What you need to know about the 5G standard

While a standard has been officially released, it’s still not entirely complete. So, what does this mean for 5G devices and networks, and how soon should you jump on the bandwagon?


Early reports predicted 5G would become a reality by 2020, but now we’re hearing about 5G devices and services that will come to market in 2019, or possibly by the end of this year.

5G — the fifth generation of cellular networking — is getting a lot of attention (and hype) because it promises higher speeds and lower latency, which will impact everything from our personal devices to virtual reality, the Internet of Things and self-driving vehicles.

“There is a lot of kudos in being first to market with something new,” said John Delaney, AVP of mobility research with IDC, in a recent IDC TechTalk podcast. “Nobody could have 5G before the beginning of this year because there was no 5G standard. We now have a 3GPP standard, albeit half of one, but enough of one to claim that if you comply with that standard then you’re 5G.”

And while it’s “all very well to have a 5G network up and running, if you can’t sell somebody a 5G device then you have not, in my opinion, launched a commercial service,” he said. This, however, isn’t stopping some operators from claiming to be first to launch commercial 5G.

IDC expects the first 5G devices will be available in the second half of 2019. But it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario between services and devices. “You will be able to buy a flagship device — you won’t be able to use it if there are no networks in place,” said Marta Pinto, senior research analyst for telecoms and networks with IDC, in the podcast.

“Many manufacturers are pushing for 5G-enabled devices,” she said. “There are not many innovations in the latest devices so they’re pushing for something new.” And that “something new” means increased capabilities and processing capacity, plus tech like AI.

But if you buy one of the first 5G devices on the market, you might end up with what’s basically a 4G device, said Delaney, explaining that the 5G standard has been rolled out in two phases, and the second phase isn’t complete (even though the standard was ‘finalized’ in June).

Here’s why this is the case:

  • the 5G standard is defined by the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) and 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project), the international group that governs cellular standards
  • the first phase, finalized in December 2017, is the NSA (non-standalone) 5G New Radio network standard, which builds off of existing LTE networks and hardware
  • the second phase, completed in June, is the SA (standalone) 5G New Radio network standard, which allows for entirely new 5G deployments

While the second phase was ‘finalized’ in June, that’s a tad misleading.

As stated in a dispatch by Signals Research Group: “The long-stated target date for the completion date of Release 15 was June 2018 so it should come as no surprise that 3GPP ‘finished’ Release 15 [in June] … it is worth noting that 3GPP won’t finish the intended set of 5G functionality required to meet IMT-2020 requirements until 2019 when it finishes work on Release 16.”

The research firm goes on to say that Release 15 includes other architecture options that won’t be finished until December.

“The early 5G chipsets will be NSA,” said Delaney in the TechTalk podcast. “The question is therefore whether those devices that use those early NSA chipsets will be able to work on an SA network when that comes along. There’s some doubt about that. … So it could be that the very earliest 5G devices will end up not working on 5G networks once operators go to full standalone mode.”

Food for thought, if you’re an early adopter.

Image: Vertigo3d/iStock

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