'5G': new mobile technologies just a sideshow

Ericsson's demo is impressive, but Cambridge conference highlights the far bigger challenges for mobile evolution

By Caroline Gabriel

Ericsson has become the latest vendor to demonstrate '5G' technologies, and claim precognition for this completely undefined platform. While it boasted of achieving 5Gbps speeds in its labs, Cambridge Wireless's annual Future of Wireless International Conference (FWIC) was taking a far broader view of what next generation networks might entail.

Subtitled 'changing the world with wireless', the event was clearly looking to look beyond technology and address both global social issues and new applications for wireless networks. The '5G' word was overused, perhaps inevitably at a conference focused on the future, and one speaker even managed to mention not just '6G' but '7G' - but in general, the program successfully steered clear of esoteric technology debates and focused on the impact of wireless.

Inevitably, that raised more questions than answers. Much-repeated statistics about access to mobile networks being higher than access to clean water did not seem to say much for the priorities of global infrastructure programs; there were interesting but inevitably open-ended debates about cause and effect (mobile phone penetration correlates to increased wealth and productivity in many areas, but our industry is perhaps too eager to claim the credit).

The conference was best when focusing on real world applications, with a host of interesting case studies of mobile devices being used to enable people in emerging economies to communicate and do business in new ways.

"The internet and modern mobile technology enables us to address inequalities between men and women and to drive growth on a global scale as never before," said Cherie Blair, the after-dinner speaker, who has a foundation dedicated to helping women build businesses in developing markets.

The other big theme was the internet of things, and while these sessions tended to focus more on developed markets - and perhaps too much on 'middle class problems' such as opening garage doors without getting wet - there were some common issues. Most notably, that in discussions about emerging market services, or the IoT, wireless technology was sometimes scarcely mentioned. This was about applications and gadgets and business models, with the network purely an enabler and the specific technology incidental.

That is the real context for '5G'discussions. There will be massive technology challenges involved in supporting billions of things and addressing a billion more people in widely scattered locations. Those challenges will be difficult and interesting, and will justify conference sessions of their own - but to a large extent they are understood. Very dense small cells, high frequency spectrum, huge numbers of antennas, new modulation schemes - all these are technically tough to implement in an affordable, commercial way, but they are evolutions of existing work.

The new standards will have to find a way to tap into all these evolutions as they happen, in whatever band and with whatever air interface, in order to support the massive diversity of applications and devices in the future. There were even some eloquent cases made for the emerging notion of keeping GSM in the mix, evolving it as a highly efficient basis for IoT services.

The 'mine's faster than yours' demonstrations in the labs of the big six OEMs already look outdated and, in terms of the critical issues, a sideshow. Doug Pulley, co-founder of Picochip and now CTO of Intel's wireless infrastructure division, nailed it when he said: "Talk of bits/sec/Hz/square kilometer is a vestige of the 3G wars and should be consigned to history." Coming from a wireless engineer this sounded like sacrilege, but it summed up how the mobile industry needs to shift its focus, even while continuing to solve the technical issues behind the scenes.

The big problem., of course, is that networks still need to evolve, which requires significant investment, traditionally from mobile operators, which are rewarded with controlled spectrum. Those operators cannot afford to fund another big-bang upgrade, but if the world shifts towards a true heterogeneous network, with significant non-cellular spectrum, and with a cloud player, perhaps, coordinating all the pieces, it is questionable where the investment will come from, and whether it will be consistent around the world.

Certainly new centers of power may raise a question mark over the role of the 3GPP. If 5G is about end-to-end experience using a mass of technologies, and only peripherally about traditional cellular standards and MNO models, then who will drive it?

If 5G does not prove to rely on a single new architecture or a new air interface, it will have to be defined by a whole mixture of standards organizations, coming from all layers of the network, from apps, and from vertical markets. This is a concerning prospect because it seems impossible that any real cooperation between these interest groups will be possible, certainly given the timescales (the future, as the FWIC event emphasized, is coming closer, with some speakers talking about '5G' roll-outs in 2018, two years earlier than the previously hyped deadline).

And that opens the way for a small clique of large players to take the reins, in the interests of getting things done and bringing mobile benefits to the globe, but with the end result of creating a new power base far stronger than anything the mobile operators enjoyed.

Tim Carter, head of Android business development for Google EMEA, talked from the conference floor about Project Loon, stressing that it is purely experimental at this stage, but he was more direct than any presenter at addressing the elephant in the room for traditional operators. Developing almost any new aspect of '5G' will be very expensive, but their established models do not permit that kind of outlay - so the baton will pass to those firms which still have deep pockets and forgiving shareholders. Carter pointed out that the only organizations which can afford to experiment are "rich people, like Google, and people who have nothing to lose, like entrepreneurs. People in the middle, like carriers, they feel there's pressure on revenues so they feel there's less room to experiment."

Big questions, and the conference did a good job of allowing attendees to step back from clever modulation schemes and antenna configurations, and to ponder the issues of how all that continuing innovation can be used both for the common good, and for profit. Assuming that the real power players will deliver on both agendas, it is unsurprising that Google was mentioned so frequently, but this is not just about carrier models versus web models, or licensed spectrum versus unlicensed - the debate has to consider far bigger questions of economics and control, as the wireless network itself becomes ubiquitous and a utility.

One keynote speaker, Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future, highlighted just how big the changes in thinking need to be, when wireless moves from clever technology for the middle classes, to an essential of life akin to electricity. "There are amazing opportunities out there. We just need to influence the system around us if we are to deliver a sustainable future. We have the technology solutions that could solve problems, but we have to get the last meter, the user experience, right," she said.

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