The State Of 5G Technology: Where Telecoms Stand

Imminent, Or Years Away?

Fifth-generation wireless technology, or 5G, is the next wave of cellular technology and a hot topic in the telecommunications industry. The widely agreed-upon timeline for 5G is still about four years away, but that fact isn't discouraging carriers from beginning field tests and preparing their networks to support the quickest cellular technology yet.

5G will allow more devices to connect to the Internet and, once connected, run at speeds of 1 Gbps. 5G also will use more diverse spectrum bands and more small cells and have deeper integration of virtualization technology. The technology is considered important as more Internet-enabled, or Internet of Things, devices bombard the network.

The International Telecommunications Union hasn't yet put any standards in place around 5G and said it expects the technology to be ready for commercial deployments around 2020. While official standards for 5G are expected around 2018, some carriers are already claiming that the world will be ready for deployments as early as 2017.

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, several telecommunications providers came forward with their test run and deployment plans. Here's where the industry stands on cellular's next generation.

AT&T Conservatively Approaching 5G

Telecommunications giant AT&T is taking a measured approach to 5G. The Dallas-based carrier said it isn't making any sudden movements until the International Telecommunications Union forms industry standards for the next generation of cellular technology.

While the carrier doesn't believe 5G is anywhere close to being ready for prime time, AT&T did say that it plans to have 5G trials happening by the end of 2016. However, AT&T will first test 5G technology in labs before rolling out trials to its consumer and business customers.

According to AT&T Chief Strategy Officer John Donovan in an interview at Mobile World Congress, the carrier is better equipped for 5G technologies because it needed to build out fixed high-speed Internet services to gain regulatory approval for its $48.5 billion DirecTV acquisition. This leaves the carrier in a great place to support next-generation technology, Donovan said.

Nokia Paving The Way To 5G

Finnish communications company Nokia Networks has been leading the way in testing out 5G technologies. The provider is partnering with telecom providers such as Verizon and T-Mobile for these early, pre-standard field tests.

At Mobile World Congress, Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri said that the company not only plans to invest in 5G technology in 2016 but that 5G-ready equipment could be ready for sale as early as 2017, far ahead of any industry standards around 5G. Suri also said he believed initial 5G deployments will be seen ahead of the theoretical 2020 timeline for volume 5G deployments.

"5G will happen faster than expected. This may surprise some of you," Suri said ahead of Mobile World Congress.

Sprint Waiting For Industry Standards

Like AT&T, telecom provider Sprint is holding out on 5G technology until industry standards are created.

The Overland Park, Kan.-based carrier hasn't yet disclosed any plans to begin testing 5G.

T-Mobile 5G Strategy Takes Shape

Bellevue, Wash.-based T-Mobile has unveiled plans to start trialing 5G but, like AT&T, the carrier warned the next-generation technology is still years away from being ready.

T-Mobile said it would make use of its current LTE technology and spectrum, and will support 5G technologies when 5G-enabled consumer smartphones are introduced to the market around 2020. The carrier disclosed plans to begin testing 5G technology in the U.S. along with Ericcson and Nokia Networks by the end of this year.

Despite plans to test the technology, 5G's nonexistent industry standards are giving T-Mobile reason to take a conservative approach.

"When 5G is ready, you bet T-Mobile will be ready to deliver the benefits to our customers. But don’t be too distracted by certain carriers teasing premature promises of 5G today," said Neville Ray, chief technology officer for T-Mobile in a blog post.

Verizon Aggressive On The 5G Front

So far, Verizon is the only carrier that appears to be ignoring the 2020 timeline for the next cellular technology rollout. The carrier claims it is planning a commercial launch of 5G as early as 2017.

The Basking Ridge, N.J.-based carrier has already begun trialing 5G in the U.S., the company said at Mobile World Congress. Verizon said its tests are showing that 5G is 30 to 50 times faster than the current U.S. 4G network.

At Mobile World Congress, Verizon also said that it will take advantage of the additional spectrum it picked up from its acquisition of XO Communications to help with its 5G tests.

Verizon plans on partnering with several other providers for its foray into 5G, including networking and communications services provider Alcatel-Lucent, networking vendor Cisco Systems, mobile technology provider Qualcomm, and wireless equipment makers Ericsson, Nokia Networks and Samsung.