The 5G era is so close that some exceptional forward thinkers are already looking ahead to 6G. The standards that dictate how 5G systems should work and interoperate were released earlier this year from the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) in an eagerly awaited update. The new telecommunications standards cleared the way for those planning to develop, build, or leverage 5G technology.

All that is left is to take the theories and turn them into commercial deployments. That sounds simple enough, but ensuring 5G works for commercial operations will require a new level of rigor and reliability that has not yet been put to the test. Businesses planning to use 5G technology for business-critical operations or deploying 5G networks for customers need a higher level of certainty than has been previously established. The standards help set a general course for those investing in 5G, but there are still a few things they need to accomplish themselves.

Prepare for fiercer competition
It is clear that a great deal of thought went into the development of the latest versions of the 5G standards to spur the growth of the 5G market and deliver new opportunities. Technology that follows these standards will ensure that the reliability of these networks is much more stable as it fills in the new market gaps.

This new version of the standards has opened the door for stand-alone (SA) 5G networks that do not rely on 4G for 5G signaling and kicking off a frantic rush to own the 5G market. While 4G networks are still available for added support, companies that do not have an existing 4G infrastructure can build their 5G deployments from scratch. This is due to a section of the standards that governs 4G handovers through interweaving 5G cells with existing 4G deployments.

Initial standardization of ultra-reliable low-latency communication (URLLC) joins enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) to open the door for new 5G use cases. Mobile augmented reality and ultra-high definition video streaming, which require high bandwidth networks, are now on the verge of possibility as the 5G infrastructure following the new standards comes together.

Build your own house
The standards are only the foundation that will support the development of the 5G industry, but there is still plenty of work needed by companies to get it right. What that will look like is up to individual interpretation as there are gaps in the guidelines that make up the new standards. Interoperability will continue to be a challenge as organizations implement proprietary visions for 5G within those gaps.

One area to watch is traditional hardware-based radio access network (RAN) solutions as many are pushing for changes to make them more open and customizable. There is still work needed to build an open framework that operates just as well as the specifications for the current leading alternative, xRAN.

Also, ensuring that the technology works as planned is a challenge that requires continuous research and testing. This challenge is further compounded by a wide variety of approaches to 5G. Chinese operators are going after the <6 GHz spectrum, while North American organizations are focused on millimeter wave (mmW) options.

Deployment of 5G networks will move testing from cables to over the air (OTA) delivery, increasing complexity. Distinctive, more expansive testing setups will be required to ensure that businesses meet expected levels of quality for 5G standards, especially for large-scale deployments.

Challenges ahead
Amplifying the challenge is the fact that many parts of 5G have yet to be developed. It’s not just the cell towers on the back end, but commercialized 5G needs 5G phones as well. These are not expected to be available until late 2019. The most successful service providers are those that can put a stake in the ground around their 5G offerings early to attract device manufacturers to their approach before they get pulled by others.

Motorola announced one of the first phones to work with 5G networks. Moto's Z line of 4G phones were designed to be modified; one of the mods for the Z3 model adds 5G connectivity. Source: Motorola

The road to 5G is a long one. Service providers, manufacturers, and businesses need to work together to make it a reality. The industry has made significant progress with the release of these standards, but now the real work begins. Fortunately, the years of innovation and research are starting to pay off. Once 5G leaders can commercialize their technology, after thorough testing to validate that everything works as planned at scale, then the industry will finally be able to reap the full benefits.

Kalyan Sundhar is vice president of mobility, virtualization, and applications product for Ixia Solutions Group –a Keysight business.