Editor’s Corner—5G is in the eye of the beholder

Monica Alleven Editor's Corner

Is NB-IoT really qualified to be called 5G? Some industry stakeholders think so, which set off a new round of discussion on Twitter last weekend as several leading industry analysts and others debated the legitimacy and merits of such a claim.

Operators around the world are in various stages of deploying NB-IoT. For some, it’s already deployed, while others are just now getting around to deploying it.

To me, it belongs in the LTE category of technology and not 5G. But technically, it’s part of the IMT-2020 submission, and, I’m told, can be considered a 5G technology.

How does Qualcomm define 5G? If something is based on 3GPP 5G New Radio, does that mean it’s 5G?

“Whatever is submitted to meeting ITU-R’s IMT-2020 requirements,” responded Danny Tseng, staff manager of 5G technical marketing at Qualcomm, via email. “3GPP is submitting both 5G NR and LTE Advanced Pro in Rel-15 to meet these requirements. That being said, to answer the original question, NB-IoT is part of that submission and therefore is considered 5G.”

There you have it. But that's not the end of this conversation. One of the problems with defining 5G is, practically speaking, there’s no single judge currently determining what is or isn’t 5G. Is it ITU’s job, or 3GPP’s? Mostly, it’s the individual marketing departments at carriers and vendors, or “all of the above.”

Just as the ITU defined International Mobile Telecommunications-2000 (IMT-2000) to drive 3G and IMT-Advanced for 4G, the ITU is now defining IMT-2020 for the 5G specification. As the name implies, the IMT-2020 process is designed to be finished in the 2020 timeframe, notes 5G Americas in a white paper published last month that spells out all the processes, procedures and acronyms on the way to 5G.

3GPP defined a two-phased 5G work program starting with study items in Release 14 followed by two releases of normative specs spanning Release 15 and Release 16, with the goal being that Release 16, which is in the works, includes everything needed to meet IMT-2020 requirements. That’s expected to be completed in time for submission to the IMT-2020 process for certification.

One could say that nothing is really 5G until the ITU 2020 says so. Until then, everything is just “pre-5G” or even faux 5G.

But, of course, nobody is waiting around for these specifications to be finalized. Instead, the marketing departments at U.S. carriers and others around the world are declaring what is and isn’t 5G. Vendors, as well, are doing their parts.

“I think this is a problem,” said Dean Bubley, founder of Disruptive Analysis. “There is no clear definition of who is what I call the ‘G keeper.’”

Last summer, the 3GPP officially completed the Standalone (SA) version of the 5G NR standard. The previous December, it approved the Non-Standalone (NSA) version of the standard.

NSA, which is what many operators are using initially, relies on the legacy LTE core network while the SA version does not. So there, one could argue that with NSA, you still need LTE in the core, so is that a “pure” 5G network?

A handful of analysts with whom I spoke this week generally agree that if it’s 5G NR, then it’s 5G.

Verizon is probably the most justified to date to actually call its 5G Home service a 5G service. It’s not using equipment built on 3GPP’s 5G standard, it’s using the Verizon Technical Forum specification for 5G. But it’s close enough to pass the test for most in-the-know analysts, and we’re told it’s a relatively easy upgrade to the real deal when that’s ready. (That’s not to say that I think Verizon’s fixed wireless access version of 5G is really all that mind-blowing. It’s not. But that’s a different discussion.)

Even when you ask a group of CTOs what 5G is—which is what Chris Nicoll, principal analyst at ACG Research, did when he moderated the CTO panel at Mobile World Congress Americas back in September—you end up getting four different versions. Sprint CTO John Saw was the first to answer the question and, among other things, he mentioned that he’s excited to see who the next Uber is going to be in the healthcare industry—as an example of what 5G can do.

Nicoll asserts that one of the first things the industry needs to do is separate the 5G technology discussion from the 5G services discussion. They’re not the same, but when asked how to define 5G, many people immediately start talking about use cases, probably because that’s easier for the average person to grasp.

But, he concedes: “The 5G marketing engine is already in full bore. The problem is it’s way ahead of where the technology is.”

These things do matter. I remember when people got upset back in the '90s when the first AT&T—the one before Cingular and the current iteration of AT&T—labeled its service “PCS” when it didn’t use PCS spectrum. The industry has tried in past technology generational shifts to differentiate between “Gs” and even use terms like 3.5G before jumping into the next one. But given the state of 5G, it appears there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.

Who’s to blame for this predicament?

“Everybody,” said Dan Warren, head of 5G Research at Samsung Electronics Research Institute and former senior director of technology at GSMA. “Everybody in the industry is to blame because it’s all been going on for about five years and nobody has ever tried to stop it. But that’s because, I think, it is so contentious” and the definition is so broad that it would be almost impossible to stop.

Once the bandwagon started to roll about six years ago, he tried to put some sense into the discussion. But after about six to nine months into it, he gave up. “People were talking so broadly about 5G,” for several years and none of the definitions aligned much. Sure, there were some common themes but they were talking use cases and not technology. “You couldn’t pin down a specific definition of 5G and I don’t think you ever will,” he said.

The problem is LTE actually lived up to its name, which is rare in the technology space, Nicoll points out. LTE stands for Long Term Evolution, and “it’s been evolving over a long period of time, and it’s working very, very well.”

The industry went up into gigabit speeds with LTE and got into things like Cat M and NB-IoT, where the price points have come down considerably. “LTE is probably the most flexible mobile technology we’ve ever developed,” he said.

It might have been wiser had the industry just given LTE a couple more years to do its job before talking in earnest about 5G and showing what it can do based on a more mature understanding of 5G. After all, aren’t we doing the industry a disservice by calling things 5G when they’re not exactly all that different from what’s available today? What are consumers to think?   

Everyone is in this great big hurry to be “first,” which is totally losing its meaning as well. But back to the original question. Even if NB-IoT technically can be considered 5G, let’s not go there. — Monica | @fiercewrlsstech

"Editor's Corners" are opinion columns written by a member of the FierceWireless editorial team. They are edited for balance and accuracy.