Korea Telecom is pushing the envelope on 5G development by announcing that it intends to complete the construction of a pre-standard 5G trial network by September 2017. The Korean operator says that this aggressive timeline is necessary if it wants to provide service for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
But for KT to make that happen, it will be impossible for the network to use standardized 5G gear, because the final 5G standard isn’t expected to be released by the ITU until 2020.
Do Standards Matter?
Of course, KT isn’t the only operator that is pushing to deploy a pre-standard 5G network. The South Korean operator is collaborating with other carriers including Verizon Wireless, NTT DoCoMo, and SK Telecom to share 5G trial information and identify early 5G use cases. The operators formed a 5G Open Trial Specification Alliance earlier this year with that goal in mind.
Vendors say that a pre-standardized network such as what KT is proposing needs to be upgradeable to a 3GPP-based 5G standard, for interoperability and consistency. And KT seems confident that will happen. According to a Korea Herald report, KT executives believe that their network specifications, which they released on their website earlier this year, will be used by the 3GPP as part of the ITU global standard.
KT’s tactic is similar to that of Verizon, which also released its 5G specifications to vendors on its website this summer. At the time, Verizon said the specs were intended to help vendors develop interoperable 5G equipment for pre-standard testing and fabrication. Verizon also said that its goal is to collaborate with vendors on early specifications and then contribute those to the 3GPP.
Ericsson is one of the vendors involved in KT and Verizon’s 5G trial networks. According to Glenn Laxdal, CTO and head of strategy for Ericsson North America, the industry wants to converge on a standard, but it’s not unusual for this type of early innovation to occur. “The testing going on in Korea is based upon a pre-standard spec,” Laxdal tells SDxCentral. “We are aligned and evolving to that one common 3GPP standard.”
However, Laxdal also says it’s important that the current equipment be upgradeable so it doesn’t have to be ripped out and replaced.
Fixed vs. Mobile
But how critical are standards in a fixed wireless deployment where operators can control both the network and end-user equipment? Verizon has said that at least initially, its 5G service will be fixed mobile, used as a broadband replacement technology rather than a mobile service.
In that type of deployment, an operator can control the entire chain from the network to the end-user equipment, making it less important that its network is standardized, says Peter Jarich, vice president of consumer and network infrastructure at Current Analysis. “In a mobile scenario standards are important because you have multiple vendors. But in a fixed use case, it’s not as big of a deal.”
Jarich added that when operators drive technology specs like Verizon and KT are doing, it can help the operators and the vendors, because they look like they are out in front of the competition.
Ericsson’s Laxdal agrees that it’s easier for operators to push the boundaries of the technology when they are working in a fixed wireless access model. “The reason why the first use case is fixed wireless is that an operator can control the ecosystem,” Laxdal said. “In that scenario, the operator can have access devices that are built to its specifications.”