Are these newly launched ‘5G’ services truly 5G wireless?

It doesn’t take an expert to assert that 5G will be a major theme of this year’s Las Vegas show. But will the 5G devices on display there soon need to be replaced with “real 5G” devices?
Written by Scott Fulton III, Contributor

One of the principal themes of CES 2019 in Las Vegas, which launches Tuesday, will be the "arrival" of 5G Wireless. If you're a CES veteran, you'll recall the "arrival" of HDTV, or at least one of the many events over the years presented as an "arrival." Mobile technologies could use a big arrival right now.

Also: Samsung announces 5G smartphone sneak peek

Last week, Apple declared a revenue shortfall for its fiscal Q1 2019 quarter, particularly on account of lower iPhone revenue in China and emerging markets. The news, if not statistically, at least substantively verified analysts' suspicions that the smartphone market had reached saturation, for iPhone and perhaps the market as a whole. This on top of ever-increasing trade tensions between China, and the US and Canada, in a dispute that now involves detaining each other's suspected saboteurs -- a spat the US President dubbed a "necessary trade war" in a December tweet. China's Huawei, suspected by some US officials of secretly equipping its networking gear with espionage tools, is also a major contributor to the global 5G Wireless standard.

With all this bad news, the mobile device industry would probably prefer 5G's arrival to be something more than just a knock on the door.

5G Wireless is scheduled to be a major theme of this year's CES, with Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg slated to keynote on Tuesday at 4:00 pm Pacific Time, and AT&T CEO John Donovan to speak Wednesday at 2:00 pm PT. Both executives are expected to divulge news about their respective 5G introductions, as well as to characterize the platform as already having "arrived."

Markitecture dispute

In late 2018, both AT&T and Verizon rolled out more communications services with prominent "5G" labels in select markets. For AT&T, it's the latest move in a marketing campaign announced back in April 2017, using the umbrella brand "5G Evolution" or "5G E." Verizon's move last October was touted by company president Ronan Dunne as nothing less than "the world's first commercial 5G service."

But 5G Wireless has grown to encompass a plurality of technologies, among them separate classes of wireless antennas for delivering different categories of wireless fixed and mobile services. Telecom industry experts are now concerned that the US' two largest carriers may be simply rebranding faster 4G Wireless and home Internet services, particularly to trigger the revenue boots they need to fund the multiple infrastructure transitions necessary to make 5G happen.

The "5G Evolution" plan involves AT&T's introduction of a technology built on top of the existing 4G LTE platform, called LTE-License Assisted Access (LTE-LAA). It's a mechanism for increasing 4G bandwidth by dynamically allocating channels in the 5 GHz band of the spectrum. And there's where the confusion begins, because the similarity of "5 GHz" and "5G" are, at best, coincidental -- or perhaps, as the legendary former marketing chief of Apple, Jean-Louis Gassée, called it this week, "markitecture."

Back in 2013, the US Federal Communications Commission set aside 195 MHz of unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band, for use by wireless devices capable of operating on multiple channels simultaneously, especially Gigabit Wi-Fi (802.11ac). As then-FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski stated at the time, the move would be "paving the way for next-generation Wi-Fi, by ensuring for the first time that low-band unlicensed spectrum will be available on a nationwide basis, using consistent frequencies."

As Genachowski noted, that 200 MHz of space would not be exclusive, so the FCC would need to communicate with commercial stakeholders in the 5 GHz space to ensure against signal interference. As it turned out, 802.11ac was intentionally engineered to avoid attempting to allocate already allocated channels, and LTE was intentionally engineered to override Wi-Fi when their signals collided.

More 5G at CES

Almost immediately, and with good reason, experts in the wireless industry anticipated that carriers would make use of unlicensed spectrum to build up their mobile bandwidths. Now both Verizon and AT&T have the means, in several of their major markets, to boost their theoretical 4G LTE bandwidths to near 1.5 gigabits per second (Gbps).

But as its very name clearly implies, LTE-LAA is a set of protocols designed to expand LTE, a technology which the International Telecommunications Union -- an agency of the United Nations -- officially designated part of 4G Wireless. 5G Wireless is not overseen by the ITU, but instead by 3GPP, the organization of industry stakeholders gathered together during the 3G era to develop standards and protocols outside of the government realm. While 3GPP does specify 4G technologies, the industry discussions about the evolutionary paths of 4G and 5G are, to borrow a phrase from the mobile industry itself, separate channels.

Stay with ZDNet all week for complete coverage of CES 2019.

Whose network is it, anyway?

Why does this matter? Is there any substantive or valuable significance to any global communications carrier jumping the gun on a G or two? Consider the following:

  • None of the transmission equipment is actually the same. The key purpose of 5G, as it was originally conceived and tested in the US, Europe, and China, is to replace the world's transmission system with one that is easier and much less costly to maintain than 4G. 5G networks may eventually utilize 4G towers, but not 4G or 3G transmitters.
  • None of the phones are the same. On the customer side of the equation, since the architecture of mobile devices' chassis is geared around their antennas, 5G phones -- the kind capable of receiving very-high-bandwidth, millimeter-wave (mmWave) transmissions -- will be different phones.
  • In the near-term, Wi-Fi could suffer. Though both telcos and Wi-Fi industry leaders talk about co-existence, the de facto agreement their respective technologies lead to is one where LTE-LAA signals muscle into territories where 802.11ac signals reside, and Wi-Fi politely make room for them. LTE signals are obviously stronger, designed to cover much greater distances. While existing Wi-Fi routers are designed to manage signal contention, their own ability to make room for their own channels could be degraded.
  • The 5G technologies that make headway at CES 2019 will not include LTE-LAA. Smartphone and device manufacturers perceive their own evolutionary path to 5G, which involves helping along the obsolescence of 4G -- leading customers to make the leap off the old networks. Although carriers may urgently need to maximize their 4G revenue streams in order to afford their own 5G transitions, manufacturers such as Apple (which used to avoid CES, but won't this year) now desperately need 5G to establish the baseline for their next generations, in a market which many experts are perceiving as already saturated and in danger of commoditization.

Even with these clear and contentious boundaries between wireless technologies, AT&T confirmed last month it plans to upgrade the software of some of its customers' existing phones this spring, in areas where its 4G transmitters are being upgraded with LTE-LAA, to register a "5G E" icon instead of a "4G" icon.

AT&T offers this official explanation: "We're laying the 5G network foundation with 5G Evolution and LTE-LAA. In technology terms, that means we're upgrading cell towers with LTE Advanced features like 256 QAM, 4x4 MIMO [antenna multiplexing], and 3-way carrier aggregation. These technologies serve as the runway to 5G by boosting the existing LTE network and priming it for the future of connectivity. We can enable faster speeds now, and upgrade to 5G when it's ready."

The argument drives its point home

Meanwhile last October, Verizon declared "The world's first commercial 5G service is here" with its launch of a home broadband service it touts as having theoretical peak throughput speeds of 1Gbps, competing with FTTH fiber optic services. Verizon's 5G Home is a fixed wireless service designed to potentially deliver gigabit service to residential customers.

Verizon's work is the product of the company's own 5G Technical Forum (5G TF) -- a partnership with network architects Cisco and Nokia; device makers Ericsson, LG, and Samsung; and platform makers Intel and Qualcomm. But as CNET's Roger Cheng was first to note, the products of 5G TF utilize access technologies that are proprietary to the Verizon network, and thus cannot be industry-wide standards.

However, as Verizon's technical documentation points out, much of the infrastructure of 5G TF is grounded in true 5G technology, most notably including its Radio Access Network (5G-RAN). All carriers have their own access technologies, and will continue to do so even in the 5G era. So there is a case to be made that, even though Verizon's 5G Home may not be officially 5G now, it will be once 5G actually "arrives."

In the meantime, expect some discussion throughout CES 2019 on the integration with cellular networks with the Internet of Things. One technology platform certain to bring the IoT into the 5G discussion is NB-IoT, a system that extends cellular signals to small, distributed devices, in a home, a factory floor, or conceivably across an entire campus. A company called Digi will be among those demonstrating NB-IoT this year (booth #2215).

Must read

Yet even here, there's a non-trivial dispute over whether NB-IoT qualifies as a 5G technology. Theoretically, the platform can work over 4G LTE and 5G New Radio (5G NR). However, indisputably, the routers that service these networks would be different devices, without an evolutionary path between them except total replacement. That's a problem for any organization wishing to make an investment in NB-IoT today.

For its part, the GSMA organization -- the group that helped establish 2G, one of whose prominent members is Ericsson (which contributes to Verizon's 5G TF) -- is arguing that the dispute has already been settled. In a white paper [PDF], GSMA argues that since NB-IoT has been brought into the low-power network discussion along with LTE-M (the technology NB-IoT originally would have replaced), and since those having these discussions are actually the same organizations, it's all one discussion anyway -- making it all de facto 5G.

"Existing cellular networks are evolving to deliver service to billions of new devices providing complete IoT connectivity in the 5G era," GSMA writes. "This future is now assured, as 3GPP has agreed that the LPWA use cases will continue to be addressed by evolving NB-IoT and LTE-M as part of the 5G specifications, so confirming the long-term status of both NB-IoT and LTE-M as 5G standards."

So since all technology disputes intend to solve the same problems anyway, perhaps it's fair to say this: Welcome to the 6G era.

Stay with ZDNet all week for complete coverage of CES 2019.

CES 2019: The best tech, gadgets on show (so far)

More 5G coverage:

More CES 2019 coverage:

Editorial standards