AT&T Introduces “5G Evolution”: Is This the Moment When 5G Became a Marketing Term?

John Byrne
John Byrne – Service Director, Service Provider Infrastructure

Summary Bullets:

• AT&T launched the first of what it calls “5G Evolution” upgrades slated for 20 major metros in the U.S. in 2017.

• As with the introduction of 4G/LTE, operators are likely to begin treating “5G” as more of a marketing tool than a specific set of performance specs.

The history of mobile network evolution used to be pretty clear. First there was analog (which, by the way, no one referred to as “1G”), which was the service customers had in the 1980s – simple voice over inefficient networks, but that was OK because most people couldn’t afford cellphones (which were at that time “carphones”).
Then came 2G (which was simply referred to as “digital” to differentiate it from analog service). As cellular operators began launching 2G GSM networks in the early 1990s, customers began to use basic services like SMS and mobile e-mail access, though unless you had a BlackBerry the process was pretty painful.

2G was followed by 3G, originally introduced in 1998. The introduction of 3G brought significant improvements in data speeds, which in turn brought larger-screened BlackBerries and other smartphones better equipped for downloading and texting. However, that’s where the confusion started on the “Gs.” 3G was followed by 3.5G, 3.75G, 4G, 4G/LTE, 4.5G, 4.9G and “pre-5G” depending on the operator and/or vendor. The fact that none of these terms align with any official standards from the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) or any other standards bodies meant all of these terms virtually lost their meaning.

Which brings us to “5G.” The good news here is that the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance – which comprises mobile operators, telecom equipment vendors, and a number of academic research institutes – has established clear goals for what performance criteria must be achieved for mobile networks to be truly 5G. These include the ability to transmit 10 Terabytes of data per square kilometer of network coverage; the ability to support peak user data rates in excess of 10 Gb per second, a reduction in network latency to less than 5 milliseconds for Internet communication and less than 1 millisecond for vehicle-to-vehicle communication.

Those are lofty goals that, if achieved, create a variety of intriguing use cases for operators around connected car, augmented/virtual reality, interactive gaming, and IoT. The challenge is this: network deployments are iterative – the initial 5G New Radio (NR) standard is slated for completion by the end of 2017 but there are several upgrades to 4G standards coming in the next few years that will be crucial for 5G to achieve its performance goals. Also, in order to achieve the goals set out by the NGMN on 5G, network operators will need to make significant network investments. In short, many of the goals of 5G will not be achieved by 2020, and with 5G unlikely to be ubiquitously deployed in the same way that 4G/LTE has, much of the promise of 5G may not be fully achieved at all, at least not network-wide.

That brings us to AT&T’s announcement April 25 that it had launched the first of what it calls “5G Evolution” upgrades slated for 20 major metros in the U.S. in 2017. The new service, only available to customers using the new Galaxy S8 or S8+, offers what AT&T calls “a taste of the future.” However, that description probably also characterizes the marketing environment that is likely to take hold around the term “5G”: 4G history indicates that AT&T’s competitors are likely to follow suit in co-opting the “5G” term in some form over the next few years. Then, with several “pre-standards” 5G deployments in the works internationally in 2018 the meaning of the 5G term is likely to become even blurrier.

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