Guest post by Mae Kowalke, Accedian

Amid all the hype over 5G, it’s good to periodically take a step back and ask some questions about where things are headed for future mobile broadband, and how to get there. Here are five things we’ve been pondering as part of some in-depth analysis into 5G, each with reference to a recently curated article that either attempts to answer the question, or adds depth to the inquiry.

1. What are users really lacking with 4G, and how might 5G fill those needs and wants? 
Short answer: we don’t know yet. Some of the proposed concepts for 5G get so deep into technical specifications and challenges around meeting specific metrics (like sub-1ms latency) that is seems network users become the forest lost for the trees, to co-opt an old adage. But that’s not necessarily what operators and vendors intend. Fierce Wireless notes that, during the NGMN Industry Conference & Exhibition 2015, speakers and panelists put effort into sharing their focus on use cases rather than technology. That said, it’s hard to predict the future so those use cases are “imagined;” the industry really doesn’t know yet where the money will be.

2. Is 5G a solution looking for a problem, or a set of problems looking for a solution?
Short answer: in the real world, operators and customers mostly care about solving problems, not technology without specific applications (yet). Mobile Experts Principal Analyst Joe Madden touched on this recently when he dared to point out that nobody cares about IMT definitions; actual investment in technology is the important thing. So, while 5G purists might be waiting for the official ITU-R definition (IMT-2020) later this year, operators are preparing for another round of big investments by considering what business models they predict will be profitable. They’ll pick technology that seem a pretty sure bet for supporting profitable services. Follow the money.

3. To what extent is 5G dependent on virtualization?
Short answer: very dependent. For example, Next Generation Mobile Network Alliance’s work on 5G concepts (such as its white paper published in February) focus heavily on virtualization. As Fierce Wireless Europe editor Anne Morris notes, NGMN couches this concept in the term “network slice” or “5G slice.” She interviewed Ericsson’s 5G radio product strategy head Hakan Andersson, who explained that “slice” is just a replacement for the term “virtual network,” intended to avoid confusion with existing VPNs and other “virtual” networks. She defined “5G slice” as a virtual network designed to support uses cases proposed for 5G, allowing operators to provide appropriate levels of network capabilities based on demand. Somewhat related, RAN sharing will likely be a key strategy to keep CapEx of a new RAN in check.

4. What role could or should small cells play in 5G networks?Short answer: small cells may play a big role in 5G. NGMN’s 5G white paper assumes the use of small cells in 5G, notes RCR Wireless, but those cells will need better security. Concepts like cell densification are poised to shake up mobile network design, and one way things could go would be architecture that natively supports small cells, unlike LTE.

5. Is full duplexing possible on a smartphone sized chip?Short answer: yes, at least in a limited context. Some of the proposed benefits of 5G are only possible if technology is developed that allows full duplexing (sending and receiving, or uplink and downlink) simultaneously on a single chip small enough to fit into a smartphone. This seems really difficult or impossible to achieve, since signals so physically close to each other inevitably interfere. A team from Columbia University seems to have developed a preliminary solution, by embedding interference-cancellation circuits in what they call a ‘noise and leakage canceling receiver’ that works between 0.3 and 1.7 GHz on a CMOS design chip, The Register reports.

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