5G will enable exciting and potentially life-changing use cases associated with Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles, virtual/augmented reality, etc. However, any considerable investment in new network infrastructure should be based on solid business reasons. Luckily, the specter of the single ‘killer app’, which has been haunting the mobile industry since the 3G days, has hardly appeared in the 5G discussion.
To remain relevant or to gain an advantage in a rapidly changing communications market, some service providers may have no option but to deploy 5G early. Others may decide to squeeze more from their existing network assets through optimization, technology upgrades (e.g. VoLTE or 4G evolution). It will also be interesting to see the next steps of cable operators as the demarcation line between mobile and fixed-line/cable fades.
The mobile network rollout plan has been built upon objective business criteria and the input of technical experts. With aggressive timelines met, the new network is performing well in tests and its commercial launch is imminent. But there is a major issue: no mobile device is ready for prospective customers to use. And without a user device, the network launch is effectively meaningless.
We have seen such unwelcome developments in past network/technology launches. In many cases, the issue lay in limited device choice rather than unavailability. The importance of network maturity, as experienced in some early VoLTE launches for example, should not be discounted either. Furthermore, the 5G standardization plan should be heeded by all service providers, including those willing to push a pre-standard 5G launch.
With 4G we did, of course, see WiMAX shake the mobile industry but fail to create an earthquake. We also saw the introduction of 4G ‘variants’, while technology purists protested that neither HSPA+ nor LTE could claim to be 4G. But there was at least a concrete requirement description of LTE, with the 3GPP Release 8 specification starting in January 2006 (TeliaSonera launched the first commercial LTE network almost 4 years later, in December 2009).
A pre-standard, fixed wireless focused 5G version may be deployed by some service providers. Others will need to evaluate further the best way forward. Perhaps, the evolution of 4G or Wi-Fi will be dubbed 5G. What gets launched and marketed as 5G may ultimately determine the success of the new technology.
Business centers, commercial zones, residential districts or main roads (for connected vehicles)? Would a big-bang launch be preferable to creating 5G ‘islands’, or would a mix-and-match strategy make more business sense? And what about the role of existing network infrastructure, including 4G and Wi-Fi?
On top of commercial criteria, the practical realities of network deployment must be taken into account. 5G is expected to rely on existing network assets, e.g. base station locations or sites used by cable providers, where key prerequisites such as power and fiber are available. These assets can be seen as both a blessing (good starting point) and a curse (restricted and – almost inevitably – suboptimal deployment). Of course, the actual network rollout is rarely the same as the nominal (original) plan.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” A popular quote in recent 5G conferences, this highlights the threat of 5G standards fragmentation. But the quote could also be interpreted as a call for more collaborative approaches to network deployment. Such approaches would contrast with the detached paths followed by most service providers in the past.
Indeed, for 5G to fulfill its promise, significant investment will be required (which may be 5G related rather than 5G specific, e.g. on network virtualization). To address cost/infrastructure concerns, 5G is likely to drive more partnerships between service providers and also increase the appeal of co-opetition. With 5G, traditional concepts of network sharing and current business models will have to be revised.
The preceding high-level points only scratch the surface of a multi-faceted riddle with many correct – and many more incorrect – answers. Since each service provider faces unique challenges, their 5G strategy should be exactly that: unique. There are lessons of technical and non-technical nature to learn from past network launches. At the same time, the mobile industry landscape has dramatically changed in recent years, which also contributes to the complexity of the 5G launch enigma.
Fortunately, unlike the Ulysses riddle (which is deliberately nonsensical and impossible to answer*), the 5G launch enigma for service providers can be solved.