European leaders have recently admitted that the region is losing out on the race to adopt 4G/LTE. Their solution is to win the race for 5G. I doubt this will solve the immediate issue and wonder if 5G should be less about additional technology steps and more about how the industry operates.
The 10-year generational hype cycle
Karl Bode wrote an amusing piece about 5G recently, pointing out that while it doesn't exist yet (and probably won't until at least 2020), everyone seems pretty sure it's going to fix everything. He points out the marketing distortions seen for 4G, and that Broadcom are already insisting their latest Wi-Fi gear is 5G.
About every 10 years, the industry invests many billions developing common technical standards for a faster, more efficient and cost effective new generation of mobile wireless technology. South Korea has already earmarked $1.5 Billion for 5G research projects. The European Commission has allocated 700 million Euros.
The claims are extensive but there remains doubt about which spectrum bands it might operate in, what level of co-ordination between cells would be required, and whether the benefits are primarily outdoor or indoor applications.
Until there's some worldwide agreement on a chunk of spectrum to allocate, I'll consider this as a future technology research project.
Look at generational transformations in other industries
One of the global industries which underwent a major shake-up over the past 10 years or more is the airline industry. While some would point to newer generations of aircraft, what's really changed has been the growth of low-cost carriers.
Longer distance/intercontinental routes remain under the control of the national carriers but short haul routes have transferred to a new breed of tightly managed, cost conscious and very efficient budget airlines. Many start-ups tried and failed, several others have succeeded in creating very large and profitable businesses.
The overall size of the market has grown, opening up opportunities for many customers to fly where before it wouldn't be viable.
We can also look at how the market for trading long distance voice call capacity has evolved, with minutes being bought and sold that route calls through long and diverse routes to save cost. Despite the low cost of international calls today, more are made using Skype than any other provider.
What's that got to do with the mobile telecoms industry?
While technology evangelists seek out ever more exotic means to squeeze faster data rates and higher capacity out of the available spectrum, perhaps it's time for the industry to look at an alternative means to improve end-to-end service quality.
These can build on the platform of already proven systems and services. They may not require much in the way of new technology or development that's not available today.
A practical example we've already seen is growing level of network sharing between mobile operators. From sharing macrocell sites with co-located equipment through to integrated RAN joint ventures. National roaming arrangements are becoming more widespread.
Regulators are now accepting that the high costs of duplicate macrocell networks may not be in the best interests of competition and the best deal for the customer.
Another example is the adoption of Wi-Fi as an element of the overall service provision. One area where mobile network operators can add value isn't so much by deploying their own Wi-Fi networks, but by using their authentication and configuration capabilities to enable seamless login and efficient use of available Wi-Fi access points. David Frasier, CEO of DeviceScape, believes that mobile network operators today are too focused on delivering services constrained to the reach of their own networks. He points to the still largely untapped Wi-Fi capacity now widely deployed, promoting their solution that adapts to real-time changes in network conditions to ensure that users stay "Always Best Connected" - balancing between performance and cost.
And of course Small Cells
The enormous additional capacity and performance gains achieved by deploying Small Cells are well documented. Dense urban networks, deep in-building connectivity and coverage for poorly served remote areas are all possible to achieve today.
What this needs is a change in thinking about how networks are deployed, not just making it a faster technology. That will mean scaling up and speeding up the business and operational processes used within operators. It may involve greater and/or different levels of outsourcing. It may change the commercial arrangements with building owners and subcontractors.
The analogy with the airline industry isn't entirely unfounded. Perhaps the wide area macrocell coverage will always continue to be provided by the existing mainstream national carriers (albeit with some consolidation and "route sharing"). But in the dense urban areas and especially in-building, there is an opportunity for new wholesale service providers to emerge based on a different business model. Its not unlikely that some of these might evolve from today's embrionic Wi-Fi service provider industry. Innovators such as GOWEX demonstrate this kind of radically different approach, although whether they have the only/complete/right answer, only time will tell. (Update: Gowex declared bankcruptcy in July 2014, after reports of falsified accounting)
It's the research and encouragement of these strategies that needs investment today, not just the pure RF technology research. It's not too late for European (or any other region) to recapture the lead on how best to achieve that. As it stands, this will evolve as leading operators work with their major solution vendors to figure out the best way ahead.
But if I was to invest research funds in order to make serious difference to mobile network performance today, I'd not be limiting that just to RF performance aspects. I believe there are shorter term rewards to be gained by making commercial, business and operational improvements to what we have available today.