For 5G to be successful, the whole telecom industry has to re-evaluate how networks work and are developed. Multiple challenges, both political and technical, have to be overcome before the technology can become a reality.
"Availability of spectrum is obviously a big thing," said Gerhard Fettweis, who heads a Vodafone-sponsored program at the Dresden University of Technology.
The amount of spectrum allocated to 5G will determine how fast networks based on the technology will eventually become. If they are to reach multiple gigabits per second, which proponents are already promising, operators are going to need a lot more bandwidth than they have today. A first step in securing that will hopefully be taken at the World Radiocommunication Conference in Geneva in November, according to Fettweis.
Network equipment makers and operators are hoping that the conference, organized by the International Telecommunications Union, will set aside at least 100MHz chunks of spectrum below 6GHz for 5G, Fettweis said.
That compares to the latest version of LTE, which offers download speeds at up to 450Mbps using 60MHz of spectrum. But the 100MHz chunks won't be enough, and researchers are therefore looking at so-called millimeter waves, which use spectrum even higher than 6GHz.
The use of higher-frequency bands is something of a necessary evil the operators and equipment vendors. It's the only way to get the spectrum they need, but also means the area each base station can cover becomes smaller.
Otherwise, getting spectrum and developing networks and devices that can take advantage of it aren't the only potential stumbling blocks. For 5G to be a success, the specifications that drive how the technology works has to be developed in a way that's more inclusive than how other protocols were established in the past, according to Eric Kuisch, technology director at Vodafone Germany.
LTE wasn't developed to handle all the traffic types that networks carry today. For example, because of the growing popularity of connected wearables, smart meters and vehicles, the telecom industry has had to rethink LTE specifications to make them a better fit for related applications. The goal with 5G is to get more of that right from day one.
"We have to talk with industries, including the car industry and manufacturing, to really understand what their needs are. That's new for us," Kuisch said.
But what has Kuisch really worried is how 5G networks will be monitored and managed, which nobody is talking about at the moment. Getting this right will be extremely challenging, and it's something mobile operators hasn't done a good enough job steering the vendors, according to the Vodafone executive.
"You don't want to be too late to understand that some part of the network is breaking down when all the cars in Germany are depending on it," Kuisch said
Send news tips and comments to email@example.com