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5G: Industry Politics, Use-Cases & a Realistic Timeline
November 16, 2016 | By Dean Bubley @ Disruptive Analysis
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We are pleased to share with you all an interesting article contributed by Dean Bubley who is mobile & telecom sector analyst, expert consultant & conference speaker.

Dean Bubley

Founder and Director at Disruptive Analysis

 

Things are moving incredibly fast for 5G!

...or are they? A couple of recent headlines make it a little hard to tell:

  Verizon Eyes "Wireless Fibre" Launch in 2017 

  Verizon Rejects AT&T-led Effort to Speed Up Release of 5G Standard

 

So, does Verizon want early 5G, or not? Are we looking at a 2017 launch, or still 2019-20? Why the apparent contradiction? And what about other operators in Asia and Europe?

 

I've been to recent 5G events including NGMN's conference (link), and a smaller one this week organised by Cambridge Wireless and the UK's National Infrastructure Commission (link). I've also been debating with assorted fellow-travellers online and at this week's WiFi Now event (link).

 

In my view, Verizon (and SKT in South Korea) are gunning hard for early "pre-5G" well in advance of the full standards, but are also subtly trying to push back the development of "proper" 5G so that they're able to influence it to their advantage. That's especially true for Verizon, which seems to be trying to out-game AT&T its with 5G strategy.

 

It's helpful to note a few things going on in the background:

  • 28GHz is definitely "a thing". The FCC released huge chunks of spectrum for 5G this summer (link). Even though 28GHz wasn't even identified as a candidate 5G band by ITU originally, and mmWave wasn't expected to be standardised until 2020, it is starting to look like an early "done deal", as it's also available for use in S Korea and Japan.
  • The Winter Olympics in Korea in 2018 has prompted local operators KT and SKT, as well as Samsung, to look for pre-5G solutions. They've already spent quite a lot of effort on 28GHz trials (as has DoCoMo in Japan which has the 2020 Summer Olympics) and they've gone well. They have been mostly interested in mobile broadband.
  • Verizon (and to an extent AT&T) have a different driver - gigabit-speed fixed broadband. They have been stung by the rapid growth of cable, which has far outpaced DSL in speed and market share. They also want to shut down the old PSTN and go to all-IP architectures. The problem is that much of the US is too sparsely-populated to run FTTH everywhere - putting new fibre in a trench down rural roads and driveways in Idaho, to serve a handful of homes is not appealing. But running fibre to a pole or cabinet distribution point & then using 5G as a "drop" to say 10-100 homes nearby is much cheaper. T-Mobile US and USCellular have also been trialling fixed-wireless 5G, although any deployment would be harder without their own fibre backhaul and transport infrastructure. Ericsson and Nokia are also involved in the trials.
  • Fixed-access 5G won't need complex network-slicing & NFV cores to be useful, as it can be functionally similar to other forms of broadband access. It also won't need mobility, or fallback to 4G, and will be able to run in big wall-mounted terminals connected to a power supply - and sold/branded by the carrier rather than Apple et al. In other words, it's a lot simpler, and a lot faster-to-market.
  • Meanwhile, the other "headline" use-case groups for 5G have some issues. "Massive IoT" is probably going to have to wait until after the 4G variant NB-IoT has been deployed and matured. A 5G version of low-power IoT networking seems unlikely before 2020-22. And the ultra-low latency IoT use-cases (drones and self-driving cars et al) introduce some unpleasant compromises in IP frame structure, and given probable low volumes are something of a "tail wagging the 5G dog". In other words, the IoT business models for 5G don't really exist yet.
  • Linked to the IoT argument, it seems that the much-vaunted NFV "network slicing" approach to combine all these myriad use-cases is going to be late, expensive, complex and in need of better integration with BSS/OSS and legacy domains. I wrote about my doubts over slicing last month - link

So in other words, the original 3-Bubble Venn diagram for 5G use-cases (Enhanced Mobile Broadband, Massive IoT & Low-Latency IoT) was wrong. There's a 4th bubble - fixed wireless, which is going to come first.

 

 

And this is massively important in the new technology reality. Increasingly often these days, fast-to-market beats perfect and then often defines future direction as well. We have seen various disruptions from adjacency, where expedient "narrow" solutions beat theoretical elegant-but-grandiose architectures to the punch. SD-WAN's rapid rise is disrupting the original NFV/NaaS plan for enterprise services, for example (link). Similarly, the rise of Internet VoIP and chat apps signalled the death-knell for IMS as a platform for anything except IP-PSTN.

 

In this case, I believe that fixed-wireless 5G - even if "pre-standard" and relatively small in volume - is going to set the agenda for later mobile broadband 5G, and then even-later IoT 5G. If it gets traction, there's a good chance the inertia will create de-facto standards and also skew official standards to ensure interoperability. This is already evident in steam-rollering 28GHz into the picture. (It's also worth remembering that Apple's surprise early decision to support 1.8GHz for LTE shifted the market a few years ago - while that had been an "official" band, it hadn't been expected to be popular so soon).

 

The critical element here is that AT&T is much more bullish and focused on mobile broadband (especially in urban hotspots) as a lead use-case for 5G, plus backhaul-type point to point connections. It expects that "the coverage layer will be 4G for many years to come”. At the NGMN conference the speaker noted that fixed uses were also of interest, but was wary of the business case - for instance whether it was possible to reach 10 homes or 30 from a single radio head. It also seems more interested in 70-80GHz links to apartment blocks, using existing in-building wiring, rather than Verizon's 28GHz rural-area drops. Coupled with its CEO's rather implausible assertion that mobile 5G will compete with cable broadband (link), this suggests it is somewhat distant from the Verizon/SKT/DoCoMo group. 

 

The kicker for me is the delay to the 3GPP standardisation of what is called the "non-standalone" NSA version 5G radio, which uses a 4G control plane and is suitable for mobile devices (link). Despite its bullishness on fixed-5G, Verizon has pushed the timeline for the more mobile-friendly version back 6 months, against AT&T's wishes. The NSA and SA versions will now both be targeted for the June 2018 meeting of the standards body, rather than December 2017.

 

The official reason given is fairly turgid "in order to effectively define a non-standalone option which can then migrate to a standalone, a complete study standalone would be required to derisk the migration". But I suspect the truth is rather more political: it gives Verizon and its partners (notably Samsung) another 6 months to get their 28GHz fixed-access solution into the market. Qualcomm has just announced a pre-5G chip that can accommodate just that, too. This means that standardised eMBB devices probably won't arrive until mid-2019, although there may be a few pre-standard ones for the 2018 Winter Olympics and elsewhere.

 

This will cement not just the 28GHz band in place, but also the fixed-5G uses and the idea that 5G doesn't need the full, fancy network-slicing NFV back-end. Given AT&T's huge emphasis on its eCOMP virtualisation project, that reduces the possible future advantage that might accrue if 5G was "always virtualised". It may also mean that lessons from real-world deployment get fed into the 2018 standards in some fashion, further advantaging the early movers. This is especially the case if it turns out that 28GHz can support some form of mobility - and early comments from Samsung suggest they've already experimented with beam-steering successfully.

 

Meanwhile.... what about Europe? Well to be honest, I'm a bit despondent. The European operators seem to be using 5G as a political football, playing with the European Commission and aiming at the goal marked "less net-neutrality and more consolidation". In July, a ridiculously-political "manifesto" was announced by a group of major telcos (link), trying to promise some not-very-demanding 5G rollouts if the EU agrees to a massive watering-down of regulation. The European 5G community also seems to be seduced by academia and the promise of lots of complex network-slicery and equally-dubious edge-computing visions. It's much more interested in the (late, uncertain-revenue) IoT use-cases rather than fixed-access and mobile broadband. And it has earmarked 26GHz (not 28) as a possible band for 2019 ITU Radio Congress to consider. 

 

In other words, it's missing the boat. By the time the EU, the European operators and European research institutions get their 5G act together, we'll have had a repeat of 4G, with the US, Korea and Japan leading the way. 

 

So overall, I see Verizon outmanouevring AT&T, once again. The Koreans and Japanese will benefit from VZ's extra scale and heft in moving vendors faster (notably Samsung, it seems, as Nokia and Ericsson seem more equivocal). The Europeans will be late to the party, once again. And the "boring" use-cases for 5G (fixed access and mobile broadband) will come out first, while the various IoT categories stand around waiting for the promised NFV slice-utopia to catch up.

 


This article was originally published at http://disruptivewireless.blogspot.in/2016/10/a-realistic-5g-view-timelines-standards.html

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