Pacing the promise of 5G

Standards-based testing and systems validation has proven to be the key pacesetter for how quickly 5G's promised market potential and impact can be realised.

This is a contributed article by Satish Dhanasekaran, President of the Communications Solutions Group at Keysight Technologies

5G - the fifth generation of mobile wireless network technology - is more than an evolution; it is a revolution. The vision and design of 5G has put the network's key performance indicators, including data rate, network capacity, latency, mobility, energy efficiency, an order of magnitude beyond those of 4G. While 5G is positioned to co-exist with 4G, it is expected to eventually eclipse the legacy mobile wireless technologies - GSM, CDMA, UMTS, HSPA, and, ultimately even LTE. Some applications of 5G have even started replacing the "last mile" of both in-ground cable and aerial fiber systems. 5G is at an inflection point, moving from design & development to commercialisation, and will continue to evolve for the next decade, and reshape the future of industry, society.

Because so much of forward-looking economy relies on digitisation, having a 5G infrastructure at scale will create lucrative new opportunities. Many companies eager to capitalise on the full potential of 5G are looking beyond the smart phone consumer use case to industrial and other mission critical applications. These industries include defense, finance, entertainment, healthcare, automotive, communications, government, business services, and manufacturing, as well IoT.

Sporting events are blazing the trail. Case in point, NTT DOCOMO, Japan's largest mobile network operator, is working to deploy its 5G mobile network in time for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo. It is developing a 10-year plan aimed at creating an industry-leading 5G communication platform with plans to deploy pre-commercial services later this year for the Rugby World Cup. These pre-commercial services have offered substantial learning with live devices and networks deployed that have helped accelerate progress. The supply chain momentum is palpable as many industry leading companies are ramping up their designs ahead of anticipated ramp and commercialisation. Prototype and early commercial systems are already active in several cities in the US, Europe, and Asia. Until 5G's abilities become widely available, however, 5G remains an enigma for some investors. 

Questions about 5G's timing, killer app, policy and standards loom large. The good news: there is plenty of capital in circulation for investment in 5G infrastructure. Investments in applications and streaming video solutions now comprise the majority of the revenue from wireless. This has been the case since 2014 so 5G's "complex ecosystem" simply translates to different timing for different investments and returns.

Another pervasive question surrounds the "killer app" and what will drive significant investment in 5G. This was the same big question that surrounded 3G and 4G. For 4G, the answer became more obvious with the expansion of data services for smartphone-based applications. But, where 4G's "killer apps" amounted largely to social media and mobile video, for 5G, the incremental revenues could come from diverse vertical businesses like finance, healthcare, transportation, and even industrial automation. Spectrum availability will be addressed first; either well on its way to resolution or already in place in most jurisdictions. Policy will also play a major role in how rapidly telecom companies can deploy their networks and conduct cell-siting and backhaul improvements. As for standards, the ecosystem leaders have worked hard to complete the first phase of 5G. Work is already underway to scope the future releases, offering a glimpse of future priorities and applications.

For the mainstream industry, standards-based testing has proven to be a key pacesetter for how quickly the promise of 5G can be realised. There are clearly stipulated approaches to how intellectual property (IP), specifically standards-essential patents, is managed in the 3GPP standards environment so that the standard does not end up being an unfair windfall to any company. By broadly industrialising, that IP becomes more affordable—global standards mean much larger volume and a larger ecosystem. This spreads the risk and involves more companies to realise the technology in the most efficient way.

Achieving mainstream 5G rollout - which could come as soon as 2022 - will mean major investments from global mobile operators. But while the Verizons, AT&Ts, Comcasts and other telecoms jockey for position at the forefront of 5G's buildout in the Americas and globally, it is becoming the platform for much more than just smartphone service. Over time, the cost of that transition will be borne by a variety of users and different industries - industries whose investment decisions will be predicated on the acceptance of industrywide, rather than proprietary, technical standards and tools. Those standards will be key to making 5G investments more compelling. 

Before 5G can generate significant market impact, some form of credible, independent validation is necessary to demonstrate that everything entering the 5G ecosystem - from networks to devices to services - is compatible and rigorously tested. Smart cities, remote surgery, all-electric and autonomous transportation systems, long-range weather forecasting, AI security systems, and more, are all real possibilities. Before the investments needed to realise them can be made with confidence and before they become capable of generating revenue, compatibility and performance must be definitively confirmed. 

Simulation, testing, validation and optimisation are essential to corroborate and refine the work of early 5G adopters. Companies that want to accelerate their 5G go-to market introductions will be wise to first have their claims independently confirmed. Testing at the applications layer to make technology less susceptible to malware is key to validate that a device is ready for certain types of applications. For example, network testing ensures that security and resilience to malware are adequate. Testing helps the industry address very real issues regarding security and safety which can take a company down fast, lose investor confidence and damage reputation.

Companies poised to reshape their markets by accelerating 5G innovation include network operators, network equipment manufacturers, electronic device makers and chipset companies. All are investing in the early runup to commercial 5G networks. In addition are innovators representing the entire communications ecosystem, including Qualcomm, Nokia, Xilinx, AT&T, Verizon, Samsung, and many others are pushing the gigaspeed envelope to demonstrate their 5G readiness. 

Whichever way 5G ultimately rolls out, and before any wide-scale customer deployment can take place, its commercial impact will hinge on establishing collective technical standards, common tools, and shared validation methods. It is a requirement that applies not only to 5G network operations, but to all the devices, apps and services connected to them. Before 5G innovators can deliver on its promised market impact, they must demonstrate that everything entering the 5G ecosystem - from networks to devices to services - is compatible and can meet the lofty goals set by the standard.

Satish Dhanasekaran is President of the Communications Solutions Group at Keysight Technologies, and a member of the FCC's Technological Advisory Council (TAC). Dhanasekaran has more than 18 years of experience in the communications industry spanning business leadership, product, and technical roles at Keysight, and Agilent prior to the company's separation, as well as Motorola. Throughout his career, he has been at the forefront of communications ecosystem advances. Currently at Keysight, his team supports industry-leading customers with cutting-edge design & testing to bring 5G to market.