If anyone knows the state of play in 5G, it's Regius Professor Rahim Tafazolli, director and founder at the Institute of Communication Systems and 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey, and the government's go-to man for mobile technology. But he warned today that the industry was being too hasty in proclaiming the revolution.
"We are rushing 5G. The promise is not there yet, to be honest," Tafazolli told a Westminster Forum event today.
Prof Tafazolli is an engineer with a bunch of patents to his name, so the opinion carries some weight. A few minutes earlier he had given a keynote on what to expect in many years time, with wonders such as very low latency and predictability touted, a long way in the future. For now, suppliers were struggling to make reality match the hype.
"Technologies like Massive MIMO (M-MIMO) have disappointing performance. And you don't need 5G for M-MIMO anyway," he added.
Massive MIMO is an umbrella term that encompasses the use of antennas developed to support the use of massively parallel transmission, as well as performance features such as beamforming, allowing them to direct their signal to where it's needed.
Tafazolli said the rush to deploy 5G was about fixing today's issues – which are quite urgent.
"It is to relieve the capacity problem. In the big cities, 4G is already at capacity. The message could be to consumers: you're going to run out of capacity."
Inge Hansen, EE's director of regulation, said: "We need to get customers excited about 5G – about the functionality of what they can do."
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But one of Hansen and Tafazolli's fellow panellists disagreed.
"Please don't get consumers excited," he told them. "Every new 'G' results in degraded performance for the consumer at least for a while. 2G in some ways offered inferior voice to analogue, which sounds absurd today. 3G phones ran hot. And 4G was launched without the 4G IP voice functionality in it. Which is a bit like launching a phone without a phone."
Your correspondent looked up to discover the identity of this wise panellist – and was astonished to find it was me.
Tafazolli's caution is needed. Mobile World Congress attendees discovered that the business end, the phones, were far from ready – and suppliers were keener to talk about hypotheticals than real benefits. "The mmWave antenna at 28Ghz is 12" from the terminal but at least one knows that it works as placing a hand in between the two stops the video," noted one analyst.
To their credit, every incumbent acknowledged issues in fulfilling 5G's promise. If governments wanted to pocket the benefits of 5G in transportation and health, said Nick White, executive vice president of the International Telecommunications Users Group, they needed to do some joined-up thinking to ease the deployment of that infrastructure.
Moderator Chris Watson urged Ofcom to modernise its approach to sharing, hinting that its infatuation with incumbent operators' priorities was now out of date. ®