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The battle over 5G: What is it, who are the players, and why do we care?

In this important video roundtable, ZDNet’s David Gewirtz, Jason Perlow, Steven Vaughan-Nichols, and Scott Fulton discuss what may well be the future of all telecommunications. Hint: it’s messy.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Video: Who are the players in the battle over 5G and why do we care?

Welcome to the latest installment of our regular series of virtual roundtable discussions about important questions facing the future of technology. In this episode, Jason Perlow, Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols, Scott M. Fulton, III, and I look at 5G and come away, well, a bit troubled.

Scott recently wrote an epic article, What is 5G? Everything you need to know about the new wireless revolution. In it, he talks about the critically international nature of 5G.

A few weeks ago, the US government banned sales to Chinese telecommunications manufacturer ZTE (and then, possibly, unbanned the ban). Jason Perlow put that ban into perspective from a technological future perspective in an of his always thought-providing analysis pieces, Qualcomm: Meet the new boss of everything mobile.

These events are critical in understanding 5G and what it means to the telecoms, business, and individual consumers. That's where we started in our roundtable. We wanted to know what 5G is and, frankly, why non-telecom businesses and consumers should care.


Here are some of the key thoughts you'll see discussed in more depth in the video:

What's the biggest problem with 4G?

According to our panel, the big problem with 4G is actually its cost to cool. According to Scott, 75 percent of capital expenditures and over 50 percent of monthly operational expense are spent by mobile telecom providers cooling 4G transmission towers.

How does this relate to China?

China Mobile triggered this whole wave, after looking at the costs of not only building out and supporting 4G, but helping to move providers still on 3G to 4G. The premise is that if they can move all of the processing away from the antenna into the cloud, they can save a tremendous amount of money, slash operations costs by 75 percent or more, and save considerable real estate for each antenna installation.

What's important to know about 5G technology?

There will be a lot more antennas, possibly as many as 60 antennas for each 4G antenna. However, those 5G antennas will be much, much smaller and much more inexpensive to operate. They'll be connected via fiber back to a central cloud environment.

Read also: Ericsson plans continued 5G R&D as net loss reduces to 700m SEK

Speeds for 5G will be up to 1GB for mobile users and up to a possible 10GB for fixed wireless users -- those users who access network capabilities, but do so at their desks.

What about current wired broadband suppliers?

This is new and quite possibly intense competition. It's a potential bloodbath. The wireless providers are after the business and revenue streams of current broadband providers, and some even predict that they can only profit if they also own the content play as well. Look for some of the wireless 5G providers to try to muscle into or push aside the likes of Netflix, Hulu, and the other streamers.

On the other hand, some kind of fiber cabling will be required to each of the 5G transmitters. That business might be where the broadband providers come into the game.

So we're talking about real edge-based services?

Yep. For example, instead of downloading a TV show from the cloud across the internet, portions of a program can exist throughout 5G cells (or even on users' machines) in a community. Rather than downloading long distance, the content can be assembled and played at very high speed, locally. If this sounds a lot like BitTorrent, perhaps with a lot of rights management layered on top, you would be right.

Doesn't that kind of service impact cloud-based businesses?

Ya think? Not only are potential 5G providers gunning for big slices of the wired broadband and streaming entertainment businesses, they also see the potential of taking business away from services like Azure and AWS, while offering greater access speeds and local aggregation.

Just how long will it take to deploy 5G?

That's up to a lot of debate, and our panelists did, indeed, debate. 5G, especially if you're looking at installing 60-to-1 transmission nodes, will be expensive to set up. Cities will benefit, but rural communities and poorer communities will probably be left behind. Poor communities in countries still on 3G may get 5G, but they'll get substantially degraded service because more and more people will be forced to rely on a single, much-less-capable node in 5G.

Read also: AT&T's 5G 'foundation' technology is now live in 141 markets

Then, you have the political issues. 5G is being driven heavily by China. If the US continues to squabble with China, at best we'll wind up with multiple 5G standards, and, at worst, no 5G at all. Another possibility is a worldwide 5G standard that the US is left out of.

There's a lot more to what we discussed. Be sure to watch the video and share your thoughts below. Let me know what you think of this format and feel free to suggest topics for future shows.

You can follow my day-to-day project updates on social media. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz, on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz, on Instagram at Instagram.com/DavidGewirtz, and on YouTube at YouTube.com/DavidGewirtzTV.

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