By: Charles Schroeder, Business and Technology Fellow
Every year at the end of February, we make our annual pilgrimage to Barcelona, Spain, for the world’s largest wireless conference, the Mobile World Congress. With wireless companies from around the world demonstrating the latest technologies, outlining future directions, and showcasing the latest wireless products, the sheer scale of the conference can be overwhelming. Companies invest millions of dollars on huge displays of opulent next-generation applications to show their technical prowess, ingenuity, and leadership in the 5G arena. As we unpack our bags from Barcelona, here are our thoughts on MWC 2019.
Behind the scenes of 5G
First and foremost, 5G is here. Unlike prior years when 5G speculation ran rampant, this year service operators, infrastructure manufacturers, device manufacturers, and semiconductor manufacturers demonstrated their 5G offerings. Test and measurement companies also demonstrated their latest equipment essential for wireless companies to transition from prototype to product.
However, MWC is not like other conferences. Behind the well-lit, showy exteriors of most booths are scores of private, opulent meeting rooms where technology and business leaders at companies in the wireless ecosystem meet to discuss potential business and collaboration. And the discussions in these meeting rooms are often far more prudent and cautious than the outward displays might lead you to believe. A perception of leadership is important, but, given the long timeline over which 5G will evolve (potentially as long as 10 years), it would also be easy to bet too much too early.
The 5G standard features several components incremental to 4G and others that are far more difficult and expensive to implement at scale. All past cellular standards have operated in the frequency bands less than 6 GHz, and a portion of the 5G specification continues at these frequencies. We understand the technology and business models at these frequencies as a natural extension of 4G.
5G also introduces several new technologies that offer much more potential performance upside, which fuels the hype (and the FOMO), like new mmWave bands and Massive MIMO. These two new technologies not only offer the potential for huge speed and bandwidth gains but also promise to open a whole new host of applications from robotics to self-driving cars to more efficient agriculture. But these new benefits will be costly to design, test, and deploy.
That brings us right to the heart of the sober reality.
In general, people are unwilling to pay significantly more for the current services they receive from the cellular provider. So who (or what new application) is going to pay for the expensive rollout of these new technologies? While the lights flash, the robots move, and the video screens show amazing 5G proofs of concept out front, these are the discussions happening in the meeting rooms behind the scenes.
5G test on display
NI has been heavily involved in preproduction wireless research since before the 5G standard was born. At this year’s MWC, it was great seeing our partners from some of these research ventures take the next step in terms of the 5G wireless evolution.
Samsung, Nokia, Intel, AT&T, and Verizon were all early adopters of NI software defined radio (SDR) technology for research and prototyping, and these companies are well on their way toward a significant 5G future. NI SDRs could also be seen in several other booths including:
Taking the next step toward full production, NI and Spirent demonstrated a gNB emulator connected to a UE or device emulator for sub 6 GHz 5G New Radio (NR).
This end-to-end demonstration showed the full capabilities of the 5G NR specification and offered a powerful platform to test both devices and equipment from validation to full conformance. Spirent plans to use its gNB emulator based on the NI platform as a part of its full test platform, which includes RF or channel emulation and 5G core network emulation.
Over the next few years, 5G will start deploying in volume, and we’ll all get to experience the benefits of this technology first hand.
As we move to deployment, we’re bringing 5G technologies off the engineers’ benches, through automated verification and into full production. For the sub 6 GHz bands, the test techniques are well understood and ready today. For 5G in the mmWave bands, the challenges and business opportunity are much greater. And at NI, we’re very excited to be taking these challenges head-on.
An era of innovation
Even with the cost and complexity of 5G in mmWave bands, the question isn’t “if” for these technologies but “when.” These mmWave technologies (and test equipment) are unproven at the scale, cost, and volumes of consumer cellular technology. As such we expect a modest but steady adoption rate for many years to come.
As a test and measurement engineer, this is a great period of innovation. Luckily for us, great innovation requires great test and measurement equipment. We return from Barcelona invigorated by the potential of 5G and inspired to provide solutions to the sobering challenges.
Moreover, what’s clear from MWC 2019 is that the excitement around 5G is still palpable and the entire wireless industry is moving toward a connected world built on 5G. Although it is early, the rollout is under way, and NI aims to help our partners and customers transition from 4G to 5G by offering platform components that scale to all facets of 5G including the new applications and use cases that 5G offers.
2019 may very well be remembered as the year when 5G became real.