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5G Wireless: Reality looks to catch up with hype

Jon Gold | Jan. 3, 2014
What do vendors mean when they talk about next-generation wireless?


Don't feel bad if you don't really know anything about 5G wireless networking because, by most standards, it doesn't actually exist yet. The cross-pollination of codified specifications, new products, and technological innovation required hasn't yet brought 5G to fruition.

What there has been, however, is a lot of hype. Samsung grabbed attention in May with its announcement of a 1Gbps wireless connection it referred to as "5G," saying it would bring the capability to its production smartphones by 2020.

The European Commission's Horizon 2020 plan, announced this month, includes roughly $172 million for 5G research and development, and South Korea's Yonhap News announced that country's government would spend $475 million on developing a national 5G network, to be completed by 2020. Both proposals cite the transformative effects and massive economic benefits of 5G technology.

The problem, however, is that no one seems to agree on precisely what the term 5G even means. Sathya Atreyam, a research manager at IDC, says that it's become a buzzword at this point.

"There are many players right now who are claiming that they are investing a lot of dollars in 5G research, [but] they're all investing in different areas of 5G ... somebody's focused on increasing data speeds, somebody's focused on better coverage," he says.

"It reminds me of a story which is often heard," Atreyam adds. "There are six blind men feeling and touching an elephant and giving their definition of the elephant. Every one is true, but it's only part of the puzzle."

Standards bodies like the International Telecommunication Union, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and the 3rd Generation Partnership Project are all tracking the various technological developments. The ITU officially recognized the IMT-Advanced standard in January 2012, though it did not use the term 5G in describing the technologies, which include the next generations of the successful LTE and the less-successful WiMAX.

It's important to remember, of course, that even when a particular "G" term is fairly stable and commonly understood 3G, for example, is generally agreed to refer to the ITU's IMT-2000 standard it isn't a hard-and-fast official definition. Refinements in WCDMA technology produced HSPA and HSPA+, which are often referred to as "3.5G" or "3.75G," without fundamentally changing the underlying hardware.

Indeed, those technologies were even more ambitiously titled in the recent past, according to Forrester principal analyst Frank Gillett."With 4G, we saw versions of 3G HSPA+ - called 4G, and then we had to say LTE to mean true 4G," he says. "I'm expecting to see a lot of silly marketing junk later in the decade, as the 5G stuff ramps up."


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