Another Reason to Talk About 5G: Pulling Non-Telecom Sectors into the Tent

Ed Gubbins
Ed Gubbins

Be warned: If you’re a mobile operator or a RAN infrastructure vendor, and you want to talk publicly about 5G, you’re going to annoy people.

After all, it’s 2014. 5G isn’t expected to arrive in any real form until around 2020. Right now, it’s not even defined. Usually described as a wish list of disparate features including high speed, low latency and device battery conservation, it could include everything from millimeter wave technology to predictive algorithms. (When I addressed this topic as part of a panel at last year’s LTE North America show, I put it this way: “It’s a little bit zen. In order to understand 5G, you must first understand that there is no 5G.”) So, sure, there’s a lot of work to be done behind the scenes in consortiums and labs and industry standards working group committees and so on. But not in noisy press releases, right? Not yet?

I’ve been one of those annoyed people, by the way. I’ve said that if RAN vendors keep going on and on about 5G, consumers are going to march into their local AT&T and Verizon stores and demand a 5G phone. (That’s right: I’ve both complained about people talking about 5G and discussed the topic on a panel… and blogged about it. I’m complicated.)

However, there are actually are some good reasons for RAN vendors and operators to talk loudly about 5G today. Start with the obvious: It makes sense for RAN vendors to try to assure operators that they are investing in future innovation and can provide a long-term roadmap for network evolution. There are other reasons, too.

5G will be more than just an air interface. It will be more versatile and multi-faceted, accommodating a diverse array of communications services and needs, and it will extend beyond connecting base stations to smartphones and tablets. It could address machine-to-machine applications, small cells, connected cars and probably even an application or two that no one is talking about yet. In other words, it will involve a broad set of stakeholders that need to be heard now in order to have their needs represented in the technology. Connected cars require low-latency links, for example, which is why Volvo and Volkswagen are working with RAN vendors on 5G. For other applications, bandwidth or device battery life may be more important. So, in addition to auto makers, folks in the healthcare and financial sectors need to think about how 5G could benefit their worlds. The entire Internet of Things ecosystem is implicated. (I even recall during that panel at LTE North America an audience member asking if 5G would address connectivity for rail and air travel.)

So, vendors need to beat this drum in order to attract those disparate stakeholders. In fact, each RAN vendor needs to do more than encourage those stakeholders to participate in the consortiums and the labs and so on. Each vendor needs to convey the impression that it, more than any of its competitors, is the most important RAN vendor to engage on this topic – so that each RAN vendor can use that engagement to build its own expertise and leverage it going forward.

So, yes, even in 2014, there are good reasons for RAN vendors and operators to be making noise about 5G (and to blog about it). It’s annoying, I know. But we need to do the hard work of shaping and defining 5G because, once we do, we can finally start talking about 6G.

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