Thursday, 21 January 2016

The race to 5G: Inside the fight for the future of mobile as we know it

The next generation of mobile technology, 5G, is beginning to take shape. Here's what it's trying to accomplish and how. And, why 5G could be the last standard we ever need.

Every ten years or so, something big happens in mobile. Once a decade, a new generation of mobile network technology comes along: the first mobile networks appeared in the 1980s, GSM followed in the 1990s, 3G arrived at the turn of the century, and LTE began rolling out in 2010.

Each generation has set out to fix the flaws of its predecessor: GSM fixed the security weaknesses of analogue telephony, 3G was meant to sort out GSM's lack of mobile data and, given it didn't much succeed, 4G was needed to finally make consuming data less of an unpleasant experience.

Now, 5G is emerging ahead of the turn of a new decade and the next big change to hit mobile. But what's the problem that 5G's meant to fix?

Here's the thing: no one's too sure about 5G, not really, not yet. The main gripes that people have with their mobile service today are coverage and price - neither of which are problems that need a new generation of mobile tech to solve. Throw a bit of cash into building out LTE and LTE-A and much of these headaches would go away, yet the industry is ploughing full steam ahead into 5G. Instead, the industry is hoping 5G will solve problems we don't have today, but those that could hold us back years in the future.

The process of building each new mobile standard begins years before it's put into use, and once up and running, those standards will remain in place in various forms for a decade or more. With 5G, we're having to build a standard that will still be in use in 2030 and beyond - and the mobile industry has a terrible track record when it comes to future-gazing.

Back at the start of 2000, with 3G just about to launch, who could have predicted how the mobile world would look in 2010? At the turn of this century, we all packed candy bar feature phones, now most of us have feature-packed smartphones.

Figuring out what uses 5G will be put to is the equivalent of trying to predict the rise of the iPhone five years before it launched. No one foresaw its arrival, or how the market would change in response to it, and how we'd end up where we are now. We're facing the same situation again: trying and imagine how the mobile world will look 10 years from now and design a standard to fit it.

If history is any guide, we're going to fail spectacularly again. That doesn't mean that the industry isn't going to try.

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