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Analog Angle Blog

Why 5G Impresses and Worries Me

The next-generation wireless standard, known as 5G, is coming, no doubt of that. Various technical committees are working through the many issues associated with this complicated, far-reaching, multifaceted standard. The many levels of activity include definition of frequency bands; operational algorithms; multiple antenna modes; data rates; error management; sophisticated frequency, time, and space multiplexing; and test suites and equipment. Of course, there will have to be many new electronic components which make all this “laundry list” of aspirations and desired performance possible.

5G will support carrier frequencies which reach into the 60+ GHz range, so there’s a lot to be done to turn what the standard purportedly supports into a user’ reality. Whatever and whenever that happens, it’s amazing to see how mm-wave systems – once solely the domain of obscure RF engineers performing “magic” (perhaps with a few incantations) somewhere off in a corner – are now assumed to be candidates to mainstream applications. Forget about using waveguides and other strange artifacts of the microwave world: 5G will need radically new analog/mixed signal ICs (at these frequencies, everything is “analog”, even if the signals themselves are digital), packaging techniques, antennas, architectures, topologies, passive components, interconnects, process technologies, modeling and simulation tools…well, the list goes on and on.

Figure 1

The emerging 5G standard has a long and complicated 'road map'; this is one does not drill down into the technical innovations needed. (Image source: Slideshare.net)

The emerging 5G standard has a long and complicated “road map”; this is one does not drill down into the technical innovations needed. (Image source: Slideshare.net)

So far, so good. But there’s a downside to the promised land of 5G, as well. As with many complicated technology developments whose performance is set by standards developed by various committees, 5G has also become a swirling cauldron of wishful thinking and wish lists. Both technical insiders as well as pundits and observers, are pouring all their desires into this standard, and some of these will be fulfilled while others will not, Figure 2 .

Figure 2

The 5G standard promises many new application scenarios and capabilities; there are many such perspectives available. (Image source: 5G.co.uk)

The 5G standard promises many new application scenarios and capabilities; there are many such perspectives available. (Image source: 5G.co.uk)

Regardless, 5G proponents and cheerleaders are promising a lot, and that’s always a risky business. The long time frame for the roll-out means that there will be periods of uncertainty, incompatibilities, and user frustration. For example, phones may work in some areas but not in others, data rates will be lower than promised, and conflicts will be fairly common.

Under normal circumstances, this would not bother me; such growing pains are part of the journey of technical progress. But I worry that the many promises made by carriers and smartphone vendors will far exceed the actual performance, leading to yet another round of “engineers promised us this and didn’t deliver.” Late-night talk-show hosts and comedians, when they are not engaged in political “humor” and snide remarks, will undoubtedly highlight onto yet another so-called “failure” of engineers to deliver what is, IMO, actually a combination of miracles and magic. This is not a new situation, but it has grown worse as the technical community – that’s all of us – now highlights advances long perform they are ready for prime time.

This ridicule applies to many products in their early deployment phase. When the Boeing 787 Dreamliner suffered serious problems with failures and fires in the huge Li-ion battery assembly, these late-night pundits were all over the problem. I even heard one of them say, perhaps in humor but partially being serious, that Boeing should just go to the local auto-supply store and get a few hundred lead-acid car batteries as replacements, and the problem would be solved.

To me, that sort of “joke” is mostly an indication of the ignorance of the person telling it, and the fact that they feel entitled to have highly advanced technology work perfectly from the start. They have no idea of the underlying issues, the unknowns, the tradeoffs, the subtle balance among of conflicting performance attributes and more. In short: it’s a cheap and easy joke at engineers’ expense. The audience gets a laugh, the host gets applause, and those who actually create things get disrespected again and are made to look like semi-component practitioners.

That’s why there’s danger in too much “talking up” what you haven’t even started to deliver as is the case with 5G. By setting vague and changing expectations, often wildly optimistic, the entire project may look like a failure at first, and reflect badly on its proponents. Sometimes it is better to wait until you are further along in the rollout, test, evaluation, and release cycle.

But the marketing lure of earlier and earlier promotion, along with the chance to make promises and predictions, is very strong. It’s an enticement to glory that is very hard to suppress. It’s too bad that, once again, it also has he unintended consequence of setting engineers up for the blame and even ridicule when things don’t meet marketing’s promises.

Have you ever wished that your own “team” didn’t promote a product too early, an action which resulted in user confusion, frustration, and even anger?

Related

The Dreamliner saga: When your solution is more than just a software patch

Big batteries, big issues

Another-insult, as-another-pundit-minimizes-engineering-efforts

References:

The 5G infrastructure: Public- Private Partnership

What is 5G?

1 comment on “Why 5G Impresses and Worries Me

  1. SandorD
    April 26, 2017

    Thanks for the interesting article, Bill!

    Standard setters always have to walk the fine line between not looking far enough and as technology is racing ahead, companies will end up creating a mish-mash of incompatible enhancements and extensions or if the standards look too far ahead and get their technology roadmap wrong, putting the industry in a very uncomfortable straitjacket, when there would be much better ways of doing things. We've all seen “white elephant” standards which hardly anybody takes seriously.

    In the past, there were a lot of examples where the standardization was lagging and that just ended up in user frustration, having to make choices between a number of incompatible solutions, often with no clear advantages one way or another. In many cases, the delays were caused by representatives of competing companies with a lot of existing investment in particular solutions (and holding several patents) not being able to come to a compromise and they would rather take the fight to the market.

    Sandor

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