The 5G mobile challenge: Selling a dream

No one in the mobile really knows what will make everyone demand super-high performance

At this week’s CTIA Super Mobility show, it took someone from outside the mobile business to point out what could be a nagging question: Why, exactly, do we need the faster speeds of 5G wireless?

Keynote speeches at CTIA, the main annual event for U.S. mobile operators, are heavy on futuristic applications and urgent calls for more spectrum and new networks to make those dreams real. On Wednesday, CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said U.S. carriers would need hundreds of megahertz of additional frequencies to meet mobile demands over the next decade.

But on the same stage Thursday, when Broadcast.com founder, Dallas Mavericks owner and entertainment mogul Mark Cuban was asked what’s missing in the wireless business, he answered without hesitation.

"There's no high-bit applications that are mainstream yet," Cuban said. By that, he meant mobile activities that require a sustained 100Mbps (bits per second) that never drops.

Smartphone use is still heavy on things like texting, social media and streaming videos that don’t need that kind of performance. IoT is growing quickly, but in most cases it needs even less speed. The way things are now makes it harder for the industry to ask for more spectrum or sell consumers on 5G, Cuban said. "It changes how people perceive the need for bandwidth.”

Cuban doesn't doubt that something will come along that calls for 100Mbps to a phone or some future device. He cited autonomous cars and telemedicine as possibilities. But these kinds of visions, like the remote robotic surgery that Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri talked about in a keynote address on Thursday, are little more than speculation. Something no one's predicting, invented by a 12-year-old, could be the killer app instead. “That's where we can get whipsawed," Cuban said.

It’s hard to win over skeptics, and to develop new networks, with that question up in the air. And carriers have more persuading to do than ever before.

They seem to have won over Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, who has been leading the agency to open up millimeter-wave spectrum for 5G services.

But because of the way 5G is expected to work, especially at those frequencies, there could be many more fights ahead, Wheeler told a CTIA audience. 5G is expected to rely heavily on small cells, which take up less space than today's towers but need more places to perch. There are about 200,000 cell towers in the U.S. now, and 5G could raise the number of cells to the millions, Wheeler said.

Local communities often balk at new cellular installations, and many small cells will be even closer to where people live and work. The FCC is working to streamline approvals to put up small cells, but local governments are still involved.

Meanwhile, the companies developing 5G networks know they have their jobs cut out for them. To help carriers prepare for the next generation, they’re talking about technologies that will fit in between 4G and 5G, under names like 4.5G.

At CTIA, Nokia CEO Suri said his company will start selling what it calls 4.5G Pro later this year. This product will let service providers combine as many as five bands of spectrum for speeds up to 1Gbps and will have less latency than current LTE networks, he said.

Though the 5G standard doesn’t exist yet, carriers will be able to use 4.5G Pro to test out a range of new applications, including ones that require more bandwidth, lower latency and improved machine-to-machine communications, Suri said.

If carriers bite, and their subscribers start taking advantage of these transitional networks, 5G may arrive in 2020 with some ready-made uses after all.

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