This content is part of the Essential Guide: 5G explained: A deep dive into the features and facts

3 developing 5G trends that differentiate it from 4G LTE

Operators may be more cautious about initial 5G deployments than originally expected. But three key elements differentiate 5G from 4G LTE, which could make it a better investment.

As broad deployment of fifth-generation wireless technology grows closer, certain 5G trends are indicating changes from previous deployment predictions and showing what could make 5G a better investment than improving 4G Long-Term Evolution, or LTE.

According to a Rethink Research Technology Ltd. survey of 78 mobile network operators (MNOs), 5G has three differentiating elements from 4G LTE:

  • diversification;
  • densification; and
  • virtualization.

Rethink -- based in Bristol, U.K. -- predicts that these features could make 5G a better investment than continuing with 4G LTE between now and 2025. Although 5G features promise better edge processing, lower latency and high resiliency, Rethink said operators may become more cautious about 5G deployment as the commercial launch dates grow closer.

Other predictions from Rethink include that early 5G deployment will mostly be consumer broadband, Capex could have a lower boost than previous wireless generations, and reduced expenditures on other technologies could offset 5G trends in spending.

5G vs. 4G LTE: What makes them different?

Diversification. The first of the three 5G features that differentiate it from 4G LTE is diversification. The goal of a 5G deployment is to optimize networks for new revenue streams, including the enterprise and IoT.

During its initial deployment, 4G had similar goals -- it offered voice over IP capabilities that were previously unavailable. It also offered improved applications and internet access.

Current 5G trends show similarities between these goals, as 5G aims to expand to new revenue streams and improve overall user access to network capabilities.

Densification. Another differentiating 5G feature is densification, which is the increase of small cells to improve network capacity. The goal is to deploy denser networks over the next five years. Networks will be 10 times denser in total cell sites, for example, while devices and connections will be 100 times denser.

Fourth-generation LTE also promised greater cell density at its inception, as well as improved speed over 3G. However, 5G promises an even greater increase in speed and density.

Virtualization. Virtualization could also make 5G a better investment than 4G LTE. Virtualization enables operators to deploy more software-driven networks, making the networks more affordable, flexible and supportive of devices. It could also create a path to network slicing.

While 4G LTE also offered improved software systems and new services to support more devices, virtualization in 5G aims to take this to the next level.

2018-2025: Predicted 5G trends in deployment

Operator plans for 5G deployments have grown more conservative as the planned commercial launch dates come closer, according to Rethink's survey. This wariness could affect when consumers start seeing 5G benefits, including densification and virtualization delays.

Originally, 5G was predicted to be a small-cell deployment, but now, the first years of commercial deployment may be macro cell deployments. Virtualization is also likely to be postponed because platforms haven't matured as quickly as anticipated. MNOs believe they should deploy 5G earlier than expected, according to Rethink's survey, which gives virtualization platforms and interfaces even less time to advance.

Overall, a slower rollout could affect which equipment MNOs purchase and deploy, and this would delay other benefits, such as the ability to support more use cases on larger platforms. Capex is also predicted to experience its lowest overall boost with 5G compared with previous generations because of reduced expenditures on other technologies -- and this could negate 5G spending.

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