Decoding 5G Standards, Spectrum, And Carriers

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is tasked with setting the standards for wireless wide area networking and mobile communications. As its name might indicate, this started with 3G, the network standard supported on the first Apple iPhone back in the early 2000s. Today, the 3GPP covers existing 2G, 3G, and 4G LTE infrastructure as well as future generation 5G network standards. The organization’s most current offering, Release 15, provides two paths for deploying 5G networking: standalone (SA) and non-standalone (NSA). I would like to define both, discuss the benefits and drawbacks of the new spectrum ranges that will be covered, and provide some insight into the carrier confusion that has resulted from the release.

Cracking the decoder ring 

SA refers to an end-to-end 5G network that will deliver all of the promises of speed and latency whereas NSA allows 5G networks to fall back and rely on some elements of existing 4G LTE networks to bolster just throughput as an interim step. With initial 5G deployments, most will be NSA as carriers will also have to support two spectrum frequency ranges. Range 1 extends current 4G LTE and is referred to as New Radio (NR). It supports “sub 6” with a spread of 450 MHz to 6,000 MHz. Range 2 sits at a much higher level with a spread of 24GHz to 52GHz and is referred to as “millimeter wave” (mmWave). Each frequency range has certain propagation characteristics. For example, mmWave can cover densely populated areas but only over short distances. Sub 6, although highly occupied today, can be coupled with technologies such as massive MIMO antennas to deliver reliable, cost-effective, and highly scalable mobile broadband access.

Why should you care?

In the United States, tier one carriers such as AT&T , Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile haven’t done a great job of educating the public. Bear in mind that each owns slices of spectrum acquired through an expensive FCC auction process and chooses to adopt and deploy different networking infrastructure strategies. Aggressive marketing is another factor. AT&T promotes its 5G Evolution deployment as an attempt to ready its next-generation 5G network through densifying current 4G LTE infrastructure. The company has taken some poetic license in turning network icons on smartphones to “5GE” in certain markets. AT&T is likely leaning on its NSA deployment as justification but savvy users that use speed test applications have proven slower performance! Verizon launched a fixed 5G wireless home broadband service in late 2018 in four markets based on pre-standard “5GTF” ahead of NR. Competitors chided it for being “fake 5G.” Sprint and T-Mobile have been somewhat more conservative in their marketing efforts but used their merger announcement in late 2017 to signal to FTC regulators that their combination of spectrum and co-investment in infrastructure could help accelerate the country’s leadership in deploying next-generation 5G services.

Wrapping up 

Carriers around the world are spending billions of dollars in infrastructure from the likes of Samsung, Cisco, Ericsson , Nokia , Huawei and even Dell EMC and HPE to cover a range of spectrum—all in the hopes of being first to monetize use cases. We are probably several years away from autonomous driving given the need for IoT telemetry sensors in our roadways, but I expect to see significant innovation in areas such as manufacturing, retail, healthcare, education, and field service over the next 18+ months globally. The carrier confusion should eventually clear and use cases will rise to the surface that leverage the high throughput and low latency of 5G. This will be transformative for consumers, but likely even more so for the enterprise. Stay tuned—it should be a fun ride.