Tuesday, 31 January 2017

5G is really necessary or is it?

The headlong rush into 5G is an unnecessary technology treadmill, or so the great and the good of the wireless world have concluded.

Cambridge Wireless, a network which brings together senior players in the mobile industry, may have moved its annual shindig from the esteemed university to London's Emirates Stadium, but it brought with it the glorious tradition of the debating society with the motion “Do we need 5G?” The answer was “no". This, amazingly, came from a room full of the very people who are setting the standards and doing the deeply clever work on how to use higher frequencies and squeeze more bandwidth out of them.

The debate was chaired by Bob Schukai, head of advanced product innovation at Thomson Reuters. The “Yes” camp was championed by Howard Benn, head of standards and industrial affairs at Samsung Electronics Research Institute, while the victorious “No” camp had as its leader Tony Milbourn, strategy veep of embedded technology company u-blox. The debate focused on the current definition of 5G requirements as stated by the leading operator trade associations. Benn argued that 5G "is the next generation of mobile carrier incubated radio access network technology, ready for early service adopters by 2020." However, Milbourn countered that “we have benefited hugely from standards; 2G built a momentum big enough to justify significant R&D, which in turn drove down costs to make the market big enough for more R&D, and so on. But the standards-making machine has now moved to a point where it is defining things beyond the needs of the consumer".

"Essentially, it's like washing machines; there is a rapid growth in the supply of washing machines before everybody has one, but once people can wash their clothes easily it becomes a replacement market, where the differentiation is the colour of the knobs," he added. "Consumer cellular is at this point. The area for investment is coverage, not yet another standard that sucks capital out of operators and delivers something that consumers don’t need," said Milbourn. But Milbourn added that his argument does not apply to M2M or IoT.

“For a new connected world we do need new standards, urgently,” he told the audience. Speaking in defence of 5G, Howard Benn said “we need 5G because history tells us that we can’t predict what services will be popular from 2020 to 2030, so we need a super-efficient and super-flexible system to cover all bases.” Gooner Schukai, no doubt revelling in the venue, said “less than a billion people were online as we entered the 21st Century; by 2020 this figure will be four billion – largely in line with the predicted four billion smartphones in use by then." "Our insatiable appetite to consume content on a variety of screens means that we have a responsibility to think about the infrastructure needed to support this level of data consumption with speed and security across wearable devices, cars, phones, computers and sensors — in fact anything that needs a connection to the wireless infrastructure," he added.

The debate generated a wide range of comments from the floor, from the need for a wider field of influence into 5G standards, to concerns about the "technical debt" of the industry, including the burdens of IPR and standards. This conference was the first for Bob Driver, who has just taken on the role of CEO of the organisation. “The lively debate encapsulated the positive mood of the conference and need for rapid progress to support the next generation of wireless services,” said the newly installed Driver. “However, the vote against 5G reflected a strong feeling that 5G, and future of wireless connectivity in general, was so vital to every industry sector, and every citizen, that the development needed to embrace a wider constituency. It was clear that there is a need to consider the wider business models necessary to lead the industry, rather than only focusing on the technologies.”

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