The first time I really began to think about 5G becoming a reality followed a visit to “the world’s largest academic 5G innovation centre”, at the University of Surrey in the UK, which opened its doors in September after three years of development.
Here, I witnessed what was claimed to be “the world’s first demos” running on 5G technology speeds, catering to both IoT and 4K video services.
The centre itself is indeed impressive, and is set to house 24 members, including the UK’s four operators, all focused on developing 5G, with an on-campus trial earmarked for 2018.
These developments in Surrey were followed by an announcement from the European Union, which said it would partner with China to “make 5G a reality by 2020”, building on similar handshakes with Japan and South Korea.
Announcing the news in his own blog post, EC commissioner Guenther Oettinger said China and the EU are “committed to reaching a global standard for the concept, basic functionalities, key technologies and a time plan for 5G by the end of the year”.
Alongside the EU-backed FANTASTIC 5G consortium in July, which pins together 16 members dedicated to standardising the technology, Europe is arguably set.
But of course, everyone else wants in. In Asia, alongside agreements with the Europeans, operators are looking to be the first 5G adopters, with the goal to get 5G ready in time for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games.
The US also recently made its intentions clear, with Verizon set to lead a project to hold field trials for the technology next year, proclaiming “5G is no longer a dream from the distant future”.
A big statement. But with all the announcements and investment going into a 5G world, it’s becoming harder to disagree. So, is the market actually ready?
“2020 seems all right to me, it could even be a bit early,” commented Nicolas Demassieux (pictured, below), SVP at Orange Labs research. “There’s always a risk of running a PR race between various regions of the world about who can get there first. I’ve been hearing about it being ready for the Olympics as a major headline maker.”
When considering 5G timescales, Demassieux cannot help but reflect on a time when a lot of players were hyping up pre-4G technology WiMAX, “when the market invested a lot of energy, made a lot of noise and nothing really came of it”.
Then, there was 3G, which he says “was also pushed by some players too fast, and you end up with a standard that is not fully satisfactory”.
Indeed, Orange’s man is refreshingly cautious, unlike most in the industry, about overhyping what is coming with 5G, and indeed the apparent rush in getting it deployed.
He’s headed up Orange’s 5G development for about three years, with the decision to develop the technology “largely based on trends in the wireless space that dictate there should a new generation of mobile internet every ten years or so”.
And while establishing what 5G actually will be has had the industry at odds for some time now, Demassieux claims research for 4G proved even more difficult.
He recalls starting the process at a time when smartphones were not so common in the market, meaning the best part of a decade was spent understanding how the boom in smartphones would impact user behaviour, and creating a standard based on that.
For 5G, Orange is pinning its work on three key areas; IoT, energy, and the experience of the user. “These three things were also not available when we started 4G. IoT, in particular, is the event of managing multiple devices on one network.”
“Issues surrounding energy on the network has plagued mobile communications research for more than 30 years, and it all relates to spectrum efficiency. Researchers tend to first deliver a high speed system then think about how to save energy. We want to change that with 5G.”
For Demassieux, speed of deployment of the technology is not really at the forefront of his thinking.
“We’ve just got 4G, we really don’t need to go faster with 5G. If you take France as an example, we’ve never deployed a network as fast as we have with 4G.”
“It’s all about having a good 5G standard which is scalable. This time, it’s not about who starts.”
Mr Oettinger may, however, have other ideas.
The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.