- Network equipment vendors have been pushing mobile operators to begin evolving their LTE networks toward 5G for some time.
- Though vendors have their own reasons for this push, operators have several reasons to heed their advice.
- At the same time, operators do need to avoid moving too early toward 5G.
For some time now, vendors of mobile access infrastructure have been urging operators to start evolving their networks toward 5G, well in advance of the technology being concretely defined.
- Huawei was perhaps earliest to this game, creating and promoting the term ‘4.5G’ (later linking the term to ‘LTE-Advanced Pro,’ the name for Release 13 of 3GPP specs).
- ZTE followed with ‘pre5G,’ which encompassed massive MIMO, ultra-dense networks (including small cells) and multi-user shared access technologies.
- Ericsson took a multi-pronged approach, introducing 5G Plug-In software and hardware on separate occasions, but without submitting its own equivalent ‘4.5G/pre5G’ label.
- Nokia proclaimed the new AirScale base station it unveiled in early 2016 to be ‘5G-ready,’ more recently creating the labels ‘4.5G Pro’ (in part to emphasize the need to support the next generation of devices) and ‘4.9G’ (just to cause trouble, I guess).
It’s not hard to see the forces motivating vendors to try to direct widespread operator interest in 5G toward near-term purchases. After all, the global lull between 4G and 5G spending waves hasn’t been easy for them (just ask Ericsson’s departed CEO). And engaging with operators on these intermediate steps – while communicating a long-term evolution path – could help vendors shore up 5G market share early.
However, vendors have rightly been met with skepticism about whether their solutions can support 5G today when too much of the technology is still being developed. After all, making 5G-related network changes too far in advance of 5G’s arrival could be hazardous for operators. The greatest threats there take three forms:
- Investing in infrastructure that later needs to be replaced to align with changes in how 5G technologies and standards evolved.
- Evolving the network in the wrong sequence (e.g., deploying radios or antennas that need to be changed later to conform with changes made further upstream in the network, such as cloud-based architectures).
- Cutting short the life of existing infrastructure in a way that renders the return on those investments unacceptable to the operator’s business model.
That said, don’t assume that vendors are jumping the gun on 5G for their own self-interest. On the contrary, there are plenty of reasons for mobile operators to start preparing their networks for 5G sooner rather than later:
- At this stage in 5G’s development, loose definitions are okay. We know enough about some key attributes – network slicing, high capacity, low latency, interworking with 4G – to engage with these capabilities and plan network evolutions and service strategies based on them.
- Operators would do well to bring equipment with 5G-related capabilities into their labs now to test and experiment with them. This not only helps operators climb the learning curve of these new technologies; it also allows them to influence how they’re refined and optimized, and to influence industry standards as well.
- 5G isn’t considered a transport technology, but transport networks need to prepare for 5G, too (especially regarding the key attributes mentioned above), and they need to evolve before access networks do, so they don’t create bottlenecks. (This is why some transport network vendors have picked up on the ‘5G-Ready’ marketing theme.)
- 5G will complement and co-exist with 4G, not replace it, just as 4G co-exists with 3G in many networks today. But operators don’t want to manage complex, inefficient 3G/4G/5G networks. So, legacy network sunsets are another part of 5G evolution and need to be planned accordingly.
- 5G will be a competitive differentiator for operator services. As we’ve seen with previous ‘Gs,’ operators that are first to 5G will wield a competitive advantage.
- Near-term engagement with 5G-related capabilities also helps operators engage with the enterprises that will be important consumers of new 5G services. Operators need to work with enterprises on these technologies and communicate authority to them at the same time.
To be sure, the growing list of terms vendors are using to ease operators toward 5G may be getting cluttered and superfluous. But, operators shouldn’t let that distract them from solidifying their own actual evolution strategies, including the timing that’s best for them.