First to 5G: Who Will Win?
(Courtesy of National Instruments)

First to 5G: Who Will Win?

While carriers are scrambling to be first in the 5G race, determining a clear winner is no simple matter.

The global sprint to be first to 5G continues—from first country to first smartphone to first carrier. In the U.S., while all major carriers make announcements, two of them stand out: Verizon and Sprint. Verizon has already pushed 5G live in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis and announced that 20 cities will have service by the end of the year using a 28-GHz network—part of the millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum. It will deliver extreme speeds to users in the cities where available, but, of course, only for those who have a device that can take advantage through a built-in 5G modem, or in some cases, an attachment.

Sprint, on the other hand, announced that 5G is live in nine of its biggest markets. The company is in a unique position compared to other carriers because of the spectrum it has: 120 MHz of bandwidth at 2.5 GHz. Sprint is the only U.S. operator with enough bandwidth for 5G NR and LTE at the same frequency, but it has made no public announcements regarding leveraging mmWave spectrum to date. Instead, the company has taken a different approach, focusing on deploying base stations that leverage multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO).

So, who will win in the race to be first? Unfortunately, a clear “winner” is not that simple given that 5G involves two sides of the same coin.

The majority of deployments in the next two years will be for sub-6 GHz. While there’s still significant interest in mmWave, its development and testing are extremely difficult. There are many reasons for those difficulties, but most notably:

  • Non-line-of-sight scenarios: Carrier executives have admitted that mmWave isn't suitable for widespread coverage due to the fact that these waves struggle to penetrate materials and can be absorbed by foliage and rain. This shortcoming will be overcome with small-cell technology, but that pushes the timing out even further.
  • Power consumption: The power required to transmit mmWave even 200 meters eats up massive amounts of energy. Earlier this year at Mobile World Congress, Zhengmao Li, an executive vice president at China Mobile, shared that the power consumption of a 5G base station is three times that of its 4G LTE predecessor. This means costs will be three times as much, too—not insignificant for a carrier’s bottom line.
  • Manufacturability: According to a survey from intelligent supply-chain provider JABIL, about one third of respondents said the 5G equipment currently available did not fit their needs. Another 44% said they lacked the tools for testing and managing 5G. So, while the eagerness is apparent, there’s still a disconnect between the grand vision and what’s currently available to fully build out mmWave infrastructure.

The progress made in the last five years for mmWave is significant, and it will continue to progress. However, this technology is not at the same maturity level as sub-6 GHz. Even after all evaluating of the aforementioned technological challenges, the economics of mmWave may prove to be a challenge too costly to overcome.

So, what does “5G” mean for consumers who want to be early adopters? While all carriers will be rolling out 5G, the features and functionality available will vary from carrier to carrier for at least the next two to five years. It’s important to remember that the deployment process is still in the preliminary stages. It took years for LTE to be deployed, and one can argue that even today it’s still not fully deployed—and it’s unlikely the timeline for 5G will be any faster.

So, What’s Next?

While initial deployments of 5G are an important milestone, 5G is about much more than making incremental improvements to streaming speeds and capacity. 5G has promised to revolutionize wireless communications and revolutionize the world. What makes 5G different from the previous four generations is its focus on latency, device density, and enabling deep verticals on top of 5G.

The line between deep verticals for 5G and 6G technology can be fuzzy. Some of the latest application trends in wireless communications research include vehicle to everything (V2X), augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), machine learning/artificial intelligence (ML/AI), non-terrestrial networks, and terahertz frequencies. Terahertz frequencies for communications and sensing are still in their infancy and clearly a 6G technology, while the others could be argued either way.

V2X and AR/VR have been closely linked to 5G, and the key performance indicators (KPIs) written into the 5G spec can address these applications well. Addressing ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC) is advancing in the 3GPP standardization processes, as well as V2X and non-terrestrial networks. Whether they will be completed in release 16 or pushed to release 17 and beyond will depend on the progress that’s made.

Outside of the standards, work is being done to determine how to slice networks to deliver specific KPIs to specific applications in an on-demand fashion. In addition, research into edge cloud computing is being done to address URLLC needs.

This is an exciting year for 5G as consumers are just starting to take advantage, but it’s just the beginning of being able to realize and harness 5G’s potential. When LTE was first being deployed, no one could imagine how the services it enabled, such as Uber, would change our world forever. It’s exciting to speculate about how 5G is going to change the world and even more thrilling to watch as it starts to unfold.

Sarah Yost is Senior Solutions Marketing Manager, SDR, at National Instruments (NI).

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