Speed takes centre stage as operators ramp up 5G testing

Eight out of ten mobile operators are already trialling and testing 5G technology, with 12 per cent gearing up for a commercial deployment by the end of 2018, according to a new report from IHS Markit.

The race for 5G leadership has been contested on a global basis, but IHS says North America has a clear lead over Asia, with Europe further behind. The US has benefited from its existing leadership in 4G as well as its advantages in technology and research.

But there is a belief that the scale of investment in China’s network infrastructure could see it take the lead in the not-too-distant future. Meanwhile, Europe suffers from challenging market conditions and fragmentation.

5G launch

The first commercial 5G services will go live in the US later this year, offering Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) broadband in major cities. The first compatible smartphones will launch at some point in 2019.

“Get ready, 5G is around the corner,” said Stéphane Téral, executive research director, mobile infrastructure and carrier economics, IHS Markit. “5G is going live in North America by the end of 2018, and then in South Korea in 2019. Most operators in Europe, however, aren’t planning to deploy 5G until 2021 or later.”

Eighty-two per cent of operators cited ultra-low latency as a main technical driver of 5G investment, with the decreased cost-per-bit noted by 76 per cent and increased network capacity by 71 per cent. The biggest technical challenges of deployment are radio technology (53 per cent), transport (24 per cent) and management (14 per cent).

Initially, the main benefit of 5G will be faster speeds and higher capacity thanks to the more efficient use of spectrum, but the truly transformational aspects of 5G may have to wait until the mid-2020s. That’s because the ultra-low latency will require operators to change the way their networks are built so they are software-defined and have more capabilities near the edge.

Accordingly, mobile operators believe enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) and FWA will be the initial drivers of adoption, with latency-sensitive applications like connected cars and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) arriving later.

“The bottom line is early 5G will be an extension of what we know best: broadband, whether in FWA or eMBB form,” added Téral . “Don’t expect factory automation, tactile low-latency touch and steer, or autonomous driving to be ready on 5G anytime soon despite being touted as the chief 5G use cases.”

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.