A leading industry figure has dismissed 5G "launches" in Korea and the United States as "LTE with new shoes".
Colin Willcock, Nokia's head of Radio Network Standardization and chair of the 5G Infrastructure Association (IA), made the remarks last week in London. The 5G IA represents the supply side and liaises with the European Commission to promote 5G in Europe.
Willcock explained that "real" 5G isn't the 5G being rolled out in Korea and the US, unfairly making Europe look like a technology laggard. It's about who gets the best, not who gets the first, he said.
In December, AT&T began labelling its latest radio infrastructure upgrade "5G E" and Apple now supports the label in its latest iPhones, legitimising the description.
The "E" stands for "evolution", AT&T has said, but rivals and Willcock argue it stands for "ersatz". In truth, it's really LTE with more throughput.
This is largely based off releases 13 and 14 of the "4.5G" GSMA process (AKA LTE Advanced Pro, or even "pre-5G" in some circles). Carrier aggregation allows operators to boost the speeds to close to the levels being experienced in the 5G trials, based off Release 15.
Qualcomm has made the same point: "real" 5G uses new antennas and (sometimes) new spectrum.
The Korean examples are subtly different. Network LG Uplus has parachuted Huawei 5G non-standalone (aka "NSA") kit into some 10,000 sites across Seoul, giving users around 900Mbps. The operator is under pressure to drop the Chinese vendor; rivals SK Telecom and KT favour Samsung and Nokia for the radio access network. Here's a more detailed explanation of the difference between LTE and NSA 5G.
There's a long and not terribly honourable marketing tradition of mislabelling network upgrades to gain a commercial advantage. T-Mobile in the US called its High-Speed Downlink Packet Access "4G". Sprint launched "4G" in 2010 using the Intel-backed 802.16 WiMAX technology, rather than the global 3GPP set of standards – a near-fatal move (Sprint turned off the WiMAX radio network in late 2015). AT&T's use of "5G" has earned it some attention-grabbing lawsuits.
Click to enlarge. Source: Nokia
And Nokia itself has used the tags "4.5G Pro" and "4.9G" to describe the latest and fastest iterations of 4G.
The temptation for marketing departments to mislabel kit seems almost irresistible. ®
With spectrum fragmented across many different regions, Europe has little choice but to be late. The German 5G spectrum auction has reached €5bn, Deutsche Telecom gasped last week. Oh dear.