Why 5G isn’t just another ‘G’

There’s more to 5G than higher speed and lower latency. By harnessing NFV and SDN, both based on open source standards, it represents a ‘radical shift’ for the industry.


I like to think of Lawrence Surtees as the OG of 5G analysts.

I write that with nothing but respect and admiration, since Surtees has been covering telecom (first as a journalist, then as a research analyst) for nearly 40 years. When he has something to say about 5G, the industry sits up and listens.

So it was a full house when Surtees presented his latest insights on 5G at a Toronto event organized by IDC Canada, where he is the VP of communications research. Here, three burning questions Surtees addressed about 5G.

1) How is 5G different from 4G?

You’ve already heard that 5G will deliver higher speed and lower latency. As Surtees put it, however, “5G is not just another G. This is not just about faster connections. The underlying architecture (of 5G) is novel.”

That’s because 5G harnesses NFV and SDN architecture. Two things make that unique for enterprise network managers. First, NFV and SDN enable edge computing and network slicing. Surtees recalled one Verizon exec saying this powerful combination of 5G, NFV and SDN means “you can design a network (tailored to) whatever your specific application needs are.”

Second, NFV and SDN are both based on open source standards, which Surtees calls “a radical shift for the sector.” As noted by Light Reading, instead of relying on one main vendor, AT&T has built its entire 5G network in the U.S. on open source Kubernetes and OpenStack code. This open access can accelerate the innovation happening around 5G by vastly multiplying the number of minds working to improve the technology.

Surtees said 5G, NFV and SDN will herald “the most profound development to occur in telecom in our lifetimes, like moving from analog to digital when I was a kid.”

2) What about transmission challenges?

Despite massive hype painting 5G as the ultimate solution to All Our Wireless Problems, the technology does come with challenges. For one, it has a much shorter transmission range, requiring many base stations located much closer together. This infrastructure takes time (and money, as any carrier will tell you) to install.

5G is also susceptible to what Surtees called “transmission anomalies.” Things that could interfere with 5G transmission include foliage (as in trees, ivy and vines), weather (like rain, snow and fog) and yes, Christmas decorations.

In 2016, officials in the U.K. city of Bournemouth acknowledged in their 5G service prep plans that “in the run up to Christmas, lighting and other seasonal decorations can block signals.” (Because nothing ruins Christmas like crappy broadband, right?) As Surtees mentioned, new multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) antenna technology could ease some transmission snags.

Another challenge around 5G transmission involves questions about potential health hazards. Surtees cited a recent Israeli study that showed 5G’s millimeter and sub-millimeter waves are absorbed by human skin (especially the two to four million sweat glands contained in the average person’s body) very, very easily.

What could it mean for our health? Scientists aren’t entirely sure yet, but regulatory agencies around the world are carefully examining the issue.

3) What’s the 5G business model?

There’s still no firm answer to that question. Although 5G’s impact will be felt first on smartphones, “the best (5G) use cases we looked at are going to happen off of phones,” said J.P. Bouchard, Surtees’ co-presenter at the Toronto event.

Bouchard said those non-phone use cases will occur predominantly in the enterprise space, from remote healthcare monitoring and industrial automation to AR/VR entertainment systems in our cars.

“But what’s the revenue model for that? Is it in the hardware? Is it in the chipset? I don’t know,” said Bouchard, VP of mobility and consumer research at IDC Canada.

The biggest hindrance to consumer 5G uptake, however, will be a lack of understanding about what 5G really is. When IDC surveyed consumers about what 5G means, the majority (30 per cent) thought it was next generation Wi-Fi; the second most popular answer was “unlimited data.”

“So there’s a lot of education to be done,” Bouchard said.

He’s right. If consumers don’t really understand the potential benefits 5G can bring them — whether it’s remote medical treatment at home, vehicles that automatically avoid collisions, or household robots that take our garbage to the curb — they won’t rush to upgrade their devices and service plans to adopt it.

This may be something IT pros come up against when convincing higher-ups to move to 5G. It’s worth pondering a question Surtees projected onto the screen during his presentation: How will you demonstrate 5G use cases and value beyond higher speed?

Image: derrrek/iStock

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