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What 5G Could Mean for Businesses (and When)

5G is a big, sprawling standard that has a lot of moving (literally) parts. The specifications won't be fully evolved until around 2021, but many aspects of 5G are both accepted as priorities and key benefits although almost totally without detail at this point. 5G faces all the usual standards-progress issues, as well as the now-familiar question of whether there's even a business case for 5G. We also have the usual problem of inertia -- mobile infrastructure would have to change radically to support 5G, and many operators haven't even managed to adopt 4G yet. The watchwords for business looking for a 5G advantage are "be skeptical" and "be patient."

Late 2018: 5G Over 4G

The first phase of 5G will likely become visible in 2018 in at least the areas where there's a lot of mobile demand and competition. What's called "5G NR" (meaning "New Radio" or radio access network) has been fast-tracked and the specifications for the basic version, which adds 5G radio on top of 4G infrastructure, are scheduled to be done by the end of this year. The first services will almost surely come in 2018.

What can businesses expect from 5G NR? While heady claims of 10 or 20 times the speed of 4G are common, most experts say a doubling of 4G speeds would be more realistic. To get that extra performance, users would almost surely need new phones. Thus, businesses that want to take advantage of 5G performance quickly should time their phone replacement cycles for late 2018. Compare the cost of the upgrade to the benefits you might obtain from faster broadband in driving mobile worker empowerment. 5G NR is a pretty good bet to happen.

Mid-2019: Fixed Wireless Access

Probably the second 5G capability to reach the market will probably be fixed wireless access, or FWA. 5G technology is fast enough to be more than competitive with DSL, and operators are looking at FWA to serve more customers from a single fiber node (FTTN). Business sites, including retail locations and branch offices, could see a fast new service option that would be cheaper than traditional business Ethernet services.

Planning for FWA means reviewing the broadband options available to underserved locations. If your business has such locations, which is possible for nearly any kind of multisite or retail business, then you may be able to lower cost with FWA. But this technology isn't likely to be available before mid-2019, and even then, may be usable in only a few geographies. Watch international availability, particularly in third-world economies. FWA there might totally eclipse wireline broadband for business.

Mid-2020: a Boost for IoT

Internet of Things is the next step on the 5G path. Some say you need 5G for IoT, which obviously isn't the case. What is true is that deploying Internet-connected devices, from sensors and traffic cameras to self-drive vehicles and even delivery drones, is easier and cheaper with 5G. However, IoT needs fairly pervasive 5G or spotty coverage could end up easily defeating early applications. Imagine driving out of range in your self-driven car, or having a drone fall out of the sky with your (almost-forgotten) anniversary gift onboard.

Don't wait for 5G to look at IoT, and don't expect 5G to create new and incredibly powerful 5G business models. Before IoT can really take hold it is going to have to stabilize on a set of sensible principles, including one that says what IoT sells is information and not sensor access. Only then can enough applications make the business case that 5G's benefits would be meaningful. Your own planning should look at 5G IoT when you understand what IoT can do for you, and are focusing on how pervasive it could be. When might this happen? No sooner than mid-2020.

2022 & Beyond: Optimizing 5G

And, finally, we have the long-term 5G features, like network slicing and wireline/wireless infrastructure convergence. Network slicing promises to let operators build virtual subnetworks within 5G to support applications with different tolerances for latency, packet loss, availability, and performance. These features are among the things that 5G could do for IoT. Wireless/wireline convergence has focused on eliminating the expensive evolved packet core infrastructure that handles mobility in 4G networks. If it comes along, it could reduce the cost of mobile services and even promote FWA.

At this point, where either of these features will end up is hard to say. Specifications at this point are far from baked, and in some cases seem to still be casting around for the right path forward. A fully optimum wireless infrastructure should surely include these capabilities, but we all know that "optimum" could be a long way past profitable. We may not see either for five or more years, and planning for these features to be available is simply not wise at this point.

If we get everything promised, 5G could transform networking for businesses. The same could be said for software-defined networking and network functions virtualization, though, and both of them have been around for five years or so, and have yet to realize their potentials. You can't afford to ignore what 5G might do and might mean, but for now it would be smart to focus on radio access network changes and wait till the dust settles on the rest.

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