On the Cusp of 5G

Plenty of Firsts and a Few Challenges

This week I spent several days at Qualcomm’s 4G/5G summit in Hong Kong. The event brings together all the major participants in the mobile industry. It provided an opportunity to not only listen to the set-piece presentations and panels, but to canvas informal feedback from operators, device makers, application developers and technologists, who are all working to make the next generation of technology a reality. It gave me a chance to take the pulse of advances in 5G, and I was impressed with what I saw.

Before the event I was starting to tire of the constant stream of “world firsts” associated with 5G. This was something my colleague Kester Mann highlighted at our recent Predictions event. He provided a number of examples of operators getting ahead of themselves in the race to be first with 5G. He pointed out that three operators in the Middle East — Ooredoo, Etisalat and STC — have amusingly all claimed to be the first with a 5G network in the region. We’re seeing similar pattern of claims all around the world, most recently in the UK this week.

For me, these claims are a somewhat ridiculous notion given the lack of commercial 5G-capable devices, but I guess it’s all part of the marketing game associated with any new technology.

At Qualcomm’s event I won’t deny there was plenty of 5G hype, but there was genuine evidence of progress in several areas. Qualcomm, Ericsson and local operator SmarTone demonstrated video streaming on a live network with infrastructure based on 3GPP Release 15 using a test device approaching the size of a smartphone.

Add to this the range of presentations from operators discussing their plans for 5G, including BT, China Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, KT, MTS, NTT DoCoMo, Orange, SKT, Sprint, Telstra and Verizon, and I definitely felt the market is moving from talking about 5G to getting serious about implementing it.

Beyond networks, where most of the activity has been to date, there was also positive news on 5G-capable handsets. Qualcomm’s president, Cristiano Amon, proudly showed off the company’s 5G reference design for smartphones, which is just 9.5 mm thick. He hinted that the device will be used in demonstrations by the end of 2019 and will incorporate its second-generation millmetre-wave antenna modules, which were also unveiled. There were also appearances by smartphone makers such as OnePlus and Xiaomi, and confirmation by Qualcomm that it is working with pretty much every phone maker on 5G, with the notable and not unexpected exception of Apple, with which the chip-maker is locked in a fierce legal battle.

Despite all this progress, I’m certainly not naive enough to believe that it means the course to 5G is now plain sailing. There are still huge problems to be overcome and some of them are pretty basic. It was interesting talking on the sidelines of the event to an executive from a major operator who pointed out that there were real-world challenges beyond the technology. An example was the preparation of cell sites for the deployment of Massive MIMO 5G networks. This is technically complex, but first and foremost a major engineering challenge focused on “metal and concrete” given the size and weight of equipment. And that’s before you even start trying to negotiate with landlords to install them.

The other big question is what will 5G be used for, especially as there’s still plenty of life left in 4G, particularly with technologies such as gigabit LTE? I was a little dismayed not to see more tangible examples at the event, given big companies such as Amazon, Honeywell and Microsoft were present. It was somewhat alarming that the awkwardly named eXtended Reality (XR), which is a catch-all term for augmented and virtual reality solutions, remains a poster child for what will be possible with 5G. It’s fun technology but I’m not sure I’d want to build a 5G business case on it.

However, I took solace from the more realistic views from the operators I listened to and chatted with informally. There’s a recognition that capacity is a pillar supporting investment as mobile users continue to do more and more with their smartphones. Add to that the opportunity to connect millions, billions or even trillions of connected IoT devices (the scale depends on who you talk to, but I’ll settle for millions at this point) and the benefits that high-speed, low-latency networks afford, and you can see the path is set for 5G to flourish.

One thing is certain: Qualcomm’s event in 2019 is going to be a very different affair. There will be numerous fully commercial 5G networks deployed around the world and plenty of 5G-capable devices including smartphones and fixed mobile access terminals, albeit it at premium prices. The focus will be on the learnings from those initial deployments and the plans for second-generation devices as more networks launch.

I’m excited to be part of the 5G journey. Now I hope the industry can temper some of the tiresome hype and one-upmanship that has characterized a lot of the discussions about 5G to date and knuckle down making commercial networks and devices a reality.

For more analysis of Qualcomm’s Hong Kong event CCS Insight clients can read our report Instant Insight: Qualcomm 4G/5G Summit