Mired in Trials and Partnerships, Operators Push Hybrid Standard Before 5G

Vodaphone, Ericsson, and Qualcomm are among the major wireless companies that support moving up the due date for a radio standard lying between 4G and 5G, with an eye toward testing primitive networks a full year before a final 5G standard is likely to be finished.

Some twenty companies are voting to complete an air interface that rides on existing 4G networks early enough so that firms can start testing and selling 5G technologies in 2019. That would give them around a year before the 3G Partnership Project is expected to lay out the final standard.

Though the Non-Standalone 5G would be layered on top of 4G networks, it would give a glimpse at how mobile devices will communicate with 5G cellular equipment. These systems are expected not only to enable faster downloads for streaming data to cars and virtual reality headsets but also connectivity for billions of tiny sensor devices.

The call to finish the standard early reflects the impatience swirling around 5G. The revenues at telecommunications companies have been falling for years, while the number of consumers buying smartphones - and data plans for them - has been falling. Many operators have pushed ambitious plans for 5G - twelve are already field testing, according to a report from Viavi Solutions - which could restart growth.

Verizon has vowed to open such networks in 2018, while South Korean operators are aiming to show off 5G services for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Seoul. Both Intel and Qualcomm have announced 5G modems would start sampling this year and be included in products in 2018.

Nokia, which did not join in the push for Non-Standalone 5G, announced what is called its 5G First platform, suited for homes, offices, sports venues, and industrial plants. Following pilots in 11 American cities with Verizon, Nokia said that it was aiming to open commercial networks later in 2017.

But progress on the standard that entire industry will agree upon has been mired in a web of partnerships between operators, equipment makers, chip suppliers, and test companies. Nowhere is that confusion more palpable than Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, where everyone agrees what 5G will do but not on how it will work.

Though there has been some work on listing the features that every 5G network will be required to have. Last week, the International Telecommunications Union released a draft report on 5G specifications, which include 20 gigabits per second downloads and the ability to support one million devices per square kilometer. The report underlined that a final standard will not be in place until 2020.

The members signed onto the proposal - NTT Docomo, SK Telecom, British Telecom, Telstra, Korea Telecom, Intel, LG, KDDI, LG Electronics, Telia, Swisscom, TIM, Etisalat, Huawei, Sprint, Vivo, ZTE and Deutsche Telekom - believe that reaching the intermediary standard first would speed up the 5G standards process.

"Our focus is on prioritizing important specifications in the standards to bring 5G to market as quickly as possible. In the process of defining any standard, it is normal to make some decisions earlier than others," said Tom Keathley, senior vice president of wireless network architecture at AT&T, which also signed onto the proposal, in a statement.

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