Cellular carriers no doubt are working hard at developing their 5G systems. There is, after all, plenty of money on the table. There is also plenty to do: The new standard, which promises to just about wipe away the gap between wireless and wired connections, will be a huge step forward.
It is a very far reach, however. Sending so much data over long distances in a stable manner requires innovations in radios, antennas, frequency use and other areas. With that much work to do, it would seem that carriers would be deeply involved in trials and tests. If they are, they are being tight-lipped about it. IT Business Edge posed the same set of questions to the top five U.S. cellular carriers about their plans for 2017.
The theme was that carriers were less than verbose. One, T-Mobile, sent links to company blog posts with no elaboration and didn’t respond to a subsequent request for more information. Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and U.S. Cellular -- or media firms that represent them – did respond. In most cases, however, they didn’t say too much.
Verizon’s 5G Plans
Verizon, according to spokesman Marc Tracey, is currently testing fixed wireless in 10 U.S. cities. Those tests will last all year, he wrote in response to emailed questions. The goal is to test network viability in a variety of deployment scenarios and across different topographies and geographies. Tracey wrote that the timing of the transition to commercial services has not yet been determined.
AT&T’s 5G Plans
AT&T was a bit more expansive. Hank Kafka, AT&T vice president for Access Architecture and Analytics, wrote that the company last fall started a business customer trial with Intel and Ericsson using millimeter in Austin. During the first half of this year, it plans to offer residents of Austin the opportunity to stream DirecTV Now. Multiple sites and devices will be used for the fixed wireless test, which will also include other entertainment services.
AT&T will be testing both fixed and mobile approaches. It’s working with Qualcomm and Ericsson on trials that will involve 5G New Radio specifications that are being developed by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). Two 5G test beds are being built in Austin.
Several elements are being tested, Kafka wrote. “This includes testing, validating, and understanding the behavior of key technology building blocks of 5G systems in mmWave in terms of coverage, range and capacity in different environments. We will also glean knowledge about how 5G technology handles different services such as ultra-HD video, gaming, augmented reality, virtual reality and more. In addition, the trials and labs work we’re conducting is helping us guide our contributions to 5G 3GPP standards development.”
Sprint and U.S. Cellular’s 5G Plans
Neither Sprint nor U.S. Cellular provided specifics about what sorts of tests they are planning for this year. Some sketchy information is available, however.
Sprint CTO John Saw, in a year-end post, wrote that Sprint will continue its densification and optimization efforts that began during 2016. He didn’t cite any specific trials or field tests, however. T-Mobile has no plans for fixed 5G services, according to an Android Headlines story last month. If so, of course, any trial or test activity would be aimed at mobile 5G.
5G and Hype
While it is too hyperbolic to say that 2017 is a make or break year for 5G, it’s clearly a very important period. Marketing departments only need a bit of imagination and perhaps a thesaurus to paint a glowing picture of what lies ahead for subscribers. Engineers, however, must deal with physics.
It’s a familiar pattern of promises being offered that can be kept – but not right away. From an operational point of view, fixed 5G services can be a winner. Suddenly, many of the questions surrounding a cable company or telco’s obligation to build out wired networks to sparsely populated areas can be avoided.
The public is fickle, however. In its mind, 5G is about one thing: mobility. Progress toward the expansive initial promise of essentially having a cable modem in your pocket must be seen this year, or 5G will begin to be perceived as an over-hyped technology that is not living up to expectations. The good news for carriers and their ecosystems, however, is that 5G fixed wireless is potentially a very lucrative service that will keep 5G in the public eye while the hard work of mobilization is worked through. The tests and trials of 2017, whether or not carriers want to talk about them, will be keys to that success.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.