With the first 5G networks less than two years away, debate continues to rage about the exact nature of the technology and what it should and should not do.
Mobile Europe caught up with executives from Deutsche Telekom, Orange and Telefónica at this week's 5G World in London to discuss how the journey to the next generation of mobile was progressing.
Patrick Lopez, Vice-President for Network Innovation at Telefónica, said despite the welter of trials, world firsts, predictions and hype, there was still ambiguity around what 5G will be.
He said: "The thing that excites me the most is probably the fact that we don't need to wait for 5G to do new things. Part of my role is to not innovate for the sake of it but taking a new twist on how we use our networks."
Lopez argued that telcos need to think better about what kind of services it can offer instead of a technology for technology's sake approach. He said: "I remember 3G and PTT but I can hardly think of anyone who used it outside America. VoLTE was the poster child of LTE but customers just don't care about whether voice services are over IP or circuit switched."
What he wants is to see whether new services can be served by looking at existing technologies in a new way, or by new technologies. He said: "Looking at 5G as the big hope for the industry to get to the next level of services is not the best way of looking at it. When it comes to some of the aspects of 5G we have been discussing, whether that's SDN, edge computing etc, they already can help us to enable those desires. The evolution of our industry does not just rely on more speed, more capacity and better latencies."
This way of thinking underpins 5TONIC, Telefónica's R&D centre and partnership with the likes of Ericsson, Intel and Commscope. Lopez gave the example of the emergency services as one area that could truly be transformed by 5G. He said next generation sensors will be able to identify locations by giving information across three axes - height, longitude and latitude. As it stands, LTE can only provide the latter two pieces of data.
Lopez said operators need to think beyond the traditional metrics of network performance: "Operators have been designing networks for connectivity but going forward most of us are taking this connectivity for granted. Any operator will provide great coverage, high speed and scalable networks - if you don't, they will churn."
Network slicing has been identified as one area that amounts to a drastic change from existing telco technology, but Lopez argued the industry could actually go beyond this. Stressing this amounted to a personal view, he said: "Strands will come through - slices of slices. There will be a separation of the core and edge in terms of managing experiences. To keep it scalable and elastic, we have the large networks for the mass market services like voice, data and Internet of Things. But within the smaller slices, we can enable differentiated user experiences."
Network slicing was also on the mind of Uwe Janssen, VP for Innovation and Research at Deutsche Telekom, who raised eyebrows with an outspoken attack on the dominant vendors.
He also said that slices of slices were inevitable, but he called them "instances" where Lopez called them "strands". These instances would be based on the individual needs of the company, but would be underpinned by a common software defined networking framework.
The challenge is one of scale. Given the global nature of a company, Janssen asked, how can an operator provide a network slice plus corresponding connectivity and services for a company when it exists in markets the operator does not trade in?
He said this is not something that could be solved by a spin on traditional telco roaming. "It requires a relationship in terms of quality of service and security. But would you want to open your network up to software from China or Russia? I don't know."
Despite the progress and predictions made by the industry, this is still a problem that needs solved. He said: "A conventional network slice is something that could happen by 2020. That would be a GSM-R or Tetra style network. But new slices for new customer segments that can be built from scratch are something I don't think we will see until 2025/30."
Arnaud Vamparys, Senior Vice President of Seamless Wireless Access at Orange, agreed with his European colleagues, suggesting a step-by-step approach to network slicing was needed. He said this was one area it was opening to start-ups through its various programs in order to foster innovation in this space.
What seems clear is that despite it being suggested that 5G could amount to a drastic step from previous telco standards, 5G innovation will evolve well into the next decade, as customers become clearer on what they want and operators and vendors realise more of what they can provide.