Mobile World Congress Barcelona is the premier mobile technology show of the year, where all the premier suppliers have an opportunity to show off their chops and convince the rest of the industry that they know what they’re doing. This year’s show was particularly significant in that it was the last big opportunity that most companies had to show off their 5G capabilities before rollout begins next year (neither MWC Shanghai and MWC Americas attract anywhere near Barcelona’s 100,000+ attendees). As far as 5G goes, I noticed a few common themes at the show that I wanted to delve into today. Keep in mind, when I talk about 5G, I am only referring to 5G NR (not the pre-3GPP 5G standards like Verizon’s 5G TF or KT’s 5G-SIG).
Who’s got what?
At the show, lots of companies were still just talking about 5G, not showing. To me, last year was the year to talk about 5G and this year was the year for companies to put their cards down on the table and demonstrate that they have the chops to be ready for next year’s 5G NR network launches. Companies like Huawei have been very aggressive in promoting their 5G NR infrastructure capabilities. At Huawei’s press conference, the company showed off its first 5G modem. At about the size of a server chip, this modem confused everyone—I’m not sure it will work on anything smaller than a car, let alone a mobile device. That being said, I had a very hard time finding many actual 5G NR modems on the show floor—nearly all of them were using modem emulation boxes to show off their 5G NR demos.
Modems were sparse with virtually every major vendor, including Intel , Samsung, Huawei, and Qualcomm. The only exception to this was a demonstration at Qualcomm’s booth of one of its mobile development platform devices, showing peak speeds of 4.3 Gbps. As far as I could tell, it was the only 5G NR live demo on the entire MWC show floor using an actual modem. In contrast, Intel’s newly announced prototype 5G tablet’s modem isn’t capable of 5G NR and requires a flap to be flipped outward to work best. All of this to say that while 5G is getting more real, it still isn’t quite there yet.
Which carriers have 5G?
A lot of carriers at MWC gave details about their 5G rollout plans including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile , and Verizon. Other global operators like TIM ( Telecom Italia ), China Mobile , and Telefonica were also present and accounted for. AT&T announcedits plans to launch 5G networks in 12 cities, revealing Atlanta, Dallas and Waco as the first three. AT&T also offered insight on how it plans to upgrade its 4G LTE networks to prepare for 5G. Sprint announced its first six 5G-ready cities (Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston, and Washington D.C.) and stressed the importance of Massive MIMO in enabling both 4G and 5G expansions. The company plans to deploy 5G NR first on 2.5 GHz, the same band of frequency that they currently use for 4G LTE, with software-upgradable hardware enabling the soft switch to 5G.
Probably the biggest surprise to me was T-Mobile’s announcement that it would be building out 5G in 30 cities this year, with the first usable networks coming early next year in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas. I always expected T-Mobile would deploy 5G on 600 MHz first, on the band of spectrum it already owns and to do it on a national scale. It’s important to note though that in my opinion, 5G without millimeter wave is a hobbled solution that doesn’t deliver the ultra-low latency and high bandwidth users are expecting (though T-Mobile says it is deploying mmWave 5G later this year). Regardless, this announcement challenges any notion that T-Mobile is falling behind AT&T and Verizon in the 5G space.
China Mobile also talked about its aggressive plans to deploy a standalone 5G NR (full 5G NR) as soon as 2020. While that sounds quite far away, most operators that are even talking about deploying 5G are deploying the non-standalone half-step to standalone 5G NR—the full 5G network people expect and want. I believe that China Mobile’s aggressive roadmap is ambitious, but if it can pull it off it will give China 5G technology leadership (something that would scare many western governments). Having a 5G standalone network would give China Mobile the ability to offer services and experiences other operators can only dream of. The expectation is that most standalone networks will take time to build out and require significant RAN and Network Core upgrade. We recently published a paper on these expectations, estimating a 5G impact on IT infrastructure hardware to the tune of $326 billion by 2025.
What’s the skinny?
5G technology is coming down the pipe very fast, and MWC 2018 gave us a good look at a lot of it. Chip and infrastructure vendors like Ericsson , Huawei, Intel, National Instruments, Nokia , Samsung, Qualcomm, and others have drastically accelerated the roadmap with their new technologies—though many aren’t ready yet for commercial deployment, it still looks like we’re going to get 5G a full year sooner than anyone expected. It won’t be pretty at first. Smartphones won’t be able to even make use of the first deployments. Make no mistake though—it’s coming.