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This year at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona felt like the year of 5G. With a veritable deluge of announcements heralding partnerships and trials, prototypes and test networks, it feels like the technology is already at our fingertips.

But one expert said all the 5G fanfare is a bit premature.

“We’re so far away from it, it’s not even funny,” Recon Analytics’ Roger Entner said. “There is a lot of prep work going on, but to a certain extent this all reminds me of a toddler wearing a Harvard class of 2035 bib. So we have to be measured with our enthusiasm.”

According to Entner, it’s difficult to determine the real impact of today’s 5G announcements without being able to compare them to the pending 3GPP standards, which aren’t expected to be released for at least another two years. While we have a vague idea of what the standards might look like, Entner said, no one knows for sure what air interface or spectrum will be used for the next generation network.

“In a marathon run, we’ve barely passed the 100 meter line,” Entner said. “It’s way too early (to tell who’s ahead), so everybody is just saying ‘Hey, we’re out of the starting blocks, look at us.’ But all of them are neck and neck with each other.”

Keeping Verizon in check

But, Entner said, the fact that there is a race at all shows carriers learned something from the roll out of LTE.

“It’s very good that everybody recognizes that 5G is a big thing,” Entner said. “Everybody recognizes that Verizon’s leadership in 4G LTE reaped massive benefits for Verizon and everybody is intent not to let that happen again.

While carriers will have to wait for standards, Entner said there are certain building block technologies – like Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV) – that can be implemented now to give carriers a leg up on 5G.

Right now, Entner said the only U.S. carrier to confirm on the record it is using these technologies live in its network is AT&T, which has said around five percent of its customers currently use services that have been virtualized. The carrier has set a goal to push that figure to 30 percent by the end of this year.

Though AT&T also touted the advantages its buildout of fixed line high-speed Internet services will bring to its roll out of 5G, Verizon is hardly sitting on the sidelines.

According to Entner, Verizon is quietly building up its fiber backhaul in markets where it is selling Fios services to Frontier Communications. Additionally, Entner said the carrier’s recent deal with XO Communications will see it lease spectrum bands from the company that are anticipated to be 5G bands.

ExteNet CTO Tormod Larsen also took note of Verizon’s 5G progress at this year’s conference, particularly the XO transaction. The fact that most 5G announcements this year focused on SDN, NFV and small cells, Larsen said, points to a different kind of network evolution than we’ve seen in the past.

The wide range of announcements including the acquisition of XO also underscore the fact that 5G is more of a network architecture evolution, rather than a new technology like what we saw with 4G(LTE), 3G(UMTS) and 2G(GSM),” Larsen said. “Today's data-centric use case compared to the traditional voice-centric use case has resulted in a focus on evolving network architecture solutions and approaches, including C-RAN, small cells, NFV and other distributed network architectures. This point is reflected in many of the announcements at MWC 2016.”

A different kind of roll out

Looking forward, Larsen said it’s possible the roll out of 5G will be different from the launch of new network technologies in the past. In particular, Larsen foresees a true “HetNet” deployment that will allow carriers to roll out different network architecture and features across the country based on the needs of a given market.

“Rather than a nationwide, one-size-fits-all approach, we are seeing a trend toward a more differentiated approach,” Larsen said. “This idea is similar to the DevOps practice used in modern product development.”

In light of this, Larsen said he believes the industry will see 5G deployments happening at a quicker pace than some might expect.

“Verizon has indicated 5G deployments as early as 2017, which seems aggressive, but might be realistic in the context of where the industry is moving,” Larsen said. “In the past, mobile devices often delayed the deployments, but with the introduction of IoT and device manufacturers releasing new models at a higher frequency, the ecosystem might be ready more quickly.”

However, Entner pointed out there are still two more LTE releases expected before the release of the 5G standards that would typically precede any roll out.

The worst thing that could happen, Entner said, is that the collective marketing departments of vendors and operators alike start labeling one or both of the next LTE advances as 5G when they’re really are not.

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