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Three-Year Dash to 5G takes a Long, Winding (and Familiar) Road

Engineers and executives from major cellular carriers converged in Austin, Texas to engage in passionate exchanges about 5G rollout plans, business opportunities and technical challenges. There’s consensus among this group — 5G isn’t just “another G.” It’s a brand new, automated world of constant connectivity that is experiencing the beginning of a fourth Industrial Revolution.

Three-Year Dash to 5G takes a Long, Winding (and Familiar) Road

Like most of the cellular carriers, Sprint, represented at the 5G North Americas conference by Vice President of Technology Ron Marquardt, has circled a good chunk of 2019 and the first half of 2020 in red marker — the general target area for 5G service rollout. While Marquardt is excited about what lies beyond, he is laser-focused on the two-and-a-half years ahead. “The rollout process to 5G will be immensely complex, marked with significant technical, security and even marketing tests for all of us,” he says. “To fulfill its purpose, 5G will require the seamless integration of many familiar and unfamiliar technologies [including satellite], a broader discussion and collaboration on standards and the gaining of public trust on securing information. Accomplishing all of this while aggressively trying to accelerate deployment will be a very intense, but exciting challenge.”

Sprint, of course, will have a little help from its friends. With technical and service partnerships in place with Qualcomm and SoftBank, Sprint is looking at a service rollout launch of late 2019. The carrier will use 2.5 GHz spectrum as its low-band 5G and hopes to acquire resources in unlicensed spectrum to go beyond — a strategy very similar to what’s seen today with LTE.

T-Mobile Vice President of Technology Development and Strategy Karri Kuoppamaki says his company is paving its rollout path to 5G with the lower-bandwidth spectrum at 600 MHz that it recently acquired in auctions. “We’re taking a holistic approach to 5G rollout, building out massive connectivity networks that expand out from urban hotspots to create the IoT-powered, automated smart cities of the future,” he says. “Many of our competitors are focused on millimeter wave spectrum to deliver high speeds and low latency across the entire range of the network. We, on the other hand, feel that coverage is key. So, we plan to utilize the 600 MHz spectrum for a nationwide footprint and then boost capacity in urban areas with the millimeter wave that we acquired with the MetroPCS purchase in urban areas — that alone reaches 100 million potential customers across the United States.”

After his rollout-centered presentation, Kuoppamaki fills us in with the details of some of the 5G network’s guts, including the role of backhauling. “For us, backhauling will play a critical role in the network architecture, comprised of a ‘mixed bag’ of services to connect 5G nodes,” he says, acknowledging that satellite will be present in the bag. When asked about standards, Kuoppamaki only offers a brief comment that they are moving toward completion and cites T-Mobile’s work in trials to minimize “path loss” issues that are detrimental to speeds.

AT&T Director of Core & Government Regulatory Standards Brian Daly continued the discussion about 5G trials, providing an update on his company’s efforts to test how the equipment and software from its partners interoperate outdoors and indoors. “In late May, we will start a 5G video trial that will stream DirecTV video service to residential and business customers,” said Daly. “Later this year, we will be working with Qualcomm and Ericsson on mobile and fixed 5G trials that will use the 5G New Radio (NR).”

5G NR is a specification developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a unified organization of seven telecommunications standard developers that contribute specifications and studies for cellular telecommunications network technologies. John Smee, vice president of engineering for Qualcomm, has been a significant contributor to this work, which is driven by the scarcity of spectrum and the need for advanced spectrum sharing technologies. “We’ll see opportunities to take spectrum sharing to another level in 5G,” he says. “5G NR can support all spectrum types with flexibility, thanks to the design of frame structure with forward compatibility. It will make more spectrum available, but also increase overall utilization by enabling a coordinated, tier-based sharing mechanism that can dynamically adapt to loading conditions.”

Smee says that 5G will not be defined by a single speed, technology or approach, but built out of several different technologies. Caroline Chan, vice president and general manager of 5G infrastructure for Intel agrees, and adds that 5G isn’t all about mobility either — there’s a fixed element to it that many people within and outside of the telecommunications world don’t fully understand. “Fixed wireless migration and a mixture of fixed and wireless broadband services will be the first big applications and verticals for 5G,” she says. “Broadband is still very low-hanging fruit for the industry thanks to the endless need for complex, immersive entertainment. We’re still in the middle of a new digital transformation. The IoT device explosion hasn’t even come yet.”

Philippe Andres, vice president of North America for Orange, diverges a bit. He admits that simple broadband connectivity, in general, is still very lucrative and most likely the first big market for 5G. However, he feels that there are more impressive 5G use cases in other verticals. “We have been very impressed with the use cases we’ve seen with connected cars,” he says, referring to trials it has run in France with Qualcomm. “There are several opportunities here, just in connecting to automotive vehicles — cars and industrial vehicles — from entertainment to automation to delivering safety information to updating the firmware in a car’s computer. Being able to update software over a mobile connection alone prevents very expensive maintenance.”

The terrestrial world is proud of its identity as a simultaneous enabler of both connectivity and the applications that drive demand. Cellular carriers are much more active than their satellite counterparts in pushing and investing in specific applications. However, when asked to identify what aspect of 5G worries them and keeps them awake at night —– the conversation becomes very familiar.

“5G is a foundational technology for the future of communications that could be as important as the commercialization of the Internet,” says Daly. “But we really have to tackle the privacy and security concerns if the public is going to buy in and trust being a part of this constantly connected world. Security risks and network vulnerabilities in verticals like healthcare and retail create major issues that are very expensive to deal with.”

Bob Everson, director of Cisco’s global service provider segment, says he is worried that operators will miss out on clear 5G business cases in industry and enterprise because they will be too concerned about the cost of building the necessary infrastructure. “There are good business models out there that optimize the cost of 5G network investment. There are also services that are being tested in use cases that don’t require full 5G. This is how Cisco is working with enterprises to make sure these opportunities aren’t missed,” he says.

Others like Chan and Andres worry about lack of industry consolidation on standards, the lack of guarantees on unlicensed spectrum needed to power the aforementioned applications, and the lack of a plan or policy on shared spectrum. “There’s an enormous ecosystem to be built here — we’re talking about 34 billion active connected devices in less than four years,” says Chan with a smile. “It might be necessary for operators to look at some new partners to solve these challenges. We might find ourselves investing in new entities that bring new ideas to the table. It’s never a bad thing to have more friends.”

These cellular carriers will have a chance to make new friends this coming October at the D.C. 5G Summit in Washington — a telecommunications industry event that aims to create a dialog about 5G development that includes the entire spectrum of wireless, satellite and mobile operators. Yes, spectrum policy will be the uncomfortable elephant in the room, but both sides share several common technical challenges, as well as unique assets that could prove mutually beneficial in a partnership. VS