5G in 2020: Still just a private party

5G mobile wireless network technology
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To hear the major mobile carriers talk about it, 5G is here. They’ve deployed it, it works, and it’s ready to start changing the world just about right away, with ultra-fast connectivity, low latency and a dramatically improved ability to handle huge numbers of different connections at once.

Eventually, that will all be true – but, according to experts in the field, it isn’t yet, and most of it won’t take place within the coming calendar year. The 3GPP standards that will underpin all new-radio 5G technology are still not yet finalized, although that is expected to happen in early 2020, which means the much-touted 5G deployments in the U.S. are based partially on pre-standard technology.

Those deployments are also, at this point, quite limited in size, confined to a few major cities, and only covering centrally located intersections and occasional landmarks. It’s worth noting, though, that the parts of the 5G standard that work over some of the same frequencies as existing LTE have been finalized.

Babak Beheshti, a member of the IEEE’s board of directors, said that the main way 5G will make a mark in 2020 will be in private deployments. A company can use pre-standard versions of 5G to create very fast, low-latency networks within its own facilities. Vendors like Ericsson and Nokia are already getting ready to sell the requisite equipment, and a private 5G network has a number of potential upsides, thanks in part to it being based on existing carrier technology.

“Because of its inherent privacy and security, in that sense, it’ll provide wireless access to employees at a much more secure level,” he said.

Beheshti also noted that there are potential downsides to the use of private 5G – including cost and the fact that it will require a fairly dense deployment of access points, given its use of comparatively high-frequency radio waves.

According to Forrester Research vice president Glenn O’Donnell, another potential issue is power consumption – compared to a Wi-Fi 6 network of similar capacity, at least – but that’s an arguable point, and both technologies will be competitive for this type of deployment.

“This is one of the many holy wars we’ve seen in technology,” he said. “You’ll get people who fall into one camp or the other – a lot of it, unfortunately, is going to come down to who’s marketing better.”

Still, it seems clear that there’s a potential market there in the enterprise sector for a fast, low-latency network that’s also highly secure. O’Donnell said that the manufacturing, warehousing and logistics verticals might be particularly interested in private 5G, given the networking needs created by IoT and related developments and a lesser incidence of highly sophisticated Wi-Fi implementations.

Beheshti concurred, saying that a relatively green field makes the most sense for private 5G deployment.

“Given the expenditure involved, where it would really provide most ROI is for companies that have no private wireless or very little private wireless setup or infrastructure,” he said.

Widespread carrier-based implementation of 5G technology, however, is unlikely to happen over the course of 2020, and a big part of the reason why is that the devices on the market that are compatible with 5G networks are slim to non-existent.

According to O’Donnell, software-defined 5G radios are present on some of the latest Samsung phones and a few handsets made in China, and they’re likely capable of being reconfigured with OTA updates to mesh with any final standard for the millimeter-wave technology that provides 5G’s most impressive connection speeds. Yet that’s not a guarantee.

“If a new band opened up that nobody foresaw as a possibility, that could cause hiccups,” he said.

It’s easy to understand the reason behind all the hype. The mobile carriers are eager to tout their cutting-edge technology, and full-fledged 5G will be an undeniably impressive achievement. It will enable a huge range of new wireless applications, and improve overall connectivity for just about every user. But the fact remains that it’s not going to do all that in 2020, and, beyond the limited use case for private implementations of the technology, 5G isn’t something that enterprise users will need to concern themselves with too heavily in the coming year.

“I fully believe 5G is going to be transformative, but it needs to be built out,” said O’Donnell. “This is going to take time and a lot of money.”

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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