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5G had a slow and messy start. New 5G technologies could finally bring the faster networks we were promised.

Hugh Langley   

5G had a slow and messy start. New 5G technologies could finally bring the faster networks we were promised.
  • The 5G rollout has been slow and underwhelming, not delivering on its promised benefits.
  • But there are blue skies ahead as 5G advancements finally arrive.

At this point, it seems fair to call it: The arrival of 5G has been a little underwhelming.

A few years ago, carriers and tech companies were heralding the arrival of 5G and hyping its possibilities. It would have huge capacity and low latency. It would be a boon for autonomous driving and the connected home. 5G would do it all.

And then it didn't. Or at least, it hasn't yet.

The 5G rollout has been slow and, at times, confusing. Rolling out a new network standard is always a juggling act that requires buy-in from governments, standards bodies, and other stakeholders.

Still, there are reasons to be hopeful. Many companies at Mobile World Congress, which took place in late February in Barcelona, discussed new 5G technologies including 5G stand-alone and 5G-Advanced. These could eventually get us to 6G.

More-advanced 5G technology is coming

5G hasn't become widespread because carriers didn't have access from the get-go to the important bands of the spectrum, leading carriers to deploy versions of 5G using a hybrid system that piggybacks off 4G LTE.

5G stand-alone has more promise. It's a 5G network that, yes, stands on its own — meaning it's running on its own technology, independent of 4G. Put more simply, it's the version of 5G we were once promised.

The concept of 5G stand-alone isn't new, though it's taken time to arrive, largely because of the technical challenges of building a 5G core that delivers wide coverage. 5G stand-alone could allow 5G to flourish as intended.

Another technology, called 5G-Advanced (sometimes called 5.5G), effectively moves 5G forward, promising improvements including faster data speeds and reduced latency.

"We're just right on the cusp of 5G-Advanced," Alex Sinclair, the chief technology officer of the mobile-network lobbying group GSMA, told Business Insider. "That's going to be finalized this year."

Carriers and tech companies are heavily discussing 5G-Advanced. Huawei calls its version 5.5G, though that's really just a marketing term for the same technology.

Sinclair said the specs for 5G-Advanced are expected to be finalized in the first half of this year. Huawei said at MWC that its version of 5G-Advanced would get "commercial use" in 2024.

New ideas could get us to 6G

It could be another six or seven years before the standard arrives in a meaningful way and we reach the promised land of blazing-fast movie downloads and reliable surgical robots. For that reason, the many discussions about 6G at MWC seemed a little premature.

Anshel Sag, a principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, described Qualcomm's Giga-MIMO technology — an antenna array designed to increase 5G's data capacity while boosting the signal coverage — as an interesting approach to push the industry forward.

"It just kind of gives you that extra band of performance that maybe we'll need once we hit 6G in the next six or seven years," Sag said.

Sag said that the industry is in a situation where 5G networks "haven't delivered on the promise they set out five years ago" and that he believes Qualcomm's approach could be the "right path" toward 6G.

That's still a way off. For now, Sag said companies should focus on deploying 5G stand-alone, because none of the benefits of 5G-Advanced will be worth it without a fully stand-alone network. Sag described 5G-Advanced as "a motivation to get to stand-alone 5G faster."

"I think it's kind of funny that we're talking 6G now, because we haven't actually fully rolled out 5G with stand-alone," Sag said, "and I think 5G with stand-alone will be what people expected 5G to be."


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