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The 5G Future Is Almost Here
The 5G Future Is Almost Here
Investments in 5G-compatible spectrum show economic promise of 5G wireless technology, slated to be rolled out in developed economies in 2019.
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The 5G future is arriving faster than many had predicted. But, for the struggling telecom industry, it still can't arrive fast enough.

The mobile telecom industry has left behind the era of easy growth, driven by smartphone and tablet adoption. And the anticipated new era of growth based on innovations like virtual reality and the Internet of Things hasn't yet picked up the slack.

But, in recent months, the mood among telecom leaders, is imbued with newfound optimism. That's because the industry has managed to put aside the squabbling and politics that usually accompany a new wireless standard, to place 5G on the fast track to reality.

Already, momentum is building for actual rollouts and there is hope that 5G networks will soon unleash an avalanche of investment and inspire a wave of new services that profoundly changes the world, while also returning the telecom industry to a new era of prosperity.

So far, U.S. telecom companies have spent over $60 billion for 5G-compatible segments of the electromagnetic spectrum in Federal Communications Commission spectrum auctions. Telecom companies in countries such as Germany, India, and Canada have also heavily invested in securing spectrum rights in their respective national auctions as competition for increasingly crowded airwaves intensifies.

The huge sums of money invested in spectrum auctions around the world in recent years demonstrates the rising value of electromagnetic spectrum and its increasing centrality in economic life. In fact, wireless spectrum is now one of the increasingly more valuable intangible resources in the world. More specifically, massive investments in 5G-compatible spectrum are a telling indication of the perceived economic promise of 5G wireless technology, slated to be rolled out in developed economies in 2019 and in emerging markets shortly thereafter.

However, before the industry can spin spectrum into gold, it must confront a whole new set of challenges on the road to 5G glory. Company are increasingly focused on figuring out exactly what people and businesses can do with this almost unfathomable amount of mobile bandwidth.

At this point, the focus is not primarily on the technical issues; it's the business issues. The challenge is to figure out how 5G can make money for the telecom industry. As the head of Korea Telecom put it earlier this year, "at the 2018 Olympics, we demonstrated many interesting applications. But we don't yet know what the "killer application" for 5G will be."

Gartner reported that 2017 represented the first year-over-year decline since 2004 in smartphone sales for the critical holiday quarter. And the announcements we've seen this year confirm that smartphones seemed to have hit an innovation plateau.

This malaise extends beyond gadgets. Verizon's annual revenue in 2017 was below its peak in 2015, while AT&T reported that annual revenue in 2017 was down from 2016. Intel and Samsung have returned to growth thanks to stronger chip sales, but Qualcomm has reported three straight years of sales declines. Meanwhile, equipment maker Ericsson eliminated 10,000 jobs, while rival Nokia continues with thousands of layoffs that were part of a $1.3 billion cost saving programannounced in early 2017.

But rather than whining, the telecom industry is riding a wave of 5G announcements that include network launches, chipsets, equipment architecture, and even some progress on endpoint devices.

"This industry badly needs 5G," said Stephane Teral, executive director of research firm IHS. "They are trying to revive the industry. The idea is to pull the whole infrastructure business out of its funk."

AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint have all announced timetables for commercial 5G rollouts in the U.S. ranging from late 2018 to 2019. China Mobile and Japan's NTT Docomo are targeting 2020 for their 5G launch. On the chip side, Qualcomm has been making an aggressive push, including signing deals with 19 phone makers and 18 carriers for 5G. (Qualcomm's 5G traction has also made it the target of a hostile takeover bid from Broadcom.) And Intel has partnered with PC makers to develop 5G-enabled laptops for 2019. 

In December 2017, the 3GPP industry group formalized the first set of standards for 5G, which were sufficient to let hardware and chip companies start building equipment. A second set of standards will be finalized this summer.

In past transitions, such as those from 3G to 4G, industry players waited until standards were finalized before initiating more serious development standards. But the existing 4G LTE, or "long-term evolution" networks, were designed knowing a new standard would come along eventually. LTE will allow carriers to evolve their current networks to 5G rather than build new networks from scratch.

That also means that with standards coming together quickly, players across the industry have already been conducting trials before the final standards were locked in.

This allowed "the chip guys" to start building the silicon based on the lower layer of the spec before the upper layer got finalized. In the past, it was 18 months after a standard was completed before commercial deployments. Now it will be within six months. It's a major acceleration from previous generations.
This accelerated timetable for 5G, however, has left many players scrambling to develop the products and services to leverage the new networks.

This is not an unusual dilemma. With any network transition, whether it's mobile networks moving from 2G to 3G or home networks moving from dial-up to broadband, it's not obvious just how people will use all that bandwidth. But in the past, the basic market appeal "Whatever people were already doing, they would be able to do it much faster and more often," was compelling enough from the start to justify the massive infrastructure investment.

"5G is a different kind of beast. While the current 4G LTE offers theoretical speeds of up to 100 Mbps, 5G will eventually offer 20 Gbps. But the technical appeal for 5G goes beyond that. 5G will allow a nearly limitless number of connections within a small area, and delays in data transfer, known as latency, will virtually disappear. That combination of speed, density, and fluidity is what potentially makes 5G much more radically transformative than other recent network evolutions.

Everyone questions what you're going to do with it and why anyone would need it. So, it's going to be very interesting to see how people might be able to use 5G's capabilities.

It's exciting. But it also means the telecom industry faces an unprecedented degree of complexity to realize the full potential of 5G and make it a business success. Where as past upgrades were about faster smartphones and tablets, 5G will be driven by the development of thousands and thousands of devices and endpoints that connect factories, self-driving vehicles, fields of robots, and virtual reality services that no longer need to be tethered to a PC. And, of course, there will be hundreds of more uses that no one has even imagined yet!

Given this trend, we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.
First, as 5G is deployed wireless internet speeds will, for the first time, exceed that of cable broadband and, potentially, fiber optics.

This will allow users to flip through high-quality video content, including 4K, 3D, and virtual reality, with the same or better experience as watching cable television. When we experience flipping through ultra-high definition video on mobile devices with virtually no buffering, most of us have an 'a-ha' moment, in the same way many of us did when we first checked email on our phones. It will fundamentally change how we think about video.

Second, the "internet of things," or "IoT," will have broad industrial and city-wide applications for the first time.

Not only will consumer products such as fridges and thermostats be increasingly connected to the internet via the "consumer IoT," but large-scale and complex processes such as industrial agriculture, supply-chain coordination, fleet management, and city traffic flow will increasingly be guided by connected devices as part of the "industrial IoT." Importantly, 5G will provide the necessary bandwidth for connected vehicles to send and receive the huge amounts of data at the speed required for effective vehicle coordination, thereby representing a vital component in the development of autonomous driving and urban air mobility. The integration of wireless communication with transportation signifies a potentially large new revenue stream for telecom companies. 

Third, 5G technology will reduce network latency to one millisecond; which is faster than the speed at which humans perceive auditory, visual and physical responses to be instantaneous.

Consider that 4G LTE latency is currently between 20 and 50 milliseconds. The perception of immediate response, especially when combined with haptic feedback, will enable new wireless applications such as remote surgeries and remote driving and flying. Additionally, truly immersive virtual reality and gaming experiences available on demand will allow users across the world to interact with each other in virtual worlds in real-time. This ultra-reliable and low-latency communication will underlie what is increasingly becoming known as the "tactile internet." And,

Fourth, unlike previous wireless technologies, 5G will have a much greater impact on other industries than it has on telecoms and gadget makers.

Since the roll out of 5G will occur over a number of years and at different rates in different countries, some of the use cases will only become technically possible at scale in the early- or mid-2020s. Other use cases may be limited or otherwise shaped by government regulations. Nonetheless, the broad range of new economic opportunities-and threats-posed by 5G will significantly impact not only telecommunications, but other areas such as health care, consumer and industrial products, energy, and utilities. As such, the winners and losers at the industry and company level may be markedly different from those that resulted from previous wireless transitions.

For instance, Germany wants 5G networks to enable "in-home patient monitoring," for applications such as home dialysis machines. In the industrial space, companies like Fanuc in Japan are talking about smart factories, which could see smarter inventory management as well as maintenance and repair scheduling of machines.  

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