Author(s): Geoff Blaber
Not long ago, 5G seemed like it was only a vision. Major stakeholders made bold promises that the technology would be available by the end of 2018, changing economies and people's way of living, but embellishment has become an integral part of developing each new generation of wireless technologies.
However, during the past two years, 5G has seen an impressive pace of development. Roll-outs, even if tempered, will soon be a reality.
Last week, the 5G ecosystem reached a new milestone, when 3GPP, the international wireless standards body, officially approved the 5G standalone specifications in Release 15.
At the end of 2017, 3GPP ratified its first 5G non-standalone specification. This accelerated the development of 5G networks by exploiting the existing LTE core. It also brought the industry into line with standards and headed off a looming fragmentation risk. The latest announcement means operators can now look toward adopting the standalone 5G standard. This is important, as it allows 5G to exist independently of previous-generation networks. Crucially, the standard also implements its own core network, which is vital to deliver quality of service, low latency and an intelligent network that can be "sliced" to address diverse uses without relying on previous wireless generations.
The final Release 15 standard was an arduous task to complete: it took 34 months of individual and collective engineering accomplishments. About 1,500 experts were brought together by 3GPP in Busan, South Korea in May 2018, where the organisation hosted sessions attended by over 600 delegates from component suppliers, infrastructure suppliers and wireless operators from around the globe. It is a credit to the industry that 3GPP manages to navigate so many members, contributions and vested interests.
Despite the announcement, we believe that expectations need to be softened. The vast majority of initial 5G launches will use the non-standalone variant, with core network upgrades and standalone compatibility coming later. LTE will remain an important supporting technology for years to come, and there'll be a learning curve as applications mature and 5G connectivity weaves its way into billions of connected devices and end-points.>
Nonetheless, 5G is a crucial development. While the industry is wrangling with business cases, the near-term rationale for investment is simple, with 5G poised to deliver new and much-needed capacity. As we have consistently argued, mobile broadband will be the short-term driving force for 5G. Massive Internet of things and mission-critical uses will carve out a major role in the years to come, once coverage and quality of service have established themselves. But there are also near-term applications in which 5G's low-latency advantage will be the differentiator that throughput was for 4G (look out for a Daily Insight on this topic next week).
Standalone 5G is another big step forward for the industry and an important part of enabling the long-term development of mobile networks, allowing operators to move independently of the 4G legacy. However, we caution against the industry's collective love of claiming "industry firsts", a wave of which followed the 3GPP announcement. Marketing of 5G risks saturating the market long before handsets appear in 2019. This could be exacerbated by network launches in the US later in 2018 in advance of hardware, which could be perceived as meaningless if not managed effectively. Standardisation of 5G has made great strides; the industry only needs to ensure that marketing enthusiasm doesn't move faster than network, chipset and device development.
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