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5G: The Promise and Impact


There is an old Chinese saying that goes, "May you live in interesting times." Certainly, anybody involved in the enterprise communications technology field would have to agree that we are indeed living in not only interesting, but complex times.

Arguably the most immediate impact on your network and business in the next several years will be 5G. If you believe everything you read and hear, 5G is the panacea that will solve all of your communications problems. In my last No Jitter post, I wrote about the promise and potential of 5G and the technology behind it. Let's look at what has transpired over the past six months. (Please remember this is not a technical update on 5G but more of a "heads up" as to what is coming your way.)

The 3GPP (an international consortium of standards bodies comprising more than 40 companies), will be setting the international standards for 5G. Essentially, they want to write a standard that will allow global 5G to deliver fiber-quality connections to mobile devices starting in 2019.

The promise of 5G will bring more reliable communications at lower costs and improved security. It will also be a key component in the expansion for the Internet of Things (IoT), owing to its ability and scalability to provide communications to low-cost IoT embedded sensors. 5G can also be used to deliver wireless broadband to rural areas.

5G deployments are beginning to show up around the world. South Korea may be the most advanced, as it is hoping to have 5G networks working in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics being hosted in PyeongChang.

But everything is not perfect in the world of 5G. One major hurdle is that there are competing standards being proposed and deployed. 5G suppliers must first go through setting standards; building out networks; developing and testing the network, transmission, and consumer equipment; winning public acceptance; and (hopefully) agreeing to interoperability between the competing standards organizations.

As far as standards go, of the current influential 5G standards groups, 3GPP will most likely become the world standard, but other influencers include Verizon, AT&T, and various bodies in Korea, Japan, Europe and China. Moving forward we could see the IETF and IEEE enter the fray and influence standards. But as it stands right now, it's unclear if any of these groups will be interoperable.

Looking at the overall topic of 5G, many questions come to mind. For example, how much of this is hype, and how far away are we really from 5G being a global reality? Further, how will 5G impact a given business? How will it affect the network? Is it secure? Let's examine each of these questions.

How Much of This is Hype?

This is a "wait and see" kind of thing, as I don't really know that this question can be answered at this point. Some of it will certainly depend upon final testing results, possibly government limitations and regulations, how much the developers are willing to spend to implement potential 5G services and apps, the potential for ROI, and willingness of consumers to buy into the services and apps. Just because they can do it doesn't mean it will be profitable or consumers will find it of value.

What I do know is that after being in this industry for 30+ years, I am very skeptical of any promised new technology, but every one of those standards groups I mentioned above have invested some very serious time, resources, and money into making this work.

How Far Away Is This from Being a Reality?

After Mobile World Congress wrapped earlier this month, the 3GPP group met in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Because of projections that have consumers using a growing amount of data on their mobile devices, the 3GPP members agreed to accelerate the schedule for reaching the global 5G standard, moving the date for large-scale trials to begin as early as 2019.

Although Verizon and AT&T met in November of 2016 to discuss initial 5G standards, each have deployed and are running their own test trials. It is not yet publicly known if they intend to provide network interoperability.

Verizon currently has 5G fixed wireless service running in 10 U.S. cities, but these networks do not meet the current 3GPP standards. AT&T will launch trials in Houston and Indianapolis later this year, and has announced plans for interoperability testing with 3GPP 5G NR standards.

Operators in China and Europe are also working on developing 5G technologies, but the transition will also rely on manufacturers incorporating chips into their devices that can take advantage of these new networks.

How Will This Impact My Business?

Mobile communications has totally changed the way we as society live, work, and play. It is the driving force behind business adapting to meet customer demands. With the advent of 5G mobile, we will see application development accelerate to rates faster than ever before, creating new economic growth, business opportunities, and even new industries.

Businesses that are not able to quickly adapt will simply vanish (survival of the fittest).

Based on a global survey of 1,147 senior executives across various industries, performed by Forbes Insights and Huawei, we can get a better sense of how 5G will impact business. Looking at the key findings from the study, one-third of executives indicated that their business's current systems are already struggling to support the business needs. But looking at their network requirements -- 67% need mobile networks with ultra-high throughput, 64% need a large number of connections, and 59% require ultra-low latency -- it's clear that what modern businesses need is 5G.

Diving in further, there is a resounding need for education on the potential impact of 5G. More than a third of respondents admitted knowing either "very little" or "nothing" about 5G technologies and the impact to expect. Even more so, with only 26% of executives surveyed indicating that their companies are exploring 5G and planning how they might use it, it's clear that there are too many companies sitting on the sidelines and following the wait-and-see approach.

At the same time, more than 80% of executives said they believe 5G technologies will positively impact multiple areas of their business. In particular, executives are bullish about 5G benefits in the areas of customer experience, service/product quality, and worker productivity.

How Will This Affect My Network?

Global business leaders say that mobile and wireless are critical to the way they do business, but they worry that their needs are outpacing existing access networks. In order to evolve and succeed in the future, these executives say their companies will require revolutionary increases in the speed, capacity, and connectivity of mobile devices -- and they're looking to 5G networks to provide this.

From a networking stand point, 5G is both evolutionary and revolutionary. Depending upon which standard you subscribe to, 5G will offer speeds somewhere between 10 & 20 Gigabits per second compared with today's 4G LTE speeds of 5-12 Mbps.

With 5G providing connectivity to smart cities, smart utilities, mobile health, environmental monitoring, connected buildings, retail and assets tracking, low latency, and billions of connections, you can bet that 5G is in your network's future -- maybe even replacing your entire terrestrial network.

Is It Secure?

Security is on everyone's mind today and it's certainly one of the top priorities of the C-Suite. As a consultant one of the first things I suggest to my clients is to perform a vulnerability risk analysis. All you have to do is read the papers to know how poorly many companies manage their security.

For any new technology to be accepted and widely adapted it needs to have strong built-in security. 5G is a very complex set of many different technologies (i.e. transmission spectrum specifications and algorithms, topologies, deployments, multi-connectivity, LTE, end-to-end system integration and operations, data integrity) engineered to work as one.

The NGMN Alliance is a security group working under 3GPP to develop standardized 5G security. In its recommendations, it examined each component of the of the 5G infrastructure, identified possible threats, and made recommendations as to the best way to mitigate them. It will be up to the standards committees to determine which of the recommendations they want to mandate.

As 5G is still under development, there could be areas in which all security threats are not yet known.

It may wind up being the transport technology for the next 30 years, but it will take time to build the infrastructure, develop apps, evaluate POCs, and phase in the many different components.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.