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2017

You are sitting down to your meeting and the precious hours you spent crafting your message to this important audience have resulted in a presentation resting safely on your laptop computer. You are dressed for success and your audience hungers for the rich fruit of your perspective.

 

The meeting starts on time... but then 15 miserable minutes pass while you and three other impromptu IT “experts” struggle to find the right port, adaptor, and monitor setting to connect your laptop to the projector. If you have never experienced this problem, allow me to suggest that you probably do not exist.

 

Verging on revolution

Are we incompetent operators of IT tools? No. We simply lack a single standard, and I have little hope for convergence. On the other hand, in 5G we are on the verge of something completely revolutionary—a single and globally deployed standard for mobile communications.

 

Since the earliest days of radio, smart people have formed standards organizations to ensure that Marconi’s magic could be applied in a manner enabling us to communicate from afar. A quick perusal of the internet will yield fascinating tales surrounding the standardization of Morse code, radio channels, distress channels (and even “SOS” itself), and spectrum management.

 

Many were developed during predecessors of today’s ITU meetings—and those meetings produced documents that read remarkably like those created today. From 2G forward, we had global standards for cellular communications, but we did not have the potential of a single standard until we reached the fourth generation—and that convergence was forced to cower while the WiMAX/LTE duality threatened the peace of the mobile world for a few tense years.

 

Patiently progressing toward 5G communications

Members of the 3GPP have been working in concert now for more than a year (and ITU for longer than that) to define a fifth-generation standard—the most ambitious development in mobile communications since the advent of analog cellular. Gaining alignment around the globe and across segments of our industry requires difficult technical work hashed out in long meetings, frustrating discussions, email rants, and legal battles. All of this is amongst a demographic of mostly engineers and mathematicians, and our little technical club is not known for its smooth social skills.

 

I do not mean to belittle standards work. Those of you who are not associated with such bodies may be surprised at their scope and breadth. 3GPP has three technical specification groups, each responsible for several technical working groups that develop the details of the specifications. This means around 1,500 people in 20 committees meeting up to eight times annually generating massive amounts of documentation distilled from tens of thousands of technical submissions.

 

Allow me to provide some perspective: a colleague who attends 3GPP RAN4 recently sent a copy of “3GPP TR 38.803 v2.0.0.” This is a 200-page, 11 MB feasibility study on the radio frequency and coexistence aspects of the new 5G wireless air interface. This work-in-progress document represents just one part of one part of one part of one part of the gestating standard: during this sub-group’s last meeting no fewer than 37 documents were submitted for consideration for just the topic of radio testability (one of my favorite topics).

 

The recent 3GPP decision to accelerate the standard comes after a yearlong argument. I will discuss the ramifications in a later post but suffice to say this was driven by a discussion of the tradeoffs relating to enabling new business models, standards “fragmentation,” and the risk of a standard that falls too far short of the 5G communications vision we see so beautifully portrayed in every company’s 5G presentation.

 

Wrestling with conflicting urges

I continue to be overwhelmed by the technical and commercial demands of creating and deploying these standards. As a consumer, I look forward to the wireless standards being as unwavering as the color of traffic lights and certainly more consistent than interfacing with various display projectors. As a supplier of simulation, design, test, and measurement solutions, I must admit that the past 20 years have created wonderful business opportunities spawned by the fragmentation of standards.

 

It is thus difficult for me to find a neutral space here. But while it will take a few years, I believe it will happen… You tell me—will we truly end up with a single global standard?

I hate trade shows. I love Barcelona. I recently found myself once again in this juxtaposition. And thus, I will expound upon “the state of the industry as seen through the eyes of the MWC attendee” and force you to read yet another review of 2017’s Mobile World Congress (MWC).

 

Scale foretells opportunity

According to Ericsson’s Mobility Report, humankind consumes eight exabytes (8´1018!!) of mobile data every month—so the massive scale of GSMA’s flagship event should not be a surprise. But even we regular attendees of the show are overwhelmed by the 100,000-plus attendee list and the breadth of business represented by the 2,300 exhibitors. And I do mean “breadth.” Even though the industry manufactures between two and three billion mobile phones every year (over 100 every second) the show is hardly dominated by those showing off new mobile devices or infrastructure.

 

According to Cheetan Sharma, over-the-top (OTT) revenues surpassed access revenues in 2014. This business opportunity in applications and content was immediately obvious in Barcelona with heavy focus on connected cars and gaming. Most of the major automotive companies and their technology supply-chain were front and center, showing 5G applications relating to connected vehicles and automated or semi-autonomous driving.

 

New and virtualized architectures impress

Virtualized and flexible mobile networks will enable these new applications and new business models. I saw very impressive demonstrations of network slicing enabled by new software architecture combined with scalable high-speed general-purpose processing hardware configurations. From my earliest days in 5G, it was obvious that the biggest part of the 5G revolution will be the new and virtualized network architectures. Even without the hype this was evident at MWC this year.

 

But there is policy-related tension on this topic. A dramatic departure from the previous US administration’s approach to net neutrality became evident during incoming FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s comments: “The private sector has spent $1.5 trillion since 1996 to deploy broadband infrastructure…We would not have seen such innovation if, during the 1990s, the government had treated broadband like a railroad or a water utility.”

 

It is not clear how this will become manifest in the US or whether other countries will follow suit; however, the implications are that operators and even their supply chains—those who will make the largest capital investments in 5G technology —could end up on better footing if they can avoid being regulated as utilities.

 

Analytic software and machine learning step forward

This emphasis on 5G “wireless” solutions based in software is growing in two other areas. There were significant demonstrations of analytic software and machine learning to be applied to the mountains of data generated by IoT. The scope of this ecosystem, made clear in the first paragraphs above, indicates ripe opportunity to leverage all that information for everything from business optimization to entirely new business models. Coupled with this was significant attention to security issues relating to protection of privacy, prevention of threats to system performance and availability, and preemption of misuse of wireless systems.

 

The (innovation) game is afoot

In a future blog post I will review William Webb’s rather skeptical book, The 5G Myth: When Vision Decoupled From Reality. At the risk of revealing my position, I will close with this: In a panel discussion involving mobile operators and their network suppliers, the CTO of one large operator was asked which one of the network equipment manufacturers would most benefit from 5G technology. He stated that such a company was not on the stage. Rather, it was a startup somewhere on the exhibit floor—one that was innovating and iterating at a pace he had not seen in prior deployment generations.

 

Virtualized network architectures and OTT business models requiring large technology investments: where will the money come from? You may recall my comments about Pokémon GO. Snap, the maker of an application used primarily by teenagers to share photos, is now public and valued at over $25 billion. Did you see that coming five years ago?

 

The scope of business models enabled by a faster, more flexible network and empowered by very sophisticated devices means opportunity for the innovative that can leverage the massive scale we see manifest at the world’s biggest show of its kind.

 

Whether you were in the throng or followed from afar, what stood out to you? Where do you think we will be when MWC 2018 rolls around?