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Regulators and industry plan for 5G, despite gaps and doubts

Governments and industry are counting on 5G networks. Now they must decide what 5G really is, and how to build it.

If you walk the floor of Mobile World Congress and believe the videos and signage that assault you, you might be convinced that 5G wireless networking exists today in the same way the espresso you’re probably holding exists.

You would be wrong. 5G exists much like a Pokemon in Pokemon Go: People more or less agree what it would look like and how it would act in the real world if it were real. But the more you dig into it, the more you realize there are important technical and regulatory questions that must be answered before 5G becomes a reality.

Mobile World is where those issues get addressed and answers get hashed out, and there is plenty of answering and hashing required. After all, the first trials of 5G are planned for later this year, with commercial deployment expected in 2020—a scant two to three years away.

The questions still outstanding affect more than governments and carriers. Industry is waiting for 5G, perhaps no sector more than the automotive business.

Perhaps the most urgent unsettled question around 5G is spectrum: Which frequencies will it operate on? Getting to an answer requires cooperation between government and business as well as among governments, none of which leaves room for a great deal of optimism.

Two of the most important telecom regulators in the Western world spoke Tuesday at Mobile World Congress: Ajit Pai, newly installed chair of the U.S. Federal Communications Committee, and Andrus Ansip, vice president for the Single Digital Market of the European Community. Both of them called on carriers to press government to make regulatory decisions that would allow the carriers to invest in 5G—and to make them soon.

But while the regulatory situation in the U.S. is fairly straightforward, it is anything but in Europe. The EU cannot make spectrum allocation decisions for its member nations, nor can it influence the competitive environment in each country. It can only cajole and advise.

What the EU wants

"We want to avoid segmentation and interoperability problems," says Ansip. "We should make 5G standards and make it in stone so it will be difficult to change later."

Addressing the continent’s regulatory fragmentation, Ansip says, "What we need for 5G to become a reality is to make spectrum available as though it were in a single market. When 4G came along, Europe was slow adopting. We don’t want to make the same mistake with 5G. The alternative is being left behind in the fast connectivity age. Nobody in Europe can afford for this to happen."

What’s at stake is a high-speed ubiquitous digital wireless network that promises gigabit speeds (and then some) for devices that need it. The magic of 5G is that it gives devices only the bandwidth they need, rather than devoting a larger channel than may be necessary.

If a sensor on the Internet of Things (IoT) needs to send just a few bits at a time (say, a Fitbit transmitting steps data or an autonomous car pinging the road around it), a 5G network can set up a connection for just those few bits. One consequence is that 5G networks can support many more simultaneous connections and dynamically throttle bandwidth when demand becomes overwhelming.

Another promise of 5G is extremely low latency, in the range of 1 millisecond. Aside from self-driving vehicles, one frequently mentioned use case is remote surgery, where a doctor in one city performs robotic surgery on a patient in another.

Favorable regulations must be in place for carriers to be willing to spend millions on new infrastructure. As Pai says, "Networks don’t build themselves."

In the U.S., regulatory uncertainty followed the change in presidential administrations. Where the Obama administration had opted for net neutrality, under which carriers (including wireless carriers) were required to carry all traffic regardless of source, Pai’s FCC is opting for "light-touch" regulation.

During the two years when net neutrality was in place, investment in broadband telecom infrastructure declined for the first time. Once that regulatory regime was lifted, all four national carriers introduced expanded unlimited data plans, according to Pai.

For the time being, the first 5G trials are expected to start later this year in the U.S., according to Pai. The question of how much more spectrum would be auctioned to 5G carriers must wait until industry says what it needs.

Some experts have shared what those needs should include. Stephane Richard, chairman and CEO of the Orange Group, a multinational telecommunications company, called for more spectrum to be made available and for spectrum awards to run for as long as 25 years. And he called for the industry to get involved in writing 5G rules. "5G is not only a topic for telecom operators," he says. "It’s really a measure of stake for all of society, including the industrial world, which we would like to involve because these systems will involve them."

How the auto industry will benefit from a 5G boost

Both Ansip and Pai say there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020. Many of them will be in cars and trucks, which are moving toward autonomy.

In a Monday session about autonomous automobiles, automotive companies and their vendors said 5G networks are a requirement for self-driving vehicles. The low latency and high bandwidth are important features, as is 5G’s ability to serve many devices within a small area—vital when cars’ telematics systems need to communicate with each other.

Daniela Gerd tom Markotten, head of the digital services and solutions unit for Mercedes-Benz Trucks, said the typical truck now carries 200 sensors. By 2020—the year when the first 5G networks are expected to go live—35 million trucks will be connected, managing the vehicle and trailer or monitoring cargo and maintenance needs.

The economic impact of self-driving trucks is significant, Gerd tom Markotten said. Three-quarters of Europe’s trillion-euro logistics market moves by truck. "By 2050, transportation volume will be tripled," she said. "The road network will not be tripled."

Mercedes is already doing on-road tests of autonomous trucks in Germany, but networks must be faster and more reliable, with no international roaming charges (another sore point of European wireless regulation), according to Gerd tom Markotten. Machine-readable road signs and improved digital maps will also be key.

Those maps, said Eric Mangan, head of product marketing at digital mapping company HERE, will be more sophisticated than the static maps in your GPS system. "You need to be able to map yourself to centimeter precision," he said. "Maps need to look around corners to understand dynamic events" like unexpected lane closures or traffic slowdowns.

HERE—owned by Audi, BMW, and Mercedes, with a 15 percent stake held by Intel—is looking for partners to build a global map specification, Mangan said. The goal is to build a map once and then "heal" it dynamically as conditions change. But "without sharing data across brands, realizing the vision of self-driving will not be possible," he added.

Although 5G isn’t as real as, say, a cup of espresso, regulators, carriers, and industries that are counting on it are proceeding as though it soon will be very real indeed—even though its precise shape remains unknown.

5G: Lessons for leaders

  • The most urgent unsettled question around 5G is spectrum: Which frequencies will it operate on? Getting to an answer requires cooperation between government and business as well as among governments.
  • Networks don’t build themselves. Favorable regulations must be in place for carriers to be willing to spend millions on new infrastructure. 
  • The automotive industry has a lot to gain from 5G networks, which are a requirement for self-driving vehicles. Low latency and high bandwidth are important features.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.