5G and the future of mobile networks

The world's standards bodies are starting to define what the next generation of mobile networks will look like. Here's where development stands, and the likely direction of future mobile networks.

The Samsung Galaxy S5 can be used to make mobile payments.
Image: Josh Miller/CNET

Mobile networks generally have a life span of about 10 years and are defined by their "generation." The hodgepodge of early mobile standards is regarded as 1G or first generation networks, and our current mobile networks are based on fourth generation, or 4G technology. Despite significant portions of the world only now getting 3G networks, the various standard-setting bodies are starting work on defining what the next generation of mobile networks will encompass, with initial rollouts targeted in 2020. While several groups with impressive sounding names have begun high-level meetings, the direction and features that will define 5G networking are still in the very early stages. Here is the likely direction that 5G development will take.

Bigger, faster, and dumber?

The rise of 4G networks presents some insight into the next generation of mobile networks. As early 4G deployments were being considered, carriers (aka the "phone companies") were scrambling to avoid becoming the dreaded "dumb pipe," an amusing term that refers to the carrier merely providing an undifferentiated connection or "pipe" to someone else's services on the Internet. Intriguingly, most of the services that were supposed to prevent the dumb pipe scenario were pioneered by carriers and then largely subsumed by companies like Apple and Google. Text messaging was the carrier "ace in the hole" of 2G networks, picture messaging for 3G networks, and video calling and carrier-specific "app stores" for 4G networks. Despite getting there first, most of these carrier services have been replaced by tools like iMessage, Google Talk, Skype, and FaceTime, largely realizing the carriers' fears and relegating them to dumb pipe status.

Some of the speculation around 5G networks has carriers embracing the role of dumb pipe, especially as consumer demand for data grows, and a device boom fueled by "Internet of Things"-style technologies exponentially increases the number of devices connecting to mobile networks. Several of the proposed features of 5G networks center around handling a significant increase in the number of devices more efficiently. Rather than talk of video calling and "value added services," the focus is on low deployment and operating costs, lower battery consumption on the device, and more efficient use of limited radio spectrum.

Follow the money

If you look at where carriers have been spending their money recently, this lends credence to the network aspect of their business becoming a cost-driven commodity. Most major mobile carriers have created active and competitive consulting organizations, and are now advertising their advisory capabilities rather than consumer-focused network features. Even the traditional push for carrier-exclusive devices and heavily subsidized devices to entice consumers is fading, being replaced by bundled services and cost-driven plans.

Carriers seem to have acknowledged the devolution of their networks into dumb pipes, and realized the difficulties of competing with the Apples and Googles of the world for consumer services. In this scenario, flashy features will be shelved in favor of optimization for data traffic, efficient spectrum use, and lower infrastructure and deployment costs.

This is not necessarily bad news for consumers or businesses. Few have lamented the disappearance of carrier-specific app stores or carrier customizations to devices. With carriers paying more attention to business services ranging from device management to consulting, expect the value to be wrapped around the network, rather than embedded in the network itself. While lower cost, more efficient networks don't make for very exciting marketing, nearly ubiquitous high-speed data with global compatibility will be the foundation of future mobile devices and services.