Fourth-generation cellular technology, better known as 4G, is still relatively young in New Zealand.
It is less than two years since 2degrees began rolling out its 4G network. Spark, then Telecom, and Vodafone started earlier, but the bulk of their networks are not much older.
We’re lucky. There are parts of the world that have yet to upgrade to 4G.
Next step cellular
Yet at this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the company’s making network equipment were busy talking about the next step. 5G was at the top of the agenda for many exhibitors and attendees.
There’s no fixed definition of what 5G means at the moment. Different companies are pushing their own versions in the hope of getting a march on their rivals before an industry-wide standard is agreed.
All companies talk of fast wireless speeds. The early descriptions of 5G talked of 1 Gbps. At MWC the figure most often used was a peak throughput of 10 Gbps. That’s a staggering number, faster than our national fibre network can manage at the moment.
The other important number is the low latency expected for 5G. Everyone agrees it will be less than 1 ms.
Nobody seemed to mention the potential spectrum bottleneck. Carriers will need a lot of bandwidth to manage the promised speeds. It will be possible to aggregate spectrum from different bands.
One complication is that carriers will need to run 5G networks alongside 4G ones. That will stretch the available spectrum even thinner.
Without more information it is hard to be exact, but it looks as if Vodafone and Spark have enough headroom to move to 5G. There could be a question mark over whether 2degrees has enough for a full implementation.
The carriers have other matters to worry about. For the most part New Zealand’s 4G networks are only two years old. It will take the phone companies at least five years to recover the investment they made installing 4G.
They won’t be in a hurry to start another round of investment before the 4G bills are all paid.
Huawei pushes 4.5G
This is where things could get confusing. At MWC, Huawei, an equipment maker, ran an event looking at 4.5G.
That’s Huawei’s name for an interim technology, in effect, a software upgrade to the 4G network. It will deliver improved network performance, maybe 5G like speeds. But it won’t include all the benefits. For that carriers will need to build new networks from scratch.
Huawei says when it arrives, the new technology won’t be known as 4.5G. Most likely it will be a variation on LTE-Advanced Pro as far as the telecommunications industry is concerned.
According to Huawei, 4.5G will deliver much faster peak network speeds than today. At the conference 1 Gbps was mentioned often. We’ll see an equivalent bump in latency too. Also on the agenda is the ability to handle six times as many simultaneous connections.
It gets complicated because, if history is a guide, some carriers and vendors will brand their 4.5G networks as 5G. This is what happened during the last transition when some of the early 4G networks were, in fact, HSPA+.
At MWC some equipment companies said they will release 5G hardware in 2017. That’s pushing things. Few carriers will be ready to upgrade and the earlybirds may move before there’s an accepted, universal understanding of what 5G means.