The technical standard may not be complete, but that's not stopping telecom service providers from plotting their fifth-generation (5G) cellular strategies.
Verizon, for example, said in February it is "very much aligned" toward implementing 5G in 2017. That same month, AT&T reported it will conduct lab work this quarter, followed by outdoor tests and trials this summer and field tests in Austin, Texas, before the year's end. But it's not only Tier 1 service providers that are getting involved: Regional operators such as C-Spire have unveiled 5G plans for later in 2016.
Initial commercial 5G devices and networks will use unofficial versions of the technology. That's because as with 3G and 4G, jumping the gun with pre-standard gear means bragging rights and a head start.
"Given that the study item on the 5G radio has really just begun as part of the 3GPP's Release 14 work, any implementation over the next couple of years will technically be pre-standard and would likely be better characterized as a technology demonstration trial," Kevin Linehan, vice president in the office of CommScope's CTO, says in an interview. "The full phase 1 standard is targeted to be issued in late 2018 with 3GPP Release 15. I would be surprised to see any device chipset available sooner than that. However, there is an expectation that Korea will have a 5G system implemented for the 2018 Winter Olympics."
Even though 5G's details are not finalized, many broad goals are set. For example, the speed target is multiple gigabits per second.
"You're looking at achievable data rates of about 100X where we are with LTE," Chris Pearson, 5G Americas president, tells The New IP.
Achieving that will require more and different spectrum, which is why at least some 5G services will be delivered in millimeter-wave bands that span 30 GHz to 300 GHz. This brings challenges such as getting regulators to authorize 5G usage and mastering signal propagation in an environment that's much different from cellular's traditional sub-3 GHz bands.
"Part of the whole concept of 5G is to have millimeter-wave radio," Pearson says. "That would increase capacity."
Fast Enough for a Speeding Car
Huge demand for IoT solutions such as self-driving cars will be one driver for 5G.
Although speed garners the most attention, it's a mistake to overlook latency because it equally affects the types of applications 5G can serve. If 5G can meet its target of 1 to 5 milliseconds, it will be able to support even the most delay-intolerant Internet of Things applications, such as driverless cars.
So with 5G potentially debuting in a year or two, 4G has one foot in the grave, right? Wrong. As we'll explain in a future article later this month, new versions of LTE will keep it viable for at least another decade.
"In many ways, 5G is also about developing a management system for multiple technologies, or in other words, a radio-access-agnostic core network, Linehan says. "It is completely reasonable to expect a future 5G network will have integrated technologies running on 4G, 3G, 2G and even Wi-Fi and Bluetooth."
— Tim Kridel, Freelance Contributor. Follow him on Twitter @TimKridel. Special to The New IP