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The fast and slow evolution of wireless systems

The rate of penetration of new wireless system is relatively slow, with a full cycle lasting over 20 years. Image credit: Statista 2018

2019 will see the initial deployment of the new 5G wireless system. Yes, I know, Verizon and ATT, plus a handful of other Operators already announced first deployment in 2018 but this is more market gimmick than  reality.

A wireless systems may be seen as consisting of three main parts:

  • the terminal
  • the radio link
  • the backbone and core network

So far we haven’t got any 5G cellphone on the market. Samsung and a couple of other manufactures are planning to release one or two models in 2019, Apple is most unlikely to do so, reason being that 5G radio links in 2019 will be few and far apart.

A handful of 5G phones expected in 2019 is really … nothing if you think that the evolution in the terminal area is amazingly fast. We have some 25,000 different models of cell phones in the market with a few new ones entering the market every single day! However, if you look at the overall evolution of the user base the story is different. We have some 8+ billion phones in use and 1.5 billions are replaced every year. This means that a 50% replacement takes 3 years, but this is unlikely to reflect the real users’ base, since well to do and geeks will be replacing all their phones faster than the average user. A 5 year time to reach a 50% user base is more likely.

When considering smartphones we should also take into account their “software” part, both OS and the applications. The OS part is periodically updated as new releases become available, mostly on a yearly base. The applications part is subject to a very fast evolution both in terms of availability of new applications and in terms of new releases of a given application. As of the third quarter of 2018 there were 2.2 million apps in the Apple store and 2.7 million in the Android store (with an average 6,000+ apps released every day on the Android store), and some 175 billon apps were downloaded in 2017. Considering this number of apps it is likely that most smartphones are unique in terms of features provided!

The radio link part evolution is slower if you think in terms of coverage. We are still seeing many areas that are not covered by 4G today so we can safely predict that a significant coverage of 5G won’t happen before 2023 and a pervasive coverage will only be reached in the second part of the next decade.

The GSM usage is shrinking worldwide but it is still around 1/3 at the end of 2018, some 25 years after its deployment… Image credit: Telegeography

Look at the first graphic and you see that GSM, the 2G system is still being used today, with 30% of the market (usage varies in different areas, depending in Operators strategies, in Japan it was discontinued in 2012, in the US some Operators switched it off in 2017, in Norway it is foreseen to continue operation well into the next decade, mostly supporting M2M services). Hence GSM has been in service for over 25 years… A slow evolution indeed!

The backbone/core network is somewhere in between. It takes several years to upgrade the network to full capacity, however from the very firs moment that a radio link of new generation is deployed the network will have to support it. In the case of 5G we can say that the backbone network will evolve at the pace of the radio link part and the core will be available from the very first moment, although with limited capacity. Also, it is likely to take several years before supporting all the features present in the 5G standard and/or in making them operational, like the network slicing and the hand over of the session control to the terminal.

It might take even longer to see the integration under the 5G umbrella of other wireless protocols, like the one used in V2V (vehicle to vehicle communications).

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.