While the importance of 5G IoT and 5G-delivered mobile broadband should not be underestimated, some of what 5G promises is already being delivered or is about to be delivered. It’s happening thanks to mobile broadband and IoT offered by LTE, LTE-A and other flavours of what you may or may not call 4G.
In China, home of the world’s largest LTE network, the number of 4G users is approaching one billion. LTE networks are spreading rapidly across Asia. And despite the amounts of money already pouring into 5G R&D in leading Asian economies, quite a few countries will still be running 4G — or a version of it — for many years.
And making the most of 4G is not all about sweating ageing assets. Some 4G networks only arrived in the past year or so. We need strategies that deliver on investment regardless of the generation of mobile communications.
This has already occurred to some of the operator community. Indeed, the GSMA has suggested that 5G need not be standalone and that, as it notes, “non-standalone 5G networks would run on existing infrastructure supplemented by targeted small cell deployments in areas of high density, allowing 4G and 5G services to run in parallel”. That, we would argue, seems a logical approach. Meanwhile, if LTE can support 5G-like demands in the near to medium term, it probably will.
Yes, the excitement that 5G generates is certainly merited. Standards, spectrum harmonisation and business models for 5G are important. But we’re not ripping up 4G to replace it with 5G — or rather, we shouldn’t be. At the same time, however, operators should not be deterred from doing some fundamental changes to the core network architectures that will allow them and their customers to benefit from 5G.
It’s now clear how establishing a new paradigm in the architecture of the network will enable innovation to occur at the pace of software evolution. Service-oriented architectures, where networking platforms enable eco-system building, can emerge through 4G and then grow in utility as 5G is established and matures. Many consumers will be happy for quite some time with LTE-A or even standard LTE. It seems entirely logical that 4G and 5G should be able to complement each other.
China’s projected investment in 5G is in the hundreds of billions of dollars. But China is a market that has built out a lot of LTE infrastructure. The two approaches are not exclusive. Effective investment and use of resources will, we believe, be a strong driver for network rollout strategies in the future. When deploying 4G the architectural approach must be cognisant of 5G – that is, there should be a clear strategy for 4G and 5G as simply two useful, revenue-enabling parts of a larger commercial and technology strategy. Perhaps vendors, operators and industry experts should start to look more closely at ways of making that happen.
Of course, that’s exactly what we are doing now. With experience going right back to 2G and a team of experts heavily involved in 5G planning, we can help companies develop commercial and technology strategies that deliver on investment – regardless of the generation of mobile communications associated with it.