Why It’s Already Time to Start Talking About 5.5G

Ed Gubbins, Principal Analyst

Summary Bullets:

• Huawei has begun promoting “5.5G,” assigning it three new capabilities related to faster uplink, real-time broadband, and harmonization

• 5G is already evolving faster than 4G; going forward, the conventions of technology branding may change

For much of the previous decade, the mobile telecom industry promised that 5G would arrive in 2020. Now we’re only a few months past 2020, and we’re starting to hear more about the next steps: 6G won’t arrive until 2030, but in 2025, there’s 5.5G.

At the IEEE Wireless Communications and Networking Conference (WCNC 2021) last month, Dr. Peiying Zhu, Senior Vice President of Wireless Research at Huawei, delivered a keynote address describing a vision of 5.5G networks. What is 5.5G? Whereas 5G was exemplified by three key use cases – enhanced mobile broadband, massive machine-type communications and ultra-reliable low-latency communications, Huawei’s vision of 5.5G builds upon those three concepts by adding three more:

• Uplink Centric Broadband Communication (UCBC)

• Real-Time Broadband Communication (RTBC)

• Harmonized Communication and Sensing (HCS)

Huawei’s Visual Depiction of 5.5G

Source: Huawei

This move has precedent, of course. Huawei was proactive in promoting the concept of 4.5G back in 2015, using it to one-up competitors and gain 4G market share that would be a foot in the door to win 5G deals.

Some of the hazards inherent in that 4.5G push are likely to resurface in efforts to promote 5.5G. For example, trumpeting the superiority of the next half-generation of technology can make the current generation seem pale by comparison and risk persuading some customers to delay investment and wait for the more advanced technology. Promoting half-Gs can also kick off a war of buzzwords, prompting competitors to respond with what they deem “5.8G” products, and so on (see: Nokia’s4.9G,” etc.).

But there are good reasons to talk about 5.5G that are unique to this moment – based on dynamics that didn’t apply to 4.5G. The first wave of 5G has focused primarily on mobile broadband, while the more promising aspects of it – aimed at enterprise use cases – are still in development. And the fact that many consumers have found its mobile broadband speeds underwhelming relative to 4G places even more importance on the next version of 5G to deliver value. That next version isn’t yet 5.5G, it’s true, but the larger truth is that 5G is already more fragmented than 4G, making it more appropriate to segment.

There’s another aspect to this process that the mobile telecom industry should pay more attention to going forward: The more 5G evolves as an enterprise technology, the more it will confront the fact that enterprises are accustomed to shorter technology lifecycles than mobile operators. Even the relatively dumb pipe of Wi-Fi evolved from its fourth generation to its sixth in a shorter timeframe than a single mobile access technology lifespan typically lasts. As 5G evolves to meet an increasingly diverse set of enterprise needs, and as an increasingly software-centric, virtualized RAN grows more adaptable, changing its fundamental terminology only once a decade might not suffice.

Will it become common for RAN vendors to promote each new tenth of a generation of mobile access technology each year (5.7G one year, 5.8G the next, etc.)? Will it become even more granular or diverse than that? If 5G’s acceleration continues to outpace 4G’s, we may know the answers sooner than we expect.

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