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The USA is being pushed to lead 5G development, but MNOs are not waiting on it for IoT deployments

"Operators in the USA should look beyond IoT and use technology to establish a leadership position in some 5G technologies – ideally with increased support from the government."

America is waking up to the '5G hype' and mobile industry organisation, 4G Americas, has called for the USA to establish itself in a leadership position in 5G development. 5G is still trying to find an early use case but the telecoms industry increasingly believes that 5G networks will help it to pursue new opportunities presented by the Internet of Things (IoT). However, many mobile network operators (MNOs) are not waiting on 5G to launch IoT services.

The USA is not likely to take a leadership role in 5G without significant investment in the next 12 months

5G provides an opportunity for the MNOs in the USA to avoid the early missteps in 4G marketing. Telecoms operators in the USA used uneven marketing practices when advertising 4G services in an attempt to gain a technology leadership foothold ahead of the implementation of standards. Sprint marketed its WiMAX network as '4G' even though delivered speeds were below 10Mbps. T-Mobile responded by calling its HSPA+ network 4G, which was delivering speeds in the 10–20Mbps range. The development timeline for 5G, shown in Figure 1, provides a clear time-table for when 5G standards will be complete and the USA's MNOs need to be careful not to confuse consumers with early 5G marketing.

Figure 1: Timeline for the development of 5G [Source: 4GAmericas, 2015]

Timeline for 5G

Industry body 4GAmericas is calling for the USA to establish a leadership position in 5G. However, this is not likely to happen given the breadth of existing government-backed trials and R&D programmes taking place in other parts of the world, unless the US telecoms industry significantly invests in the next 12 months in developing and trialling technology intended for 5G such as multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO) and high spectrum radios above 6GHz.

R&D activity and announcements are getting far ahead of standards work

Even by telecoms industry standards, the focus on, and hype around, 5G is getting an early start. Many 5G partnership announcements to date have lacked specific details, but highlight how broad-based the 5G efforts already are. For example, Ericsson, the Federal University of Ceará and the universities of Campinas and São Paulo, will research how 5G and IoT can be used to advance Brazil's healthcare, education and energy sectors, as part of the country's wider digital agenda. In the UK, the 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) hosted by the University of Surrey has IoT as one of its focus areas.

Operators and vendors in Asia have publicly stated their intent to lead in 5G development and early deployments, and it is this region that is ahead of both Europe and the USA. For example, NTT DoCoMo is involved with five top vendors including Ericsson, Fujitsu, Huawei, Nokia (http://networks.nokia.com/innovation/5g) and Samsung, and China Telecom and SK Telecom have agreed to work together to share information and development efforts to standardise 5G technology and commercialise their 5G networks.

Opportunities for the USA to establish a leadership position will come from the early technology deployments and use cases that involve candidate technologies and applications for 5G including beamforming, full duplexing, IoT, MU-MIMO, millimetre wave spectrum, and unlicensed spectrum. A bright spot for the USA's cause is Qualcomm's demonstration of a system using beamforming, 128 antenna elements and 28GHz radios to deliver dense area, non-line of sight mobile broadband services.

Vendors and operators are not waiting for 5G to meet IoT needs

The 3GPP RAN workshop on 5G in September 2015 focused on three key use cases: enhanced mobile broadband, massive IoT and ultra-reliable networks. Of these three, IoT has gained the most attention from the telecoms industry, but it may be the one area that is most threatened by alternative technologies to 5G.

Other technologies may pose a challenge to 5G as a solution to delivering IoT services.

  • The Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA) reports that by 2020, nearly half of the MNOs that took part in its survey will run IoT applications over carrier-grade Wi-Fi networks.
    • Narrowband LTE (NB-LTE) is gaining traction as an efficient, low-overhead and low-bitrate 4G service specifically for IoT applications. NB-LTE runs in a narrowband channel up to 200kHz, and is therefore expected to require only a software update to the RAN to create a low-speed low-power cellular connection ideally suited for IoT applications. AT&T, Ericsson and chip vendor Altair have collaborated on new technology to allow IoT devices to operate for up to 10 years on one battery set for common uses such as asset tracking and shipping. Deutsche Telekom and Huawei have deployed a service using NB-LTE to test several different use cases, include smart parking and smart metering.
  • Organisations, such as the LoRa Alliance and SIGFOX, are already launching IoT networks – SIGFOX has rolled out its network in nine countries. Orange (France) is expected to begin deploying a LoRa-based IoT network in 2016 as part of the operator's Essentials2020 plan to generate revenue of more than EUR500 000 by 2018, but it has not announced specific use cases.
  • Broadcomm, Intel and Qualcomm are building low-power chipsets that address some of the IoT use cases intended for 5G, such as smart metering, security, asset tracking, wearable tech and point-of-sale devices. Qualcomm's NB-LTE chipsets will be available in 2016 and are purpose-built for low-power gadgets connecting to cloud-based services.

Our research shows that the number of IoT connections will steadily increase in all regions between now and 2020 when it is expected that 5G services will be launched. The number of connections will increase most significantly in developed Asia–Pacific, Europe and North America, and these regions will account for 400 million additional connections by 2020 (see Figure 2).

5G technology offers <1ms latency for real-time control and it is therefore likely that IoT applications for the Industrial Internet (automated manufacturing) and managed real-time healthcare sectors will be among the first to run on 5G networks.

Figure 2: M2M connections, worldwide, 2014–2020 [Source: Analysys Mason's DataHub]

Figure 2: M2M connections, 2014–2020

Vendors and MNOs must manage standards and marketing issues to establish solid positions in the 5G market

5G R&D is in its early stages, but the focus of the standards effort is increasingly narrowing. This may result in two definitions for 5G: one based on standards and the other based on marketing. Early 5G trials are showing what may be possible, but it is not too late for the USA to gain a strong position in the development of 5G technology and standards and move beyond pure marketing.