiquitous Things Communicating.” In pursuit of this vision, their work-products show insightful thought on how we can measure progress in these areas. But on January 1, 2020, nobody will throw a “5G switch” causing this vision to explode into reality. As with every other generational change, 5G communications will grow slowly from subset functionality deployed in a few second-tier city-centers; and its growth will be fraught with the same kinds of challenges we saw with every previous generation—plus a few new ones.


There. I made my first prediction. The sentences above suggest some more significant underpinnings of what we can expect from those developing and implementing 5G.


My logic follows from the challenges that hindered previous generations. Does anyone remember voice-codec battles in 2G? (Male vs. female voices? Codec data-rates? Language and phoneme problems?) What about the devastating financial impact of the 3G spectrum auctions, especially in Europe? How about WiMAX vs. LTE? Or 3GPP vs. 3GPP2?


We can also see the continuing 3G-to-4G rollout challenges in front of us even now: the drastically different levels of maturity in the various carriers’ networks around the world; Europe’s latest legal implementation of flat roaming rates for mobile wireless; the list goes on. And if any of my dear readers believe that problems with managing voice are now behind us, have a conversation with anyone involved in the deployment (and, frustratingly, the use) of VoLTE.


All of the challenges in wireless—past, present and future—fit into a common framework: the intertwined evolution of technology, policy and business model. Thus far, the success of the industry is testimony to its ability to overcome the challenges posed by that daunting triumvirate.


Untangling the inherent dynamics can lead to a clearer understanding of how and when the challenges can be overcome. That clarity provides a foundation for industry participants and observers alike to sketch promising business plans—and this is part of my role inside of Keysight, looking for opportunities to create 5G test solutions that will help the industry drive forward to its future vision.


These themes continue in my next two posts as I dig deeper on four specific topics floating inside my crystal ball. Two of these are enabling technologies: millimeter-wave for enhanced mobile broadband and massive MIMO. The other two are potential applications of 5G mobile: wireless IoT and tactile wireless Internet. As a teaser, I state here that just one of these will be commercial by 2020. What’s your take?