Dialling down the 5G hype-machine

Pundits have overstated certain aspects of wireless networking’s next great leap forward. We debunk some of the myths — and consider the realities.

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The network-technology industry is extremely excited about 5G, the forthcoming next generation for wireless networks. This mobile infrastructure is expected to support data downloads measured in gigabits per second (Gbps). That’s much faster than today’s 4G networks, which provide speeds measured in comparatively meagre megabits per second (Mbps).

But the 5G buzz comes with a few claims that aren’t quite true — expectations regarding 5G’s capabilities and expected arrival timeframe that probably won’t bear out. In an attempt to put facts over froth, let’s consider a few 5G myths and their associated realities.

A thousand times? No.

You may come across articles and blog posts by pundits saying that 5G will offer data-download rates that are 1,000 times faster than LTE, the primary 4G technology in use today. But that comparison doesn’t ring true. In an interview with Fierce Wireless Europe last summer, International Telecommunications Union (ITU) spokesman Sanjay Acharya said the peak data rate for IMT-2020 — the organization’s label for 5G networking technologies — would probably be closer to 10 Gbps. Pretty speedy, but not 1,000 times faster than LTE.

The average Canadian LTE user gets 19 Mbps, says wireless market monitoring firm Open Signal. To be 1,000 times faster than that, 5G would have to provide an average speed of 19 Gbps.

20 Gbps? Nope.

Speaking of speed, you’ll also see plenty of articles that say the ITU decided that to qualify as 5G, a network would have to provide 20 Gbps. That’s false. We contacted the ITU. Acharya said the organization hadn’t set a benchmark speed.

Coming in 2018? Uh-uh.

Another product of the hype machine: the idea that standards bodies are just months away from issuing the base specifications for 5G networking. This may be true. People who follow such developments think the standards will be finalized in 2018. But the gist of certain stories is that communications service providers will be ready to turn on 5G service as soon as the standards are published. Not so fast. Trusted Reviews says most estimates point to 2020 as the year in which 5G will become a reality.

The truth about 5G

Here’s what we can say with greater certainty about 5G.

A few communications service providers are testing 5G networks. NTT DoCoMo in Japan ran a trial in November with Nokia, achieving a maximum data rate of 2 Gbps. In the U.S., AT&T announced that it plans to test 5G networking before the end of 2016.

No news from Canada’s wireless service providers at this point. But in a recent report, network equipment maker Ericsson predicted that our country would be one of the first to adopt 5G, alongside the U.S., South Korea, Japan and China.

We can also point out that 5G networks will rely on software-defined networking (SDN) and network-function virtualization (NFV). Both technologies add a layer between the network hardware and management capabilities to make communications infrastructure more flexible. Lacking SDN and NFV, 5G couldn’t achieve the high data rates and super-low latency that it’s expected to provide.

No doubt, 5G will be much faster than 4G, but not as fast as some have predicted. And yes, 5G will be here soon, if not as soon as some people think. On the whole, 5G will prove to be an impressive leap forward in wireless networking, even if it doesn’t meet the expectations of an industry hype-machine in overdrive.

Image courtesy of Free Digital Photos

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