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5G has been picking up speed faster than a downhill racer—and may seem similarly on the hairy edge of control. From Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona to the latest 3GPP meetings, the buzz is growing louder around topics ranging from fixed wireless to “what’s our next business model?” With apologies for going dark since late March, the following Top Five Hot Topics update is aimed at keeping you abreast of the latest.

1: Fixed-wireless systems are the first step to millimeter-wave 5G

Even with NEMs and device makers anxious to be part of the 2018 winter showcase in South Korea, the first highly visible commercialization will be Verizon’s fixed-wireless system. For two years, VZW has been stalwart in its intent to commercialize in 2017 using its “pre-5G” 5G-TF specification. However, this spec is unique and has some fundamental differences to 3GPP’s New Radio (NR), and orphaned technology is a very real risk. On the plus side, VZW is gaining a first-mover advantage by learning how to enable commercial access without introducing the complexity of mobility.

In response, AT&T has also stated it will deploy a 5G mmWave fixed service, one that will be based on NR. This is why AT&T pushed very hard for the acceleration of the non-standalone (NSA) version of NR.

2: 3GPP accelerating NSA enables NR to happen before R15

“Before R15” means late 2017. With NSA, the 5G radio access network (RAN) will be controlled by the LTE core and hence LTE can be used to set up calls, manage initial access, and even provide fallback capability if the 5G RAN link fails.

The combined effect of Verizon’s decisions and Korea Telecom’s push to commercialize 5G in 2019 drove the industry to ultimately agree to the acceleration. The resulting commercial play will occur somewhat sooner but, in some ways, will be more risky than originally planned.

3: Greenfield spectrum between 2.8 and 5.0 GHz outside the US

5G wireless technology is not just millimeter-wave. Outside the US there is open spectrum between 2.8 and 5.0 GHz that is getting serious attention from major operators in China, Japan, South Korea and several European countries.

Because this is ideal territory for 5G Massive MIMO, much of this will occur in TDD spectrum. It is not clear how, when, or whether, operators will reallocate 3G and 4G spectrum to NR—but the territory between 400 MHz and 3 GHz may undergo a change in the middle or late 2020s based on the relative success of NR in terms of its spectral and energy efficiency.

4: Rapid virtualization of networks will drive flexibility

In April 2016, AT&T announced that its evolved packet core (EPC) was all virtual. Demos at MWC suggested that virtualizing the RAN could reach all the way down to the upper MAC layer. This means network equipment becomes computers, wires (or fiber), and remote radio heads—likely with enough on-board ASIC power to manage the lower MAC, Layer 1, and PHY.

This can enable software-defined networks (SDN), self-organizing networks (SONs) and, further, network slicing. This last item had many compelling demos at MWC and enables operators to create, perhaps in real-time, network slices manifest as software entities. These have different KPIs, depending on what each slice will do for its associated client and business model. For example, a high-reliability slice could take network resources from other slices in order to meet service level agreement (SLA) criteria. While this will prompt serious looks at new business models, it appears to be a case of technology moving faster than policy because one could suggest this is a step towards violation of net neutrality (in those places where it still exists…).

5: Business cases for 5G wireless investment are still under scrutiny

There is still much skepticism about where the money will come from. Debates continue to rage about why any operator would significantly invest simply to develop better capability for a client base with declining average revenue per user (ARPU). Yet, new concepts abound:

  • Third party pays: This is a big one that could expand mobile advertising (e.g., Google). One can envision combining this with entertainment schemes that could function only on a fifth-generation network (think “PokemonGo! 2020”).
  • Automotive/connected car: There are numerous ideas here, and many are associated with third party pays—especially those related to infotainment and entertainment. Most of the hype is related to the facilitation of real-time navigation and automated driving; however, I believe this will happen more slowly than ad- or entertainment-related applications due to policy, technology, and sociological issues.
  • Industrial or municipal: IoT can save billions for municipalities and commercial entities that need to collect data remotely on a real-time basis. This could enable machine learning to manage things even as mundane as parking and garbage management, or open the door to serious data analytics.

Those are my Top Five Hot Topics. What other trends or developments are you seeing?

Blog Post created by Roger Nichols