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To 5.5G and Beyond

I recently saw an article in FierceWireless that reports that Huawei thinks we are going to need an intermediate step between 5G and 6G, something like 5.5G. To me, this raises the more immediate question about why we are not talking about the steps between 4G and 5G?

The wireless industry used to tell the truth about cellular technology. You don’t need to take my word for it—search Google for 3.5G, and you’ll find mountains of articles from 2010 to 2015 that talked about 3.5G as an important intermediate step between 3G and 4G. It was clearly understood that it would take a decade to implement all of the specifications that defined 4G, and industry experts, manufacturers, and engineers all regularly debated about the level of 4G implementation. Few people realize that we didn’t have the first fully 4G compliant cell site until late 2018. Up until then, everything that was called 4G was something a little less than 4G. Interestingly, we debated the difference between 3.1G and 3.2G, but once the industry hit what might be considered as 3.5G, the chatter stopped, and the industry leaped to labeling everything as 4G.

That same industry hype that didn’t want to talk about 3.8G has remained intact, and somehow magically, we leaped to calling the next generation technology 5G before even one of the new 5G technologies has been implemented in the network. All we’ve done so far is to layer on new spectrum bands onto 4G phones and labeled that as 5G. These new spectrum bands require phones that can receive the new frequencies, which phone manufacturers gleefully label as 5G phones. I’m not convinced that we are even yet at 4.1G and yet the industry has fully endorsed labeling the first baby steps towards 5G as if we have full 5G.

I have to laugh seeing articles already talking about what comes next after 5G. It’s like already picking the best marketing names for the self-driving hovercars that will be replacing regular self-driving cars. We are only partway down the path of implementing self-driving cars that people are ready to buy and trust. The government wouldn’t let a car manufacturer falsely declare it has a fully-self driving car—but we seem to have no problem allowing cellular companies to pronounce having 5G technology that doesn’t yet exist.

Back to the article about 6G. Huawei suggests that 5.5G would be ten times faster than the current 5G specification and with lower latency. Unfortunately for this suggestion, we just suffered through a whole year of Verizon TV ads showing cellphones achieving gigabit plus speeds. It’s almost as if Huawei hasn’t seen the Verizon commercials and doesn’t know that the US already has 5.5G. I’m thrilled to be the first one to report that the US has already won the 5.5G race!

But it’s also somewhat ludicrous to be talking about 5.5G as an intermediate step on the way to 6G. The next generation of wireless technology we’re labeling as 6G will use terahertz spectrum. The wavelengths of those frequencies are so small that a beam of terahertz frequency beamed from a cellular tower will dissipate before it hits the ground. Even so, the technology holds out a lot of promise for providing extremely high bandwidth for indoor communications. But faster 5G is not an intermediate spot between today’s cellular technology and terahertz-based technology.

Interestingly, there could have been an intermediate step. We still have a long way to go to harness millimeter-wave spectrum in the wild. These frequencies require pure line-of-sight and pass through virtually nothing. I would expect over the next decade or two that lab scientists will find much better ways to propagate and use millimeter-wave spectrum.

But the cellular industry already claims it has solved all of the issues with the millimeter-wave spectrum and already claims it as part of today’s 5G solution. It’s going to be anticlimactic when scientists announce breakthroughs in ways to use millimeter-wave spectrum that the cellular industry has already been claiming. Using millimeter-wave spectrum to its fullest capability could have been 5.5G. I can’t wait to see what the industry claims instead.

By Doug Dawson, President at CCG Consulting

Dawson has worked in the telecom industry since 1978 and has both a consulting and operational background. He and CCG specialize in helping clients launch new broadband markets, develop new products, and finance new ventures.

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