By Brian Jackson and Tom Li

5G is bound to be a major focus of Mobile World Congress 2019, taking place in Barcelona Feb. 25-28.

Between the political tensions caused by the U.S.’s request that its allies ban Chinese manufacturer Huawei Technologies Co. from building 5G networks, to the anticipation of the first 5G compatible handsets being launched by major manufacturers, there are many reasons 5G will appear more strongly in media headlines than ever before.

But some analysts are still warning that the industry may be building up too much hype too early.

“There is no denying that 5G is the infrastructure of the connected world, and precisely the reason why it is at the centre of the economic and political war between the US and China. However, the reality is that it will take another five to seven years before it reaches critical mass among consumers in most countries,” says Thomas Husson, vice-president & principal analyst at Forrester Research. “Telcos and network equipment providers should learn lessons from 3G and 4G roll-outs and not over promise on the technology. While we will hear a lot about the first 5G smartphones, the challenge is to simultaneously roll-out the infrastructure and it will take time, especially in Europe where spectrum allocation remains a mess at a country level.”

In Canada, the government is holding spectrum auctions for bands required to operate 5G networks in March (with a 600 MHz auction) and in 2020 (for the more significant 3,500 MHz auction). So seeing a widely-deployed and functional 5G network may be years away here, but that’s behind some other developed nations. So we expect to see telecommunications manufacturers trotting out 5G infrastructure, modems, and other hardware at MWC 2019. Technology vendors will also be touting peripheral technologies that either support 5G infrastructure or are made possible by its deployment. Here’s a brief rundown on what to look for out of Barcelona, and who the major players are likely to be.

Telecommunications firms push 5G education 

As the spectrum for 5G is sold off around the world and carriers sign on to infrastructure-building deals with equipment manufacturers, the focus for firms like Ericsson, Nokia, and Huawei will be on educating carriers on how operating a 5G network will be different from previous technology.

One of the major differences is that the management of the infrastructure will rely less on manual hardware configurations and more on flexible software-defined configurations. Putting the technology and tools in place to support that approach will be an important part of carriers being able to fully appreciate the benefits of 5G networks.

For example, Ericsson announced a partnership with Intel Corp. on Feb. 11 that provides a management platform to carriers. It aligns Ericsson’s software-defined infrastructure manager with Intel RackScale Design. Development the different tools will converge, the firms say, so that carriers looking to build out infrastructure to support a 5G operational environment can construct it using both of these vendors with confidence.

A panel slated for Feb. 26, featuring executives from Ericsson and Huawei, addresses the issue of using a high-band spectrum. The premise appears to be that if a network is built using a spectrum above 6 GHz, it might require network density that’s not economical. That’s important for carriers to consider as they decide what spectrum they should acquire to operate networks in their respective geographies.

More than anything, equipment manufacturers will want to get industry excited for 5G and thinking about where they could develop business services given its new capabilities. Ericsson also just launched in earnest a vision for what Internet of Things services could look like in a future of 5G speeds and consistency. Today the manufacturer provides solutions for IoT services such as asset tracking and smart metering. It wants that to evolve to use-cases that require higher bandwidth, such as content delivery to infotainment systems in cars, remote control of drones, and even collaborative robotics used in manufacturing.

While painting a picture of why 5G will be a money-making opportunity in the future, equipment manufacturers will also have to assure partners they can help them smoothly transition from using the networks they’re on today. Expect to hear about close partnerships between manufacturers and carriers as a result, as customized network engineering will be part of making that work.

Edge computing gets pushed to its limit

While telecommunications manufacturers will be educating about how to operate 5G networks, technology vendors will be talking about the peripheral work required to support 5G applications within IT infrastructure. Expect to hear the phrase “edge computing” trumpeted loudly by enterprise hardware vendors. Whereas the majority of IT infrastructure has been designed around a flow between a central server and a client, edge computing readjusts that model by trying to compute data as close to the user as possible. This reduces the time the data is in transit and the overall lag on the network.

Taipei-based Gigabyte will be featuring its approach to edge computing in the Taiwan Pavilion at MWC 2019. It will be showing off its Intelligent Mobile Edge Computing Cloud by showing off a virtual reality eSports platform, where multiple players will simultaneously take part in the same environment. Only small headsets will be required to take part, and thanks to edge computing architecture, there will be no latency issues, Gigabyte promises.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise will be showing off new capabilities for its edge platform, Edgeline. Featuring its converged hardware, Edgeline provides a way to connect with operational technologies (i.e. dumb equipment that hasn’t traditionally be part of an IT network), manage a software-defined environment, and communicate with other systems using open standards.

Infrastructure and hardware

With 5G’s official rollout date on the horizon, network hardware manufacturers will also be showcasing their supporting technologies. They range between new modems, base stations, antenna technologies, and software solutions.

Last year, Qualcomm raised the maximum smartphone data rate to 5Gbps with the release of its Snapdragon X50 modem. Data rate increase aside, the Snapdragon X50 – as well as other first-gen 5G modems – were an extremely important step for 5G. They acted as a significant marker that solidified 5G’s arrival, and through features like 4×4 MIMO, support for mmWaves, 5G TDD, and 8 carrier aggregation for a maximum 800MHz bandwidth, it showcased the tangible performance benefits as well.

Another key product is Nokia’s ReefShark 5G baseband chipset. It boasts a maximum 84Gbps data rate and shrinks the MIMO antennas by 50 per cent. Being a close partner with Bell Canada, Nokia’s ReefShark chipset will be integrated into many of Bell’s upcoming 5G hardware.

Ericsson also extended its entire 5G product portfolio in February 2019, adding new solutions for unified 4G and 5G cloud platforms, 5G long haul solutions, new radios, and 5G NR virtualization software.

One of 5G’s key goals is to exist alongside 4G LTE – at least initially. To realize multi-mode connections, the next generation of 5G modems would also have 4G modems built in. The idea is already implemented in upcoming products like Qualcomm Snapdragon X55 modem. These modems can simultaneous connect to 4G and 5G. The 4G modem is normally reserved inside the SoC, and moving it onto an external modem raises the question of whether or not the SoC will still retain a secondary modem.

Throughout MWC 2019, expect even faster, efficient, and more compact technologies in both infrastructure and end-user sectors.

VR/XR

Smartphone and IoT advancement nearly overshadowed another technology 5G enables: virtual reality and extended reality, but it appears MWC 2019 will put the spotlight back on this subject.

VR has always demanded high throughput and low latency. Coincidentally, they’re where 5G excels. Its massively increased bandwidth and efficient transmission open new avenues for standalone VR headsets. This means streaming high-fidelity HDR content with no interruptions and lag all the while saving battery.

5G will also be the holy grail for extended reality, or XR for short. XR encompasses all facets of augmented reality. In addition to overlaying real-world objects with an environment-aware graphics, AR/XR services are usually connected to a cloud for IoT services. 5G’s low latency is crucial in creating a snappy experience.

At MWC 2019, expect AR/XR advancement in both hardware and software. Use cases like shopping, home remodeling, and more should be more refined and fluid. A 5G Cloud XR summit will  be held on February 27th, key speakers include Huawei, China Mobile, Deutsche Telekom, Intel, and HTC.