Why Wait Five Long Years for 2020 Vision?

Posted on June 8, 2015

Pioneering operator SK Telecom has made a 5G declaration of intent, insisting that the next generation technology must deliver on five counts to be judged a success. In a recent Q&A with Light Reading, SK Telecom specified the following areas in which improvements must be demonstrated:

  1. User Experience
  2. Connectivity
  3. Reliability
  4. Efficiency
  5. Intelligence

“Out of the five values,” said SK Telecom, “the first three are the most significant.”

Headline targets for new cellular standards have traditionally been expressed technically, most often in terms of throughput or capacity. So it’s interesting to see an operator widely feted for its technical leadership choosing to focus attention on the end user’s experience of the technology, rather than the technology itself.

Such an approach makes sense. With LTE (as with 3G before it) performance maximums bear little relation to the service users actually receive — particularly as uptake continues to accelerate. The problem lies not with LTE; under ideal conditions it offers an excellent experience for the great majority of smartphone users. The problem lies in the fact that the conditions are not always ideal.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the areas SK Telecom has targeted for improvement are the areas in which today’s smartphone experience falls short, so there is everything to admire in these goals.

If there is an issue facing SKT, and every other operator with 5G in its sights, it is not the destination but the journey time. Just as it was with LTE, SKT is set to be among the 5G frontrunners, targeting a commercial launch in 2020. Which means, in the best case scenario and with no delays, 5G won’t start hitting its five targets for another five years!

That seems like a long time to wait to address problems which have already been identified. End users need these improvements now — not in five years’ time — so operators must look for ways to inject the ideas behind 5G into the connectivity experience of their customers today.

It is an experience that is fundamentally fragmented. On cellular networks users are well cared for; their device attaches automatically and securely to the best available connection and moves between 4G and 3G with no intervention required. But the clear majority of smartphone data is consumed over Wi-Fi networks, where end users are left to fend for themselves in a chaotic environment.

With Wi-Fi they must locate a connection, navigate whatever access process is required, manually address any quality or performance problems they encounter and manage their own security. Compared to the concierge service available on the cellular network, the Wi-Fi element of today’s smartphone connectivity experience — despite its prominence — is defined largely by its shortcomings.

Those users with the know-how tolerate the frustration for the same reason Wi-Fi dominates the smartphone experience: More than 90 per cent of smartphone data is consumed indoors, where the cellular network is often unable to deliver reliable data connectivity. Those who lack the skills simply have to go without.

As SK Telecom makes clear in the Light Reading Q&A, the assimilation of Wi-Fi into the service will be an important characteristic of 5G. But operators don’t have to wait to address such an important issue; 5G as SK Telecom expresses it has a lot in common with a service concept which, at Devicescape, we call ‘Connectivity First’.

A Connectivity First approach addresses the smartphone experience in its entirety. It allows operators to transfer the fundamentals of the cellular service — quality, simplicity and security — to the Wi-Fi element of the experience, delivering tangible improvements in the three most important values that SK Telecom sets out.

It harnesses the huge deployed resource of the amenity Wi-Fi found in millions of public locations worldwide where people congregate in great numbers, as well as Wi-Fi in the home and office — something which neatly addresses the massive indoor connectivity network deployment challenge operators face today, and will continue to face as they move towards 5G.

So, while there is great clarity in SKT’s 2020 vision, perhaps it’s a little far-sighted. Improvements in the user experience, in connectivity, and in reliability are achievable today.

We may have to wait for the many of the technical capabilities of 5G but the industry should not postpone the implementation of the ideas behind it.

Connectivity First, and 5G when it’s ready.