5G is a ways off, but gestation is shorter this time
By Edwin Yapp July 27, 2017
- Hype about pre-5G, 5G bound to happen but at least it’s more measured today
- China aggressively deploying technology; will serve as roadmap for others to follow
THE last time I set foot in the world’s largest mobile exhibition and conference dubbed the Mobile World Congress (MWC) was more than a decade ago in 2006, where it was being held for the first time in Fira de Barcelona, Spain, having shifted from the Palais de Festivals in Cannes, France.
It was a memorable event because the world’s largest mobile players – comprising operators, vendors, service providers, and in fact everything and anything connected to the mobile world – were present to not only show off their wares but to showcase new technology to the media, analysts and industry people.
Last month, I had the privilege to go back to the MWC, albeit not in Barcelona but in Shanghai, China. Dubbed as the MWC Shanghai, the event was primarily about showcasing mobile technologies and services with the Asian context in mind.
As I reflect on attending the MWC Shanghai, with a decade or so in between to compare with from the last one I attended in Barcelona, I do find that there are similarities and differences between the events.
The first similarity I noted is that after a decade, the general themes of the mobile industry are still the same. Back in 2006 it was all about the third generation (3G) promise. Faster networks compared to that of the second generation (2G), services other than voice, multimedia messaging, location services et al. Fast forward 11 years, it was about the promise of 5G, even faster networks and more powerful services.
These themes haven’t changed at all, nor has the hype that goes with it.
Vendors are touting bigger and better things to come – some more than others – but as I’ve argued many times before, I understand why that has to be done. Gestation for many of these services take time, and hence the need to drum up marketing and PR by these giants.
To be fair though, there has been progress made in these last 10 years. The main one to note is the fact that Asia has become the focus on mobility growth in this last decade. The GSM Association (GSMA), the organiser of MWC, noted that the Asian mobile industry generated US$1.3 trillion in economic impact in 2016, a figure that is expected to continue to grow in the coming years.
Overall, the GSMA, citing Ericsson, noted that mobile broadband connections are expected to increase from 53% in 2016 to 72% by 2020. By that time, there will be three billion smartphones, up from one billion in 2016. And mobile data traffic is expected to grow by a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.2% over the period 2016–2020.
According to Ericsson’s 2017 Mobility report, Asia Pacific has the largest share of mobile data traffic owing to the fact that it’s the most populous region. This will continue into 2022, when the total mobile traffic in the region is expected to exceed 30 exabytes. A rapid growth in mobile broadband subscriptions is expected, with China alone expecting to add 495 million mobile broadband subscriptions between the end of 2016 and 2022.
It’s no doubt that China alone has become the powerhouse in the world, housing the world’s largest mobile operator, China Mobile, with approximately 850 million subscribers, of which some 550 million or so are on fourth generation (4G) technology. Running for the sixth year now, MWC Shanghai has shown that China has indeed become a major player in the race towards 4G, and soon-to-be pre-5G and 5G.
So while there is hype surrounding these events, the mobile landscape has also drastically changed. When digital mobile technology first appeared in the 1990s, so much of the development came from Europe and to a lesser extent the United States.
Today, the focus is firmly on Asia, with over a billion subscribers to target alone in China and India. Not forgetting Southeast Asia too – which is home to 10 Asean nations with about 620 million in population – which will continue to be the focus in the years to come.
China leading 5G
The rise of China has not been lost on the country’s two major vendors – Huawei Technologies Co Ltd and ZTE Corp – as well as its three major operators, China Mobile, China Telecom and China Unicom.
Once considered as playing second fiddle to the West where mobile technologies are concerned, these players have now positioned themselves as leaders rather than followers – not only in terms of sheer growth numbers but in everything including producing new technologies and setting the global standards for the technologies produced.
Take ZTE for example. At the recent conference session at MWC Shanghai, ZTE’s chief scientist Xiang Jiying (pic, right) boldly proclaimed that ZTE has found a way around the high-loss propagation disadvantage suffered by higher band frequencies of 3,500MHz, such as those needed by pre-5G technologies.
Speaking at a presentation at the Network Evolution Summit during MWC Shanghai he said, “ZTE believes that lower-frequency 5G NR (new radio) can absolutely achieve equivalent or better network coverage than 4G due to the link gain generated by new technologies such as Space Division Multiple Access (SDMA), beam-forming, and terminal dual-transmission channel precoding.”
Xiang explained that the key to improving the spectrum efficiency with the air interface is a new modulation technique called SDMA, which he argued could increase the system capacity several times without additional frequencies, time and space resources. It is also an important means to improve the network capacity and resolve the shortage of spectrum resource of operators, he added.
Xiang claimed that ZTE took the lead in deploying SDMA technology in both the future 5G networks and the existing 4G networks, significantly improving data rates. The company also said that its pre-5G massive multiple in, multiple out (MIMO) solution is being tested by operators such as SoftBank and China Mobile.
Xiang had earlier told Digital News Asia (DNA) on the sidelines of MWC that this technology – massive multiple in, multiple out (MIMO) – can not only improve capacity but also coverage such that 3,500 MHz pre-5G technology can attain comparable coverage to that of 1,800 MHz coverage.
He also revealed that ZTE’s pre-5G massive MIMO is in prototype phase now but is close to production, and that trials are being conducted in Australia, Spain and Italy besides in China and Japan.
Next page: Expectations, reality and challenges
But the question I find myself asking is, is all this talk about 5G too early and is it just part of the marketing hype? In my trip to MWC in Barcelona back in 2006, the hype was also heightened. And yes, while I would agree that the hype is inevitable, I would also argue that the gestation for 5G is likely shorter than it was when vendors went to town from 2G to 3G.
Why do I say this?
Firstly, I would say that the industry as a whole has learnt from experience – or rather bad experiences of putting the horse too far in front before the cart is in place. No one wants to shout so much about 5G that it takes far too long for it to arrive, such that it blows up in the faces of those shouting about it in the first place. In this sense, the industry is learning.
Secondly, I would argue that consumers today are in the driver’s seat more than they were back in 2006. Consumers today are much savvier than in the past. They demand great customer experience from their service providers, they know what kind of products and services they want to use or not use, they are empowered and they are able to educate themselves through the Internet.
And they have a medium to voice their unhappiness via social media should they be unhappy with their current service provider’s services.
Thirdly, vendors and mobile operators have lost a lot of their power to dictate what, how and when to roll out products and services simply because competition in the mobile landscape today is much higher than when 3G first arrived.
Today, if an operator launches a service such as WiFi calling, a competing operator would have to follow suite. Ditto for unlimited video or music streaming packages or faster network speeds via 4G plus and soon-to-be pre-5G.
The confluence of all these factors effectively shortens the gestation period for vendors and operators to get to pre-5G and 5G.
There are challenges
Despite this, there are challenges in getting to 5G, something that vendors and operators were quite candid in admitting.
According to Ma Hongbing, deputy general manager for network construction department, China United Network Communications Group Company Limited (China Unicom), the nature of 5G meant that there are operational challenges, and as such China Unicom is cautious about its roll out plans.
Ma told DNA on the sidelines of the MWC that 5G’s current ROI (return on investment) is also not clear, so the company has to proceed cautiously.
Ma also said on top of this, China Unicom is also experiencing massive growth in data usage, up to 100% growth every year-over-year for 4G, so it still has to manage this growth before thinking about 5G.
“Then there are technical aspects too as 5G requires new spectrum and new core networks too, and China Unicom is now looking into how to evolve this.
“One of the biggest challenges will be software platform development and network function virtualisation (NFV), as the software platform has to integrate a lot of applications and different technologies, so there is a lot of R&D that must go into it.
Asked if cost and ROI are challenges, Cui Li (pic, right), vice president for wireless product operation division, ZTE Corp conceded that the first stage of 5G investment is high initially but was quick to argue the point that many operators are starting small scale trials so cost isn’t an issue yet.
“They are focusing on technology and how they can address requirements and challenges, interoperability between 4G and 5G,” she argued. Initially, the cost may be high but when the network becomes larger, the cost of 5G will reduce due to scale.
Cui said she believes that 5G reduction of cost will be quicker than 4G or 3G, and argued that this is where pre-5G technology will aid the transition into 5G.
“The major advantage of pre-5G is there isn’t a need for new air interface, and thus will not need new devices,” she explained. “Pre-5G will resolve some of these issues operators will face.”
It’s anybody’s guess when 5G will arrive in Southeast Asia but some operators have been more proactive about shortening the gestation period. In Singapore for example, Singtel and Ericsson unveiled their 5G testbed last year and in Malaysia, a similar effort was announced recently by Celcom Axiata Bhd.
While waiting for 5G to arrive, operators would now be focusing on enhancing their 4G capabilities, with many building on what LTE (Long Term Evolution) Advanced has to offer, such as that by Singtel, and what Digi is doing.
For many of us consumers, it’s immaterial when pre-5G or 5G comes. What we want is to receive consistent and value-based service from the operators we subscribe to, which regardless of technology should be the true order of the day.
Edwin Yapp reports from the Mobile World Congress Asia in Shanghai at the invitation of ZTE Corp . All editorials are independent.
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