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There is life before 5G, there will be life after 5G

Vision of 5G performances summarised by Nokia, using the “wish list” published by the GSMA. Credit image: Nokia

Today I am giving a talk at the IEEE 5G Summit in Trento on 5G with the curious title: “There is life before 5G, there will be life after 5G”.
The point I am making is that what we have today is pretty good and fulfil our needs, and that 5G will not be the end of the story, 6G is lurking round the corner.
More than that: today 5G is a fuzzy set of promises that will take time, probably ten years, before being fulfilled.
These promises have been listed in the GSMA document published in December 2014 (and summarised in the graphic made by Nokia).

The point is that these are “promises” not facts, they are nice to have features that the industry should use as a beacon for the evolution. It is not the first set of promises. We saw them (a bit scaled down) when 3G was on the launching pad, and then with 4G. In both cases at launch both under-delivered and it took them some 5-10 years before getting close to the goals.

Of course, marketing didn’t have the patience to wait and immediately at launch started to expound the marvels of the new system. 4G started to deliver voice just last year (and not everywhere…) and what we had till 2016/17 was not 4G according to the ITU specification. To meet the promises that were made in 2013 we will have to wait for 2023 when the last scheduled release of LTE Advanced will become reality.

In the case of 5G marketing has taken a step forward: we already have in several Countries the 4.5G (that as a matter of fact is more a 3.8G in terms of performance when we compare to the ones promised by 4G!) and a few Operators have promised the deployment of 5G in the second half of 2018 (before the 5G standard will become available and before terminals supporting 5G will produced…). Just yesterday I saw a big heading on an on-line newspaper announcing the deployment of a 5G antenna!!! by Huawei for a trial in Italy (that means an antenna operating in the 3.6-3.8 GHz, nothing to brag about…).

An interesting blog was published in 2016 by Jonas Lind on Mobile Foresight: 5G reality check. It is worth reading.

It makes several sobering points on the 5G promises and in particular it examines the promise of <1ms latency pointing out that on the one hand it is not realistic, on the other hand there is very little need for this kind of latency.

May be in case of cooperative games using virtual reality there may be a need for this kind of short latency but it is difficult to imagine players wearing VR goggles moving around in a city… If you are sitting on a couch, you obviously don’t need 5G, since the various goggles can talk directly with each other.

Even more interesting is the point that technology will evolve over the next ten years making most of the promises technologically feasible. But the big question mark is: who will be willing to pay for the cost of using such an infrastructure? (which immediately becomes: who will be willing to invest in such an infrastructure in absence of remuneration?).

The economics are the real stumbling blocks and they are the ones that will set the pace of deployment of 5G.
It will happen, of course, and I am looking forward to its deployment, because I can’t wait to hear the wonderful things that will become possible with 6G, the real game changer everybody will be talking about in the next decade!

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.