How Can Consensus Be Achieved in 5G?

Ed Gubbins - Senior Analyst, Mobile Access Infrastructure
Ed Gubbins – Senior Analyst, Mobile Access Infrastructure

Summary Bullets:

  • 5G technologies and standards are being developed by a wide variety of entities and groups across the globe.
  • There are both hurdles to and incentives for these stakeholders to come to the necessary agreement on key topics.

A question came up at the end of the 5G webinar I participated in last week (an archive of which is now available).  More than a question, really; you could call it a concern.

During my presentation, I listed some of the organizations that are helping to develop 5G technologies and standards.  You know, industry groups (5GPPP, METIS, the 5G Forum, NGMN, IMT-2020, etc.), major universities (Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, etc.), announced collaborations between specific equipment vendors and operators (Ericsson and LG U+, Huawei and Telefonica, Nokia and du, etc.).

I also made the point that achieving a certain level of unity on 5G is crucial for its stakeholders because no one wants to emulate the global division of 3G technologies that split the world into CDMA and WCDMA.

The question was: “How can consensus really be achieved considering the number of players?”

It’s fair to ask.  After all, even LTE, which we think of as a globally uniform 4G standard, wasn’t without rifts.  Competition between LTE and WiMAX probably did the industry more harm than good in the long run, as the WiMAX ecosystem swelled and then shrank, forcing most of its proponents to retreat to firmer ground.  Putting WiMAX aside, LTE is splintered into TD-LTE and FD-LTE.

If consensus on LTE was elusive, it should be much tougher to achieve with 5G, since 5G is more diverse, including a long list of distinct capabilities (everything from high capacity and low latency to device battery preservation and much more).  And it’s tied to a diverse set of use cases (from autonomous cars to IoT agriculture), market demand for which is bound to be lumpy rather than homogenous across the globe.

5G stakeholders are naturally debating spectrum bands, both high and low – not surprising, given how spectrum assets and regulatory practices vary from one region to the next.  For example, UHF might be more popular in the Americas than in Europe, L-band might be more favored in Europe than in China and so on.  Millimeter wave is another example.  Its large swaths of bandwidth make it, to many people, an easy choice to try to keep pace with 5G capacity demands.  But, not all equipment vendors are equally vocal on millimeter wave’s role in 5G.  That’s not surprising when we look at how millimeter wave is applied to backhaul applications today.  We can see that its vulnerability to moisture in the air is more relevant in some climates than others, which affects the level of demand for it from one geography to the next.  Given that dynamic, will the world agree on exactly how millimeter wave should be used in 5G?  We’ll see.

Yes, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about consensus.  However, there are also reasons to be hopeful.  Start with the big one: Consensus means a stronger ecosystem and more beneficial economies of scale, which makes 5G more cost-effective all around.  Also, we haven’t yet heard of any competing technologies that would seriously challenge 5G – a good sign.  And while there might be disagreements over spectrum, those disagreements may not end up being onerous; remember that dividing LTE into FD and TD camps didn’t unduly impact its ecosystem, nor did it prevent LTE from becoming one of the most rapidly deployed technologies in communications history.

Next, consider this: Much more so than LTE, 5G is being built to accommodate a wide variety of preferences in the market.  Down to the individual use cases, 5G is being designed to tailor network characteristics for specific applications.  This approach could render the technology flexible enough to cater to lots of differing opinions.  It could leave plenty of room for operators to respond to the unique needs of their own markets – and even differentiate from their competitors – while still fitting under 5G’s big technological tent.  In other words, while it’s important to find consensus on key aspects of 5G, one of the most promising things about 5G may be the ways in which it doesn’t require consensus.

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